zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Is Creativity a Social Product ?

Is Creativity a Social Product ?

Blogfriend Dan of tdaxp clearly thinks so:

Doing Artsy Stuff Isn’t “Creativity”

I’ve talked about creativity before, in the context of the OODA loop, purposeful practice (a form of metacognition that is the opposite of “flow”), and mental illness. Another part of creativity is being recognized as useful by the field of a domain. If you invent a new type of hot water heater, that is being creative. If you’re chess technique allows you to rise in international chess competitions, that’s creativity. If you cure cancer but don’t tell anyone, that’s just wasting your time.

So this article is somewhat off-base:

Why Do Men Share Their Creative Work Online More Than Women? | Scientific Blogging
A recent Northwestern University study has a surprising results – substantially more men are likely to share their creative work online than women even though both genders engage in creative activities at essentially equal rates.

As it confuses artsy-stuff (making music, taking photographs, etc.) with creativity. Certainly artsy-stuff can be a form of practice, therapy, or good old recreation. Perhaps it can lead to creativity one day when you share it with others. But if you sit on it, you’re enjoying yourself, not being creative.

This is more or less along the line of argumentation proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi  and Howard Gardner for “Big C” creativity being “real creativity” because it has a downstream societal impact. However, I’m hesitant to accept that social recognition should be a form of validation of creative merit.  To paraphrase my comment at tdaxp,  what if the people with whom you share your creative efforts are not able to accurately assess the intrinsic merit of what you have made or discovered?

For example, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings now sell for upwards of $ 80 million dollars but in his lifetime, despite a prodigious artistic output ,he often had to get by with financial help from his family. Many artists, scientsts, musicians and inventors found cold receptions from their contemporaries to later gain posthumous vindication – sometimes by chance. This is the old “starving artist” cliche and most artists who starve do so because they are mediocre talents but a number of the greatest artists, scientists, inventors and musicians starved with them – or at least were confounded in their hopes for recognition and acclaim.

In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time.

8 Responses to “Is Creativity a Social Product ?”

  1. CurtisGale Weeks Says:

    In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time.

    Interesting. Will this depend upon the type of creative act? Creativity of the technological variety has the tendency to become a major impact rather quickly, e.g., steam power and railroads perhaps, and might actually be literally "groundbreaking" in the sense of the nuclear bomb which also had immediate…impact. But the more meme-based creative efforts, occurring pretty much in the abstract, may really be a wash if they are of the "artsy" type, depending upon some sort of concerted effort by publicists of one type or another. Of the second variety, you find cases in literature quite often, where concerted advocacy long after a person’s death, particularly in academia, may elevate a poet for instance. To address your main point though, Dan’s effort to create a new abstract taxonomy (or support one he’s read about somewhere; I can’s say I know which it is) seems to be just that: the attempt to elevate one set of figures spotted in the clouds to divine and normative status. This is a recurrent effort of the tda experience. While we might use his model to come to some better understanding of types of creativity, or various uses for creativity, or even different methods utilized by creative people, I do not think that his dichotomy of artsy/creative has much merit on its own for defining creativity. As you’ve pointed out, he seems to have utterly ignored factors of time (Hey what if an alien culture finds a relic 1 million years from now and considers it to be art — though no one else ever did but the artist?), factors relating to the process of creation, and indeed, given that last, how it is someone can "create" something while entirely isolated but without being "creative."

  2. democratic core Says:

    I think that creative "art" requires at least the intention of establishing communication between the creator and an audience, even if not immediately accepted or reocgnized as such by the audience.  Accordingly, I don’t think that creative art can exist outside of a social context.  This principle was often ignored by 20th Century western artists, who often treated "self-expression" as the only objective of art.  This is especially true of 20th Century "serious" composers, which is why, in my opinion, the great compositions of the 20th Century are more likely to be recognized as the works of The Beatles or Miles Davis, rather than Pierre Boulez or Anton Webern.

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Curtis,
    Interesting that you brought up steam power. The Romans knew of it and used it for toys ( probably very expensive ones) and historians and archaeologists suspect they learned of steam power from the Greeks. Yet no industrial revolution occurred, perhaps for economic reasons – a hypothetical steam powered machine in the Ancient world could not have competed with cheap and plentiful slave labor. Yet intrinsically, was the act of discovery back then any different from the 19th century ?
    I think your pointing to a discussion of types vs. uses of creativity is very useful.  A differentiation can be made upon those who failed to capitalize on their efforts – say the Chinese with gunpowder, printing etc – vs. those who did so successfully – the Europeans. The creative act itself, though, is essentially the same even if the historical importance of the two cases differ.
    Hi democratic core,

    Yes but isn’t the communication or relationship building *subsequent* and *separate* from the creative act? McCartney and Lennon didn’t consult the crowd on songwriting, after all.

  4. CurtisGale Weeks Says:

    isn’t the communication or relationship building *subsequent* and *separate* from the creative act?

    I would agree with this. An important example would be someone like Emily Dickinson. Though apparently some members of her family were aware that she wrote poetry and were familiar with some of her poems, and although a handful were published in her lifetime, it wasn’t until after her death that the full body of her poems found an audience. (Even then, the actual art, as composed, wasn’t broadly known for a very long time. The format had been stripped of much of its expressive power with the attempt by editors to mainstream it, or eliminate the quirky punctuation.) In any case, the solitary artist may not have control over choosing the audience or even whether an audience will exist sometime in the future, during the act of creation. Incidentally, there is a distinction between judging an artist’s oeuvre and judging particular pieces. Even if 99% of an artist’s work is intended for an audience, are we then to say that the 1% created in private, utilizing the same methods and techniques and insight, is not an example of creativity unlike those pieces intended for an audience?Interesting about the Romans and steam power. I actually didn’t know. I suppose different layers of creativity exist. For instance, whoever first created a steam powered toy in Rome may have been creative, but others seeing that creation may have been inspired to create their own versions; is the originator necessarily "more creative" than the person who takes the original creation and improves upon it? (This actually is something to be considered in the current Hollywood climate, where derivations occur almost exclusively…)

  5. democratic core Says:

    That’s why I said that there has to be an "intention" of establishing a communication with an audience.  The audience may be in the artist’s head, or the audience may be God, but I still think that art requires at least the effort by the creator to reach out to something beyond him or herself.  And it really only becomes art when the communication is in fact established.  Lots of lunatics scribble gibberish and hide it in the attic, then it gets discovered and in most cases, it’s still gibberish.  The difference between that and Emily Dickinson is that her scribblings meant something to the people who read them.  Interesting speculation – suppose all of Emily Dickinson’s poems had been destroyed in a fire before anybody read them – would they have still been art?  Tough question.  Ever read, or see, Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia?  It poses a lot of these questions.

  6. Moon Says:

    Even the gibberish scribblings of lunatics gain audience.  The connection to a beyond is established in the very act of interacting within.  Communicating within transmits to the universe, and vice versa.  (liberally interpreting various English translations of Tao Te Ching)

  7. Dan tdaxp Says:


    "In all likelihood, the more insightful and groundbreaking the creative act, the less likely the society of the time will be able to fully appreciate or understand it. At least for a time."


    In science, probably the classic example is Gregor Mendel.


    The taxonomy is not new to me, but as Mark mentions has been actively pushed for 20 years by Gardner and Csíkszentmihályi.  There’s a lot to criticize in both these men’s work, but their definition of creativity isn’t one of them.  Before modern creativity research, creativity was typically poorly defined (deviant thoughts, some subjective judgment, etc), which prevented a science from developing around the concept.  Now that we have a measurable phenomoenon to study, more progress can be made.

    democratic core,

    Agreed on the aesthetic appraisal of much of 20th century art, but they’re still recognized by a field of a domain…  Ultimately, creativity doesn’t have to mean cultured (for both good and ill).

  8. tdaxp » Blog Archive » Taxonomies of Creativity Says:

    […] Mark posted his thoughts, I recently completed two books on creativity, talent, and expertise: The Road to Excellence: The […]

Switch to our mobile site