Creativity as Platform?

Christer Nordlund
Department of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies
Umeå University

From a historical perspective, the development of ways of producing knowledge has often been intimately linked to ways of making things. As the historian of science and medicine John Pickstone argued: scientific approaches such as ordering and classification, analysing and experimenting, have always advanced in tandem with the advancement of craft, rationalised production, and systematic invention. Today both “ways of knowing” and “ways of making” are related to common ideas about creativity. Perhaps creativity is the basic foundation, or platform, for all sorts of innovative work?

Due to such ideas, an ever-increasing number of researchers, business people and policy makers are asking the question: How can creativity be measured, stimulated, taught and managed? Giving a neat answer to that question is not easy, however, because there exist so many different views on what creativity is and how it works. Depending on your vantage point, creativity may for example be understood as a biological, or a psychological, or a social, or a technological, or even a metaphysical category, and it can be connected to people and products as well as processes and systems.

Forms of knowledge production is an example of an area where creativity can be associated with certain processes, systems and media technologies. Many “new” digital formats are associated with creativity partly because they are seen as breaking with tradition and partly because certain media seem to have more creativity attached to them. For instance, a multimodal installation is likely to be seen as more creative than a text-based article. There is also often an assumption here that certain genres of scholarly knowledge production are more intersectional and innovative than others. Traditional monographs are constructed as individual projects whereas maker lab activities are seen as collaborative, intersectional and explorative.

My purpose in this presentation is to give a brief introduction to the intellectual history behind the complex situation outlined above, and also to propose some ways to explore it further. But first: some historiography.

Several scholars, from Raymond Williams and onward, have tried to trace the history of creativity back in time. Historical research has primarily focused on describing the work of (what have subsequently proven to be) exceptionally successful and innovative artists, authors, thinkers, researchers, and so on, where creativity is considered to have been the very source of achievement. We find its counterpart in university courses labelled “History of Creativity”, which essentially present the history of renowned champions, typically men, such as Leonardo da Vinci or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Some historians have also tried to put forward a more nuanced view of this zeal for creativity. Simon Schaffer has for example proposed that neither ideas nor discoveries are creative per se, but are deemed so by relevant social groups: that it is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, when writing about creativity, authors tend to focus mainly upon positive results, as if creativity by definition results in something good. As the philosopher Nils-Eric Sahlin has stated: the book about the “creativity of evilness” still remains to be written.

But to trace the history of creativity back in times is a very tricky exercise indeed because many of the concepts and capacities that today are associated with creativity, such as imagination, curiosity and art, had different meanings before modern times. There was for example no word exactly equivalent in meaning to “create” in Ancient Greek, and the Greek word for art was techne, meaning “to make, according to rules”. Also in the Middle Ages art was characterised as a rational practice, almost the opposite to the view of art in the Romantic period.

The word creative originates from the Latin creare, meaning “to create, from nothing”. Hence, to be creative was to make something that had not previously existed. Conceptions of what that “something” might be and how creation worked have varied. In the Christian tradition, creation was typically related to supernatural acts, while in the profane, post-medieval tradition it has become associated with the arts. Subsequently, it also came to be increasingly linked to science, technology, innovation and industry.

The concept “creativity”, on the other hand, is modern. It was first constituted as an intellectual phenomenon in the US during the interwar period and did not in fact become common currency in the rest of the Western world until after the Second World War. The development can easily be illustrated by a search on Google Books Ngram.

Of course, this does not mean that the word was previously never uttered. At least according to some dictionaries, the term was coined in 1875, and as John Hope Mason has demonstrated in his book The Value of Creativity, a lively intellectual debate on “the creative man” — that involved thinkers like Marx, Darwin and Nietzsche — raged throughout the 19th century. Although no corresponding academic discourse on creativity took place.

The introduction of the new concept was crucial. For, as Camilla Nelson put it in an article on “the invention” of creativity, it was only once creativity was reified and named that it made itself available as an object for scientific study. Once named, it could be measured and dissected by psychologists and brain surgeons, and political and educational institutions could create policies for its cultivation, Nelson argues.

By the mid-20th century, researchers began to confront the nature of creativity in an optimistic manner. One view, held by the American psychologist Carl Rogers (one of the founders of the so called “human growth” movement), was that knowledge about creativity was the key to strengthen individual empowerment and personal satisfaction. Another view, put forward by another American psychologist, J.P. Guildford, at one of the first conferences devoted to the topic of creativity (held in the late 1950s), was that creativity was about problem solving: a means to tackle the grand challenges of contemporary society. A few years later, a third American psychologist, Paul Torrance invented the Torrance Test in order to measure creativity in American school children.

The cold war was a significant part of the context and that is why a large portion of this early creativity research in America was funded directly from the Military defence budget. Research on creativity has since spread in many different directions, and the various disciplines have published their results in a plethora of general and specialist periodicals, such as the Journal of Creative Behaviour (established in 1967) and Creative Research Journal (established in 1988).

A preliminary survey of the academic literature on creativity indicates that the lion’s share of this knowledge production can be divided into three genres. First and foremost, researchers have studied individuals: “creative minds”. Central fields of activity include philosophy and psychology, latterly joined by cognitive science and neuroscience. This research typically begins with the hypothesis that some people are more creative than others, due to the fact that they have been equipped with a particular, congenital gift, cognitive ability or personality type. But the idea that creativity is located in all humans, at least as a potential that can be developed (just as Bildung), has also been common. A central task has been to investigate the implications of creativity and to develop techniques for measuring, stimulating and advancing creativity via different methods including education, cognitive exercises and experiments with music, meditation, drugs and so on.

Other researchers have emphasized “creative environments” instead, that is, how creativity — for good, or for bad — may be affected by variable surrounding factors. While recognizing that creativity is a matter of intellectual skill, this orientation presumes that it is also influenced by the contexts in which the individuals are situated. Artists, inventors, scholars, school children and entrepreneurs do not live in an intellectual, social or economic vacuum. People are products of certain traditions, shaped by social forces, encounter and clash with diverse intellectual traditions, interact with colleagues and relate to spatial and material frameworks. Such research has been conducted in for example sociology, cultural geography, didactics, urban studies, architecture, and ICT-studies, and one aim has been to clarify the agency of environment and technology as well as studying the possibility of applying such knowledge in order to design new, more creative environments, from microenvironments in schools and universities to entire organizations.

In 1980, the philosopher Larry Briskman stated, “In the past few decades, creativity has become rather like money: everyone seems to want more of it”. Today, however, creativity is money, an idea promoted by the field of “creative industries”. This relationship comprises a fundamental aspect of the literature on “knowledge society”, where creativity, knowledge, information and imagination rather than raw materials and capital are considered the decisive factors in innovation, propelling businesses, cities, regions and countries to the fore in global economic competition. Within this broad field flourish theories of economics and innovation that valorise networks, clusters and the “creative destruction” wreaked by new innovation. It also features research on “creative management” and the economic and geographic research associated with Florida and his theories on “creativity indexes” and the “creative class”, which he claims is attracted by and assumes the lead role in the construction of “creative societies”.

I think that it would be interesting and also possible to empirically explore creativity as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon by studying how ideas and theories of creativity have evolved through research and debate in these three genres of knowledge production, from the 1930s onward. Furthermore, one could explore how creativity has been loaded with meaning and value, and how that has influenced the view of modern mankind and the ways in which post-industrial knowledge society is apprehended. My overriding (and partly provocative) question can be stated as this: How has creativity become one of the most respected human attributes in Western society, despite the absence of consensus as to what it actually is?

My simple theoretical point of departure is that the meaning of creativity is not a given: that creativity is a so-called empty or floating signifier and as such an essentially contested concept. This does not imply that creativity is a weak concept. Rather, as proponents of German Begriffsgeschichte often remark, the very ambiguity of a concept indicates its importance to society. Just think about concepts such as “freedom” or “culture”.

As a research strategy, I would first like to study how reference to creativity has changed over time and in serial contexts. Since the 1930s, there have been numerous, competitive definitions. In fact, the academic literature yields more than one hundred definitions, from the power of esoteric transformation to instrumental problem solving. And while some researchers have contended that creativity is a very rare trait, others have perceived it as something universal: as the same thing as being human. Analysing these “multiple creativities” and the conceptual and interpretative struggles underpinning them — not least in other contexts than the American — is central.

Secondly, I would like to illuminate the practical aspects of empirical research on creativity and its technologies. In order to study how creativity occurs and functions, a clear perception of exactly what creativity is must be determined, as well as what is meant by “normal”. How has the boundary between normality and creativity on the one hand, and creativity and, say, madness or chaos on the other been construed and stabilized? Correspondingly, how are creative environments and creative industries distinguished from non-creative ones? Furthermore, what is identified as creativity may depend on the methods used to measure it, for example experiments or domain-general or -specific psychometric testing. How has researchers responded to the proposal that methods and knowledge may be co-produced?

Thirdly, I think it would be fruitful to examine how research and literature on creativity has regarded gender. It is no secret that the overwhelming number of artists, scientists and inventors proclaimed to be geniuses are male. With this in mind, it is relevant to determine the degree to which ideal examples of creativity have come from the male sphere and its possible significance for the results. Has research itself created a thought figure that postulates creativity as a masculine rather than feminine characteristic? At the same time, creativity is often associated with “outsiders” who challenge prevalent norms and paradigms. Does this also bias toward men?

Fourthly, though research on creativity has grown exponentially in the past few decades, the most widely disseminated and read literature on the subject has probably been produced outside the scientific community. For this reason it is important to also analyse more popular discourses. An essential question to me is the degree to which a give-and-take has occurred between academic science and popular science and popular culture, not only how the former has been presented by the latter but also whether popular versions and policy documents have in turn engendered scientific research. I do believe that particular attention should be paid to the growing flora of management and self-help books on creativity and creativity-enhancing methods, such as “lateral thinking”, “brainstorming” and “flow”.

Such a project would be rather odd in regard to creativity research in general since the overall aim is not to try to measure and explain creativity but to analyse historical and contemporary understandings of “multiple creativities”. By examining the multitude of approaches, concepts and theoretical and practical problems inherent in creativity research and debate, I think that the project should prove beneficial to reflexivity and in the end put contemporary knowledge society in comprehensible perspective.


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