From The New Yorker:
Every culture elects some central virtues, and creativity is one of ours. In fact, right now, we’re living through a creativity boom. Few qualities are more sought after, few skills more envied. Everyone wants to be more creative—how else, we think, can we become fully realized people?
Creativity is now a literary genre unto itself: every year, more and more creativity books promise to teach creativity to the uncreative.
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How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity. In the ancient world, good ideas were thought to come from the gods, or, at any rate, from outside of the self. During the Enlightenment, rationality was the guiding principle, and philosophers sought out procedures for thinking, such as the scientific method, that might result in new knowledge. People back then talked about “imagination,” but their idea of it was less exalted than ours. They saw imagination as a kind of mental scratch pad: a system for calling facts and images to the mind’s eye and for comparing and making connections between them. They didn’t think of the imagination as “creative.” In fact, they saw it as a poor substitute for reality; Hobbes called it “decayed sense.”
It was Romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, which took the imagination and elevated it, giving us the “creative imagination.”
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People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates, as Engell puts it, like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life. In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes this kind of imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates:
An auxiliary light
Came from my mind which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor, the melodious birds,
The gentle breezes, fountains that ran on,
Murmuring so sweetly in themselves, obeyed
A like dominion; and the midnight storm
Grew darker in the presence of my eye.
This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”
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How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing? The answer, essentially, is that it became a scientific subject, rather than a philosophical one. In 1950, a psychologist named J. P. Guilford kickstarted that transition with an influential speech to the American Psychological Association. Guilford’s specialty was psychometrics: during the Second World War, he helped the Air Force design tests to identify which recruits had the kinds of intelligence necessary to fly airplanes. Unsurprisingly, when it came to identifying creative people, Guilford found that you couldn’t measure the auxiliary light of the soul. You had to measure something more concrete, like the production of ideas.
A classic measure of idea production, introduced by Guilford in 1967, revolves around the notion of “alternative uses”: subjects are asked how many novel uses they can imagine for a paper clip, say, or a newspaper or a brick.
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All of this measuring and sorting has changed the way we think about creativity. For the Romantics, creativity’s center of gravity was in the mind. But for us, it’s in whatever the mind decides to share—that is, in the product. It’s not enough for a person to be “imaginative” or “creative” in her own consciousness. We want to know that the product she produces is, in some sense, “actually” creative; that the creative process has come to a workable conclusion. To today’s creativity researchers, the “self-styled creative person,” with his inner, unverifiable, possibly unproductive creativity, is a kind of bogeyman; a great deal of time is spent trampling on the scarf of the lone, Romantic genius. Instead, attention is paid to the systems of influence, partnership, power, funding, and reception that surround creativity—the social structures, in other words, that enable managers to reap the fruits of creative labor. Often, this is imagined to be some sort of victory over Romanticism and its fusty, pretentious, élitist ideas about creativity.
Link to the rest at The New Yorker