Are You ‘A Creative’?

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When I started thinking about this post, I imagined it was going to be a critique of a rather irritating article I had seen about ‘things that creatives do differently’. And I’m still irritated by it, to the extent that I’m not going to give it the compliment of linking to it. It was full of contradictory statements: creatives like to daydream, creatives are very observant; creatives like solitude, creatives like to seek out new experiences. They don’t do all of those at the same time, though, do they? If you’re day-dreaming, you’re not noticing what’s about you; if you’re alone and quiet, you’re not seeking out new experiences.

So if the idea was to learn from ‘creatives’ how to be more like them, it was no help at all. And really, I didn’t see what was so very ‘different’ about most of them. Most of the statements you could replace the word ‘creatives’ with ‘people’ and they would still ring true. I’m sure the research they were reporting on did genuinely find creative people doing all these things, but I’m not sure that tells us very much about creativity.

Because the thing that irritated me more, but was also more interesting to think about, was the underlying assumption that ‘Creatives’ are special people, different from normal folk. ‘You are not as noteworthy as some people,’ seems to be the article’s message, ‘but if we peddle some clichés about them, you can enjoy the fantasy that you could be.’

But at no point did they specify who they meant by ‘creatives’. I’m sure we were supposed to be imagining artists and writers and people who live interesting and bohemian lives, though the only actual creative person they quoted was Steve Jobs. Not knocking his creativity, by the way, but it got me thinking about the label of ‘creative’ as a noun, because it strikes me that using it to denote this strange race apart is a very limited and stereotyped notion.

So, yes, writers and poets and artists are creative. But so are computer programmers and engineers and architects and entrepreneurs and advertisers and researchers and all kinds of people. Of course, not all computer programmers are creative, but, frankly, not every piece of fiction or art you come across rises above the routine. It’s not the field of endeavour that defines whether you are creative, but how you operate in it.

At this point, the ‘creatives are special’ brigade nod sagely and say: yes it’s the inherent qualities of the person that matter, more than the field they go into. If you are A Creative, you will Be Creative wherever you go.

Now, I’m not disputing that some people are more inventive than others; some people get their kicks by doing new stuff, others by perfecting or preserving old stuff. So individual temperament and preferences are certainly involved. But to decontextualise the concept of creativity so radically seems to me blinkered and possibly self-serving.

There are some jobs, for instance, where creativity is not just discouraged, but actively forbidden. McDonalds does not want the people who cook their food to exercise any creativity whatsoever, for instance - the whole point of the brand is that you can go to one anywhere in the world and know exactly what you’re going to get. Telemarketers are required to stay on script. People who design clothes get to be creative; the factory workers in Bangladesh who manufacture the clothes for retail don’t.

Even within the so-called creative industries: one of the ironies of the orchestral musician’s life is that to be good enough to get into an orchestra, they will have been trained to a high level which requires the use of artistic imagination, and then get much less chance actually to use it on the job.

The opportunity to be creative, that is, is a function of autonomy. Creativity involves inductive thinking, making holistic and intuitive judgements in situations that are either lack data or are too complex to simply follow a procedure. In that sense, it is high-level work that not everyone can do. But it is also something that not everyone is given the opportunity to do. The special quality that Creatives share that doesn’t get mentioned very often is economic privilege.

Creativity also rests on a substrate of technical fluency. You need to know your field inside out before you can make these imaginative leaps. Creativity can be thought of as understanding the system well enough to be able to subvert it. Those who see the obsessive work ‘creatives’ put in as a symptom of the ‘specialness’ have the cart before the horse: the capacity for innovation is the reward that comes to those who show dedication.

And to a significant extent, this is something that is also correlated with economic privilege. Access to training, materials and the leisure to be obsessive is easier to obtain for the better-off.

I started off being irritated by the notion of ‘Creatives’ as special because of the way it encourages people to think of themselves. ‘Oh, I’m so creative, that makes me special,’ is self-indulgent; ‘Oh, I’m not the creative type,’ is a cop-out. And it really isn’t as binary as this, either within fields commonly thought of as ‘creative’ or in areas just thought of as ‘work’.

But as I analysed the economic context of creative activity, what had looked on the surface like simple self-indulgence emerged as something more sinister. Because if the capacity and opportunity to engage in creative work is largely a function of your position of power within your field, then attributing your success to some essential quality within you rather than your access to those opportunities is arguably a form of victim-blaming. It is to assert a class-based hierarchy in terms of moral qualities.

I really hadn’t expected to come over all Marxist when I start on this post. But discovering this political dimension does make more sense of my initial irritation - which was I confess disproportionately acute as a response to what was essentially a fluff piece.

Huh, quite a coincidence. Just a couple of days ago I was questioning my entire involvement in barbershop at all, with thoughts like "I'm not even a creative".

Followed immediately by, "Nouning the word 'creative' sounds flippin' ridiculous"...

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