Monday, December 2, 2013

The Death of Creativity

To look at the shelves of bookstores these days (if any still exist in your neighborhood), one might think that this is a time in which creativity is hot. Titles about creativity – explaining it, unleashing it, using it to galvanize artistic fulfillment and business success – abound. But is this trend evidence that we are living in an age of unprecedented innovation? Is any meaningful, transformative creativity actually taking place, or is it all just hype and buzzphrases like “thinking outside the box”?

Amid this celebration of creativity, it’s easy to forget that for most of history, creativity has been resisted, not encouraged. In past eras people clung to received wisdom and tended initially to reject, often violently, new concepts and creative leaps forward, not embrace them. Christ, as an obvious example, was crucified for ideas that threatened the reigning political and religious authorities of the time; I hardly need to point out what a far-reaching impact those ideas went on to have. Galileo’s sun-centered astronomical views earned him censorship and imprisonment from the Church Inquisition in his own day; but he is now considered by many to be the father of modern astronomy. When the Impressionists dared to debut their (at that time) startling vision at an 1874 Paris exhibition, they were universally reviled and ridiculed by critics and the public alike; today the movement is considered the genesis of modern art.

Visionary creativity – disorienting breakthroughs like the ones above – is generated by outsiders, rebels, bold individuals who dare to turn conventional wisdom on its head and face the consequences. Creation is a radical act, and society can handle only so much “shock of the new,” as art critic Robert Hughes titled his excellent 1980 documentary series. So rebels very often pay a steep price for their daring.

But the new literature of creativity seems to be less about rebellion than convention. Salon recently reposted a Harper’s magazine article by Thomas Frank which examined the popularity of books about creativity. The more books about it Frank read, the more conventional and repetitive and, well, uncreative they all sounded, until he realized that the genre was less about creativity than “superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time”:

What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise… [F]or all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way.

Where creativity used to be the domain of the genius, the seer, the artist, the inventor, Frank claims that the new “creativity promoting sector” targets “the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members… think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue.”

What he suggests we are witnessing, in other words, is not so much the popular triumph of creativity as the commodification of it.

I was reminded of a controversial TV commercial in the ‘80s that used John Lennon’s distorted guitar and raw vocals to sell Nike shoes. “Revolution” was the first Beatles song licensed for commercials, and it was the beginning of the end for rock music, which up to that point had been a musical expression of anti-establishment rebellion – a rage against the machine, if you will. But Madison Avenue simply defused the insurrection by co-opting rock and turning it into the soundtrack for corporate sales. Classic rock has been reduced to Baby Boomer nostalgia, and contemporary rock is now so utterly toothless that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when rock threatened the existing social order.

Creativity, Frank seems to be saying, might be entering a similar phase of de-radicalization, with “the professional-managerial” class co-opting it, monetizing it, and channeling it for corporate interests.

His class-based paranoia seems overstated. We may be seeing the fad-ification, so to speak, of creativity, but not the death or even the hijacking of it. The “professional-managerial class” can claim no monopoly on creativity, and though we may initially reject them, geniuses, seers, artists, and inventors will continue to disprove Ecclesiastes, who asserted 2000 years ago that there is nothing new under the sun.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 11/22/13)