Wonders of creativity

Laura Gascoigne investigates why what was once so very special is now common as muck and comprehensively commandeered by the fat controllers

In The Masque of Augurs, Ben Jonson introduces the comic figure of Vangoose, a “rare artist” and producer of masques with a reputation for the wildly fantastical. “Now we would bring in some dainty new thing, dat never was, nor never sal be, in de rebus nature… a mere ‘devisa’ of the brain,” the artist promises his Jacobean audience. “If it go from de nature of de ting, it is de more art; for dere is art, and dere is nature, you sall see.”

Vangoose’s obvious difficulty with the English language is not due solely to his being Dutch. The 17th century had no word, in Dutch or English, for the quality of artistic creation he’s trying to describe. Astonishingly, the word ‘creativity’ only entered the English language in 1927 in a lecture by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. For more

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than two millennia before that, Plato’s philosophical verdict in The Republic that a painter “merely imitates” held sway, and the advent of Christianity didn’t shake it. If anything, it reinforced it. Leonardo could go so far as to claim that an artist uses “shapes that do not exist in nature” but he could go no further, since ‘creatio ex nihilo’ was the sole prerogative of the Creator. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment, when Joseph Addison dared to suggest that human imagination “has something in it like creation”, that the divine monopoly on creativity was broken. In the next century, Romanticism finished the job.

Today, creativity is as common as muck. We find the word ‘creative’ applied to everything from art and writing to psychology, philosophy, and technology, not to mention accounting. Like so much else, it has gone cross-disciplinary – it has even jumped lexical categories to become a noun referring to someone working in advertising. But the most significant change of the past 20 years has been not in its range of applications but in its 404 Not Found meaning. As the American psychologist Michael Mumford noted in Creativity Research Journal a decade ago, “we seem to have reached a general agreement that creativity involves the production of novel, useful products [my italics].” Out of the Romantic cult of an economically useless imaginative faculty has grown the dreary McKinseyite concept of a mental ability to be cultivated for the purposes of productivity. So we have ‘creative industry professionals’ hot-desking in ‘creative hubs’ and ‘incubator spaces’ to speed the fermentation of moneymaking ‘devisas’ of the brain to boost the economy. One wonders what Ben Jonson would have made of it.

The ‘creative industries’, according to the CBI, now account for more than 6% of Britain’s GDP – just 3% behind the financial services sector – and represent an inflatable life-raft in a floundering economy. Scoff if you like at Meedja Studies and ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses, but there are number-crunchers at the Treasury who are seriously counting on Mickey and Minnie to save our island from disappearing off the global economic map. For a post-industrial nation that no longer makes things, creativity conjures the illusion of a deus ex machina materialising out blue skies thinking in a shower of gold. It’s no accident that the opening sentence of Alex Salmond’s Guide to an Independent Scotland hailed Caledonia as “an ancient nation, renowned for the ingenuity and creativity of its people”, or that Sir Sean Connery, in a New Statesman article hubristically headed ‘There is no more creative act than creating a nation’ [tell that to the Almighty, Mr Bond] argued that independence would present the Scots “with an unparalleled opportunity to promote our creative excellence”. In these days of corporate-creep, Hollywood and Holyrood speak the same language.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as relieved to have escaped a haggisectomy as the next Sassenach, but when I hear the word ‘creativity’ I reach for my revolver. Why? Because what was once a faculty free as the air we breathe has been thoroughly and comprehensively monetized. How did we let this happen? I date the start of the rot to the reign of John Birt, that Blairite Svengali of blue skies thinking and foggy speech who educated a generation of cultural administrators in the language of corporate creative bollocks. Take this example from Jana Bennett, former Head of Vision at the BBC, quoted in Private Eye’s ‘Birtspeak’ column in 2007: “Now that it’s clear the conversation genuinely can be a creative two-way process, and in many cases multi-way, we are witnessing the possibilities opened up when many ripples bump against one another and the patterns of interference, the ‘mash-ups’, they create. We have the opportunity more than ever before to willingly seed the clouds of creativity and see a creative rainfall.” Since Bennett’s speech, the c-word count has risen. She notched up a modest four mentions; the Tate, in the publicity for its new IK Prize for ‘digital creativity’ unveiled in August, managed six.

The clouds of creativity are clearly massing, thanks partly to the efforts of ‘creativity enablers’ devising ways of optimising meteorological conditions through the establishment of ‘creative hubs’, ‘incubator spaces’ and ‘innovation labs’ in happening places. “When you join THECUBE,” coos the website of one such establishment in Shoreditch, “you join a curated diverse and smart community of scientists, engineers, designers, technologists, artists, futurists and anthropologists”. Artists, one notes, are only fifth on the list – ahead of Marinetti and Lévi-Strauss – but one assumes that all the disciplines share equally in the benefits of “innovation through community”. THECUBE’s founders got the idea, their website says, in the aftermath of the financial crash, when they “hypothesised that it was the start of an economic and anthropological pivot”.

If you’re wondering how exactly a pivot starts, THECUBE’s engineers may be able to help. But let’s not nitpick. Around a “highly fuzzy concept” like creativity, an occasional lack of clarity is inevitable. There’s no such problem in Africa, however, where of the 28 languages currently spoken only one – Arabic – has a word for ‘creative’. It’s not that Africans are short on creativity, it’s just that in the matter of rainfall they prefer the wet kind that makes

seeds grow into edible crops. Fuzzy concepts are luxuries for developed economies. In Taiwan, for example, they take their creative agronomy so seriously that last summer Taipei Contemporary Art Centre staged a Strategic Business Plan Public Stakeholders Consultation Focus Group Exhibition [snappy title] to show the products of three ‘creative game-based workshops’ that ‘looked at aspects of the business of contemporary art’. The workshops were run by visiting Senior Tutor in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College, Kit Hammonds, a specialist in “imaginations of the future found in science, business planning and speculative fiction”.

The line between art and business is now so fuzzy that an IBM Global CEO study of 2010 named creativity as the most crucial quality for leadership success (which could explain why so few CEOs are female, since women, as we know, are better at procreativity). How to reclaim creativity from business? By defending to the death our artistic right to exercise it in pursuit of the wildly irrational and unproductive. As Veronese, a champion of creativity avant la lettre, told the Inquisition: “We painters use the same licence as poets and madmen” – and he meant madmen, not ad men.