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What is creativity? Tomes as thick as car tyres have been written addressing this question. Julia Shashkina

It’s profoundly depressing to see ‘creativity’ used as the go-to word for a flagging neo-liberalism

Getting out of bed of a morning artists are familiar with the phrases that describe their creative practices being re-badged for other purposes. We talk about “painting a picture”, “spinning a tale” or “making a scene” in a wide variety of different situations. In the 1950s, the sociologist Erving Goffman purloined the terminology of drama to furnish his own version of symbolic interactionism. From time to time the artistic domain has words other domains want. So they take them.

Nothing wrong in that, provided the use is a fair one; that there is cognisance of what the words meant originally, and respect for the values behind them. Without this, the danger is crude expropriation and/ or misrepresentation.

Scientists get hot under the collar – rightly so – about products being sold as “scientific” when, in fact, they are marketing materials in a lab coat. Likewise, creative artists are confronted when creativity is deployed as a descriptor for activities that are quite different, even opposed, to their use of the term.

Earlier this week on The Conversation, Professor Jason Potts gave a plumb example of just such dodgy use. In a witty overview of Richard Florida’s Global Creativity Index he showed just how contrived such proxy measures can be.

The problem is not a minor one. In a world of big data, with information accumulating on every conceivable subject every moment of the day, how we talk about what we think we know matters.

Call it verbal hygiene, the issue of how words apply to objects, states, processes, concepts and relations. Stuff. When there isn’t much stuff, you can employ words loosely without loss of interpretive force. When there’s a lot of stuff – and economists will appreciate the market logic of this insight – language goes up in value because there’s more precision work for it to do.

So it is profoundly depressing to see “creativity” used as the go-to word for a flagging neo-liberalism trying to reignite the fires of its capitalist conviction. Professor Potts wrote about:

how the number of new firms created has fallen by almost 50% since 2002. A major reason for this is the high and growing regulatory burden in Australia which raises the costs of entrepreneurship, inhibiting entry. This is bridling our great creative potential.

Really? Perhaps macro-economic events such as the GFC, as well as the impact of books such as Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) showing that wealth from the boom of the last 30 years has not been equally shared, have something to do with it?

When reward is small, intermittent or given disproportionately, it is no surprise basic motivation is lacking. Regulation may play a part. But to assign it prime causal significance when there are much bigger culprits in the frame is perverse.

What is creativity? Tomes as thick as car tyres have been written addressing this question. Indeed it has formed the basis for a series on The Conversation.

Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation (1964) comes to mind, as does the work of educationalist Edward de Bono. Some of the most beautiful insights, I think, come from the social psychologist Rollo May, who in The Courage to Create (1975) observed that:

Artists knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.

Which suggests that creativity is less a matter of technological advancement than ontological valour. You and the blank page. You and the camera. You and the empty theatre. You and the ——–. Fill in the gap. If you can.

Because it is a gap, there is no formula for what goes into it or comes out of it. Attending the Adelaide Show earlier this year, I spent time looking at a display of beautiful handbags. Only they weren’t. They were beautiful cakes fashioned as handbags. The detailing was exquisite. Only if you looked closely could you see the difference.

The closer you looked the more interesting the difference got. Fiction, poetry, film, immersive games, opera, television drama … and cakes!

All these things are creative in May’s sense. Creative artists start with nothing and produce something, driven by an impulse to make that something as meaningful, well-formed and true-natured as possible.

I dare say there’s a bit of this behind a start-up. The freeing of the notion of capital from financial capital that accelerated in the 1990s as way of coping with IP and other intangible assets involves an aspect of May’s “discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built”.

And artistic creativity involves money, naturally, sometimes very large amounts of it.

But the ultimate aim of creativity in art is not money, whereas the ultimate aim in the Floridian/ Pottsian sense is. An act of purchase, not an act of meaning, lies at the heart of a parasitoidal re-purposing. Entrepreneurship may be creative. But it doesn’t need to be. It needs to turn a profit. Its recent interest in creativity is, I suspect, because turning a profit in societies that have met their major physical needs has become much more difficult.

Opportunity cost – the cost of an alternative that must be discounted in order to follow a certain action – is another handy economic concept. When we use “creativity” to refer to pop-up burger bars or wearable tech, the term loses its purchase on activities that have a more formal, disinterested and open-ended intent. Language muddies as a term unmoors from its semantic history.

Creativity ends up shorthand for “thinking up new ways to earn a living”. Which is what artists want to do themselves, of course. The difference is they do it for their art, not as their art.

Further reading:
Australia wins at the global creative game

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