A History of Creativity

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A History of Creativity 

Creativity has always been a slippery and nebulous concept. But strip away the millennia of etymological layering, and you are left with a kernel of truth: it is the power to create something from nothing. And it is a ‘power’ rather than an ‘ability’. Being creative is more than the ‘ability’ to create something from nothing in response to a particular need or lack. Nor is it simply an ability to produce a new product that the market has deemed necessary. Creativity is a power because it blends knowledge (from the institutional and mechanistic level to the pre-cognitive), agency, and importantly desire to create something that does not yet exist. [1] Far from being reactive, it is proactive; it drives society into new worlds of living.

So rather than ‘What is creativity?’ the more pertinent questions become ‘Who or what has that power and desire?’ and ‘What is the something that is being created?’ In ancient societies, this power was always a divine power, a God that made the Heavens and the Earth. From traditional Judeo-Christian views of the all-powerful Creator God and the story of Genesis, to Ptah the Egyptian demiurge who brought the world into being by simply thinking it, the act of pure creation has been beyond human agency. Mere mortals were imperfect sinful beings, subservient to an Almighty who had ultimate and unlimited powers to build something out of nothing.

But since the Enlightenment, Western civilization began to dominate, colonize and exploit “the resources of our planet. Religions that preached the denial of the self and subservience to an external ‘other’ creative power were incompatible with a need for a better, richer way of life. So people began to look inward for sources of creativity. According to the doctrine of the dominant faith of the Western world, Christianity, we were made in the image of God, and so we too had the power to create. Hence to separate ourselves from the rest of God’s creation, we imbued ourselves with the power to create.

During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau saw that human imagination and creativity was the path to progress, not a blind genuflection to an all-powerful God. Science was the way forward, not faith. As Nietzsche proclaimed, God was dead, and we had killed Him. [2] As a result, it was craftspeople, philosophers and scientists who were considered ‘creative’: those who laboured for a lifetime to hone their intellect and their skills (and passed those skills down through the generations) were bringing into being new ideas and tools that allowed us to progress as a civilization. [3] Humanity, not God, was creating something from nothing.

What’s more, ‘artistic’ creativity and a broader appreciation of culture were marbled through everyday life; they were part of the commons. Music, poetry and art were not considered to emanate from creative ‘genius’ or a higher cultural plane, but were simply part of collective social life. Shakespeare, in his day, would not have been thought a genius at all: he would have been seen as a craftsman, a wordsmith whose work was to be appreciated, enjoyed and ‘consumed’ collectively. [4]

Although creativity was increasingly thought of as an individualistic trait, there were alternative schools of thought. Groups such as the Diggers and the Levellers in England in the mid-seventeenth century vaunted the commons as more important to human progress than self-interest. The intricate co-operation among a group tackling the complexities of sharing and maintaining land was considered very creative. It was a collaborative and collective creativity that encouraged equality between people. Cultural production and artistic endeavour were integral production and artistic endeavour were integral factors in the process of maintaining a just society.

But it was a mode of societal organisation that, even at the time, was under increasing pressure from a dominant mode of thinking that focused on self-interest, the hoarding of private wealth and a reliance on interpersonal competition (rather than mutual aid) to provide equality.

As European powers began to plunder more of the world, they became richer and richer. Fuelled by a growing capitalist way of life that encouraged self-interest over co-operation (catalysed by the Enlightenment doctrines of competition as a key factor in societal progress that spawned such ideologies such as social Darwinism) the wealthy merchants wanted to privatize the enjoyment they got from the ‘artistic’ culture they had experienced collectively. The greed and selfishness around which Western societies were increasingly being organized bred a new desire to horde land (often from collectives like the Diggers) and, crucially, cultural products.

So the wealthy began to commission great works of art, and the more impressive these were, the more status they granted the commissioner. In combination with a phase of romanticized individualism, we saw the privatization of creativity. The artist producing the work became increasingly important, a development that, over time, wrenched artistic production out of the collective social arena, individualized the creative process and gave birth to the modern conception of the ‘creative genius’.

The onset of the Industrial Revolution further entrenched the divide between those who were able to ‘consume’ art and those who were not. The wealthy (merchants, factory owners, etc.) had more time and resources to consume culture, while the workers spent more time on the factory floors. With the onset of the printing press, and later photographic and cinematic technology, cultural production itself became industrialized. Adorno and Horkheimer, in their now seminal text The Culture Industry, argued that capitalism had enabled this mass-production of culture. It had entrenched a divide between a popular culture that numbed the masses into passivity, and a high culture that heightened the senses. [5] This separation of cultural consumption into popular and high art characterized much of the twentieth century’s articulation of creativity: artists produced art worthy of the name, the rest was industrialized forms of mass objects that had far more to do with machine-like production that it did creative genius. Schönberg and Picasso were creative; the Hollywood studios were not. [6]

So creativity, or more accurately the power to create something from nothing, had gone from being a divine power, to a socialized and collective endeavour, to an individual characteristic that could be traded. Being creative now had value. It was a character trait that was much sought after by employers, businesses and governments; it was an exchange value to be exploited. And this is where the UK government plays an important role in the contemporary etymology of creativity.

In 1997, Tony Blair swept into power. Much of the Labour government’s early success lay in embracing the concept of ‘Cool Britannia’, an exultation of the UK’s pop culture and artists. In a reversal of the divide that Adorno and Horkheimer viewed as indicative of capitalism’s culture industry, Blair’s ‘New’ Labour party celebrated popular culture and the creativity at its core. By doing this, New Labour caused two major structural shifts in the socio-economics of culture and creativity. It related to the ‘people’ on a national level (with its championing of popular culture), and moved the economy from post-industrial services to the proliferation of knowledge-based work (of all skill sets, ranging from call centres to start-ups). The former of these structural shifts got New Labour the votes, while the latter allowed it to advance a rhetoric of creativity as having an economic value and to forge a brand-new growth agenda based on knowledge, entrepreneurship and innovation.

In 1998, it created the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and set about formulating a remit for the ‘creative industries’ from the remnants of an unfavourable and out-of-date cultural industry policy. [7] Using templates forged in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, where the profitability of intellectual property had been perfected (not least by an army of legal service professionals and a flexible, autonomous business model), this new UK government set about adopting a cultural production policy that championed its competitiveness, global reach and viability for UK plc.

It was a phenomenal economic success. The creative industries began to be championed as the UK’s flagship sector. In 2016, they were estimated to be worth £84.1 bn to the UK economy, and employed around 2 million people. [8] Not even the global financial crisis of 2008 curtailed their growth. As this success became celebrated, countries all over the world began to replicate the rhetoric and use the language of creativity in their economic and political narratives. So much so that today ‘creativity’ is applied to more and more aspects of our lives.

Now, everyone is encouraged to be creative – at work, in our personal lives, in our political activities, in the neighbourhoods in which we live, in schools, in our leisure time, in the choices we make in what we eat every night, in how we design our CVs. We are bombarded by messages that by being creative, we will live better, more efficient and more enjoyable lives.

From line managers, corporate CEOs, urban designers, teachers, politicians, mayors, advertisers and even our friends and family, the message is ‘be creative’ and all will work out for the better. They eulogize that we now live in ‘creative times’ and we are encouraged by ‘thought leaders’ to free ourselves from the shackles of bureaucracy, centralized power and social straightjackets, and ‘unleash’ the inner creative entrepreneur. In doing so, we will create innovative products and services that will empower us in work and social life.

Moreover, we are told that this version of creativity is no longer the privilege of an elite ‘genius’ few; it is something that everyone has. Creativity can be found in unskilled amateurs, on the street, on the shop floor or in the waiting room. We are all invited to take part in this new democratic and liberating form of creativity and in so doing, we will create new (often digital) products and processes that will transform social and economic life.

Contemporary society is formulated, operated and maintained with creativity as the core source of progress. This is having a huge impact on everything around us, from the places where we work to the ways we are managed. The traditional corporate hierarchy is now a defunct system that negates creative activity. Governments are too bureaucratic and stifle innovative policy thinking. Regulation is the enemy of flexible, agile and creative work. Social services, charities and other third sector institutions are failing not because their funding has been drastically cut, but because they are not creative enough. Hospitals, schools and universities that fail do so because they are insufficiently entrepreneurial and can’t adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace and digital technologies. With the onset of this language, institutionalized into terms such as ‘the creative industries’, the ‘creative economy’, and the ‘creative class’, creativity became the critical paradigm of economic growth.

The spread of this economized and capitalism-friendly version of creativity has been turbocharged by the infusion of neoliberal ideologies. Formulated in the intellectual cauldron of the Chicago School of the 1940s and ’50s, neoliberalism has become one of the most prevalent ideological forces of our time. Various readings of neoliberalism have seen it viewed as a mixture of free-market economic thought, the elevation of self-interest as the guiding force of progress, minimal state intervention and, increasingly, invasive forms of biopolitical control. [9]

At its core, though, neoliberalism is about the marketization of everything, the imprinting of economic rationalities into the deepest recesses of everyday life. The political theorist Wendy Brown has argued that neoliberalism ‘configures human beings exhaustively as market actors’. [10] Every decision we take then becomes an act of weighing up the costs and benefits of choosing one option over another. If I hug my child now, will it help her become a more confident and employable adult? If I go for a run now, will it mean I’m able to be more productive later? Swipe left or right for love? If I spend more time counselling this student will it increase my student feedback scores?

Seen as a means of societal organisation, neoliberalism was openly adopted by key world leaders in the ’70s and ’80s, notably Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. One of their key tropes was the importance of the ‘enterprising self’. It wasn’t up to the government or society to help you out: if you wanted to succeed in this world, you had to unleash the inner entrepreneur. It is easy to see then how neoliberalism and the creativity rhetoric go hand-in-glove. Being creative today means seeing the world around you as a resource to fuel your inner entrepreneur. Creativity is a distinctly neoliberal trait because it feeds the notion that the world and everything in it can be monetized. The language of creativity has been subsumed by capitalism.

1. I take my lead here from Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of desire. For them, desire is not a want for something lacking (like a new car or a bigger house), but pure productive power. They therefore use the phrase ‘desiring-production’. See G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Continuum, 1984.
2. F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Vintage, 1974 [1882].
3. R. Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2008.
4. M. Haiven, Crises of Imagination, Crisis of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons, Zed Books, 2014.
5. M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947].
6. Ibid.
7. J. O’Connor, The Cultural and Creative Industries: A Literature Review, Arts Council England, 2010.
8. DCMS Creative Industries ‘Economic Estimates – January 2016 – Key findings’, gov.uk, January 2016.
9. 'Biopolitics’ is Foucault’s term for the way our behaviour (and in some cases, even our psychology) is micromanaged to make us more efficient participants in capitalism (see M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish, Pantheon Books, 1977).
10. W. Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, MIT Press, 2015, p. 31.