We’re All Creatives Now?

I can’t remember the first time I heard someone refer to another person as “a […]

David Zahl / 9.5.14

I can’t remember the first time I heard someone refer to another person as “a creative” but I’m pretty sure it was within the past five years. Since then, the noun has broadened considerably. It used to be only fashion designers, novelists and musicians who were “creatives”. Now advertising executives refer to themselves this way. It’s clearly an elastic term, the connotations of which are almost all flattering. The adjective itself is everywhere you look, too (I’ve certainly used it in relation to ministry). And I’d wager this is largely a good thing. Creativity is often the fruit of grace, after all, an expression of freedom or belovedness. It makes life more interesting. But if The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman is to be trusted (and I think he should be), it would appear that creativity has proven no more immune to performancist co-option than play, failure or sleep. Sigh:

© Disney • PixarEvery culture elects some central virtues, and creativity is one of ours. In fact, right now, we’re living through a creativity boom. Few qualities are more sought after, few skills more envied. Everyone wants to be more creative—how else, we think, can we become fully realized people?

Creativity is now a literary genre unto itself: every year, more and more creativity books promise to teach creativity to the uncreative. A tower of them has risen on my desk—each aiming to “unleash,” “unblock,” or “start the flow” of creativity at home, in the arts, or at work. Work-based creativity, especially, is a growth area. In “Creativity on Demand,” one of the business-minded books, the creativity guru Michael Gelb reports on a 2010 survey conducted by I.B.M.’s Institute for Business Values, which asked fifteen hundred chief executives what they valued in their employees. “Although ‘execution’ and ‘engagement’ continue to be highly valued,” Gelb reports, “the CEOs had a new number-one priority: creativity,” which is now seen as “the key to successful leadership in an increasingly complex world.” Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Julia Cameron’s best-selling “The Artist’s Way” proposes creativity as a path to personal, even spiritual fulfillment: “The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union,” Cameron writes. “The heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity.” It’s a measure of creativity’s appeal that we look to it to solve such a wide range of problems. Creativity has become, for many of us, the missing piece in a life that seems routinized, claustrophobic, and frivolous…

How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so… It was Romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which took the [Enlightenment understanding of] imagination and elevated it, giving us the “creative imagination.”…

[The poet Samuel Taylor] Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates, as Engell puts it, like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life.

This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”

the-book-of-doingFor the Romantics, creativity’s center of gravity was in the mind. But for us, it’s in whatever the mind decides to share—that is, in the product. It’s not enough for a person to be “imaginative” or “creative” in her own consciousness. We want to know that the product she produces is, in some sense, “actually” creative; that the creative process has come to a workable conclusion…

But this kind of thinking misses the point of the Romantic creative imagination. The Romantics weren’t obsessed with who created what, because they thought you could be creative without “creating” anything other than the liveliness in your own head. (“All men are poets in their way,” Coleridge wrote.)… We believe creativity is “real” only when a crowd says so; we need creativity to “pay off.”

you can see an even deeper problem: the implicit conflation of the production of things with the living of a creative life. From this point of view, creativity is really just a fancy kind of productivity

I guess it should come as no surprise that, in a fallen world, creativity and productivity would become so intertwined, that creativity would be turned into a means of justification and righteousness rather than a response to it, but it’s still sad. And having lived with this ‘tension’ for a while now (at least in so far as blogging is a creative endeavor), I’m struck by the irony. I mean, we talk about the beauty of spontaneous creativity… three times a day, five days a week. But there’s nothing less inspiring than the edict that ‘You must be creative. Right. NOW”. The second a prescribed outcome enters the picture–something I/we can use for such-and-such a purpose–I wonder if the plot has already been (partly) lost.

Here we are, once again taking something that’s a fruit (i.e. an unselfconscious outgrowth), and trying to wrestle it into a form that we can manipulate and replicate at will. Which seems to contradict how most of ‘true creatives’ actually function, at least my favorite ones. Sure, there are craftsmen out there who can sit down and bang out a product, and sometimes the work is great. But then there are those artists–and the distinction is by no means a clean one–who don’t seem to have a handle on their creativity, almost at all. People whose imagination transcends their ability to explain, cultivate, or express it. Instead, their creativity connects them with something beyond themselves, something ineffable that defies subordination (hint hint). Ideas just come, not as a result of exertion, but simply out of thin air. I’m thinking of someone like Brian Wilson or Emily Dickinson who seem(ed) unable not to create. The fact that they’re not thinking in terms of production–the process is either strangely compulsory or its own reward (or both)–likely accounts for why ‘true creatives’ are so often taken advantage of in that respect.

So perhaps ‘creativity’ is a misnomer, perhaps what we’re talking about is ‘receptivity’. That’s certainly how Scott Walker describes it. Because even those of us who aren’t really ‘creatives’ know that some days the juices simply aren’t flowing and no amount of sweat is going to make them. Strategies and habits can help us avoid certain obstacles (perfectionism, distractions, etc) but they cannot, in themselves, guarantee imaginative energy. Other days, ideas just gush, and when they do, it sure feels like a gift. Grace even. It’s as exciting when it does happen as it is discouraging when it doesn’t.

Rothman goes a bit further in his conclusion, though, suggesting that there’s something fundamentally uncomfortable about being in the passive position:

It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow…Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work.

It also suggests that at the core of the current veneration of ‘creativity’–or at least wanting to think of ourselves as ‘creatives’–there may be something, well, sinful going on. At least in the  ‘Original’ sense. How else to explain the urge to flip the equation, usurp the source, wield the power ourselves? I suppose this is just a long-winded way of saying that, those days when the synapses aren’t firing, it’s comforting to remember that we are creatures long before we are creators. And that’s okay.

(Oooh, sounds pithy. Better go grab a keyboard and get this down…).