Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

The Invention of Creativity: The Emergence of a Discourse

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

The Invention of Creativity: The Emergence of a Discourse

Article excerpt

There are few English nouns that have generated such relentlessly good publicity as the word 'creativity'. It is increasingly found scattered across the literature of the arts and sciences, industry, business management, information technology, education and government. It has been called the key to economic growth, the 'decisive source of competitive advantage', and the 'very heart' of 'wealth creation and social renewal'.1 It is also a burgeoning object of study in the humanities, where it is increasingly applied across spheres and disciplines, most notably in the new interdisciplinary schools of Creative Industries or Creative Practices (incorporating younger disciplines such as media arts, production and writing), as well as in the mainstream of the traditional humanities in the rhetoric of the 'New Humanities'.2

Given the recent surge of interest in creativity, it is surprising that from a cultural historical perspective the idea of creativity remains under-examined. Though the products of creativity have spawned a rich and diverse literature- including scholarly studies of both creative individuals and their works-much of this work is concerned with examining the end product of creativity (the finished art object) and its circulation in discourse, rather than the idea or process of creative production itself. Conversely, while the concept of creativity as a psychological and even biological attribute has become an object of intense interest in the cognitive sciences, these scientific approaches to creativity tend to overlook that which is specifically modern, cultural, historical and, indeed, profoundly political in the constitution of their object of inquiry.3

Perhaps one of the most suggestive properties of the word creativity is the late date of its emergence-making its first appearance as an abstract English noun in 1875, before entering into common usage a half century later.4 Though Raymond Williams has argued that the antecedents of the discourse are to be discerned in European culture since the Renaissance-for example, Williams cites Shakespeare as one of the first English writers to apply the word creation to human imagination, but this was, to quote Macbeth, in the largely negative sense of 'A Dagger of the Mind, a false Creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed Brain'.5 The concept of imagination as productive and positive that is entangled in the modern meaning of the word is difficult to sustain in any popular sense before the nineteenth century- and imagination as a passive, inferior or as, Samuel Johnson put it, 'vagrant faculty', was very much the hegemonic discourse until the arrival of Romantic discourse in the closing decades of the eighteenth century.6

This essay argues that the discourse of creativity is more recent and complex than Williams's hugely influential account allows. Moreover, there is a strong sense in which Williams's text needs to be read historically, as a product of the rapid expansion of the discourse of creativity through the decades of the 1950s and 1960s-as a work that seeks to celebrate the arrival of a concept that 'we should be glad of', as Williams puts it, rather than to cast a critical eye over its uses and origins.7 The essay also highlights the ways that recent studies undertaken in the context of the creative industries phenomenon have continued to portray the cultural historical narrative as one of increasing perfection. Creativity, in such accounts, is something that is seen to pre-exist both the naming and the thinking or understanding of the concept. For example, Williams's historical narrative is one in which certain exemplary writers come successively 'very near to' recognising creativity for what it is8-and more recently, for Negus and Pickering, this cultural blindness is coupled with resistance, so that it is only in the late nineteenth century that 'creativity could be explicitly named as such'.9 The problem is not just the way in which the recent flurry of creative industries narratives overlook developments in cultural historiography as it has been debated and practiced for the last thirty years (tending towards an old-fashioned presentation of narratives in which ideas are transmitted in unbroken lines from one 'great man' to the next, with little attempt to grapple with the problem of audience, or to look for their alleged origins in the world beyond the arts)-but also, these proliferating narratives or 'myths of origin' have the effect of eliding alternate paradigms and ideas of process that could more productively inform the contemporary debate. …

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