Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Thomas Frank had an interesting column in the June issue of Harper’s (subscribers only), writing about the creativity and innovation business and how those “thinkers” who specialize in that sort of thing are not especially — creative. Take Jonah Lehrer’s now-stained book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. Not only did Lehrer manufacture quotes from Bob Dylan (which, now that I think of is kind of creative), he cited as landmarks of innovation the same anecdotes every other writer in the field has been citing for ages: the Post-It note, the Swiffer, Velcro, Dylan, The Beatles, etc. & etc.
As Frank puts it, interpreting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, “Innovation…exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does.” Csikszentmihalyi was referring to Van Gogh’s acceptance as an important figure when a tipping point of expert opinion reached that conclusion, but it’s the same in every discipline. I think this is because creativity and innovation have become a sort of commodity, things that can have monetary value applied and then be bought and sold. This is why, as Frank points out, is seems the TED Talks feature a disproportionate share of billionaires.
We see it in publishing, of course, in the mindless repetitiveness of the kinds of books that sell. It’s like cloning, which is the antithesis of creativity. Novels are the supposed epitome of “creative writing,” yet there’s this tendency of publishers to “genericise” them and peddle them like Chips Ahoy. In a market like that, creativity becomes a negative, except insofar as it can be used within the agreed-upon confines of the particular genre. We use formulaic as a pejorative term, but nearly everyone acknowledges that the reason books in these categories are successful is that they adhere to formulas that their readers appreciate and use as shorthand. It makes it easier to consume them.
Real creativity, the kind that destroys formulas and challenges prevailing standards, is almost by definition excluded from the corporate marketplace. There is literally no audience for it because the works that are borne of true creativity are too unfamiliar. Any prospective sponsor couldn’t expect to profit from it, at least not until enough of the arbiters of taste determine that the thing has value.
This is why I have possibly irrational hope in the potential of electronic publishing — which can comprise not just writing, but also music, graphic novels, photography, and any other mode of expression that can be digitized and uploaded. Individuals can practice their art on their own terms and display it, try to sell it, give it away, or even just store it for their own edification. They can sew together their own audience. They can ignore the criticism of judges they don’t respect. They can, if they’re so inclined, start their own movements and aesthetic schools, by and for other artists like themselves.
What’s missing are the rigid, vacuous, and stolid creativity brokers, who are always in it for the money.