Creativity, we are told, is the key to problem-solving and success. But the concept has become an empty buzzword of the corporate world, glorifying rampant individualism. We need to reclaim creativity as a collective attribute of communities, not individuals, and look to people at the margins of society, not Silicon Valley executives, for new ideas on how to be creative, argues Oli Mould.
One night in New York, I exited a Midtown bar with a friend, having just taken in a typical Broadway mega-musical. Before we had the chance to get our bearings, an unkempt man dressed in an ill-fitting bomber jacket and a New York Yankees beanie confronted us. Before I could formulate an excuse to leave, he broke into song. He had the most exquisite voice. It would not have sounded out of place in the show I had watched that night.
The lyrics included a request for money. He was (or so he sang) only a few dollars short of the price of a Broadway musical course in which he was going to be top of the class. Of course, I obliged. Could my money help him turn his life around and enter the magical and creative world of Broadway? Would his name soon be inscribed in neon above the bustling Manhattan streets?
Here was a guy down on his luck, sleeping rough in the streets, but possessing a talent for song, comedy and salesmanship, hoping to be the next Broadway star. He was being very creative, wasn’t he?
Creativity has become a neutral, vacuous and universally appealing buzzword for processes that for centuries have been shown to create unequal and unjust societies.
The more I thought about it though, the answer I hit on was no. Talented? Absolutely. Creative? This man clearly had a gift, and he was using it in a way that many others with similar talent use it: he was selling it. This man, who found himself without a home at the hands of a society that has excluded him, was doing what he thought he must do in order to survive. He was using the talents he had just to scrape by, so he could perform again the following day, and every other day, over and over and over again.
Creativity, as its evangelists will tell you is what we all need to excel in this world. A great new product, the answer to a stubborn problem, using old things in new efficient ways; human creativity is the fairy dust that will propel society towards liberty and progress.
But dig a little deeper and what is it that we are actually being told to do? Business leaders are asking us to be more creative with lower wages and no safety net. They are proposing out-sourcing, freelancing and zero-hour contracts because they encourage flexible – and therefore a more creative – working life. Politicians tell social and public services that have had their funding slashed, to find alternative funds via creative means. But this rhetoric masks the usual tropes of the increased precarity of the workforce, austerity and the spread of commercialised activities.
Creativity needs to be redefined as a collective attribute that looks beyond inward, competitive and profit-generating practices toward a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous future.
Today, the system that causes the homelessness that bedeviled the talent man that asked me for money – and the other related global injustices: precariousness, racism and the emboldening of fascism, massive inequality, global health epidemics, climate change and the rest – is the very same system that tells us we must unleash the inner ‘creative’ to progress. But really, all this particular narrative of creativity does is produce more of the same problems that already exist; in some cases, it exacerbates them. Creativity has become a neutral, vacuous and universally appealing buzzword for processes that for centuries have been shown to create unequal and unjust societies.
Yet, there is hope. Creativity can be considered something far more useful; it just needs to be redefined as a collective attribute that looks beyond inward, competitive and profit-generating practices toward a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous future.
There are countless examples around the world of communities that are being truly creative in that they are envisioning entirely new societies outside the tyranny of capitalism.
Take the city of Cherán in Mexico for example, a city ravaged by criminal loggers and corrupt politicians. That was until 2011, when the local community, led by women, ran the loggers and the mayor out of town and has never looked back. The city refused to participate in the most recent presidential elections in 2018, do not have a police force and is governed by the people. Since 2011, crime has dropped to nearly zero, the forests are being regrown and the residents could not be happier.
And what of creative people? Are the tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley really pushing the boundaries of creativity or using its alluring vagueness to mask their attempts to make us more addicted to their products? What about disabled people who are creating entirely alien experiences of the world? People who are deaf, blind, bipolar, are experiencing the world in radically different and creative ways. Take synaesthesia for example – it is a condition in which the senses are fused, and people can see music or hear colour. People with synaesthesia include the musicians Pharrell Williams, Tori Amos and the artist Melissa McCraken. And to those viewers in the UK, who would forget Rosie Alying-Ellis’ ‘deaf dance’ on Strictly Come Dancing which showed just how beautiful dancing to silence can be. They are using their different perceptions of the world to create artistic interpretations of a world the rest of us will never be able to experience. Yes, these experiences are bought and sold, but they stem from people who have a radical interpretation of the world. Disabled people glimpse parts of the world ‘normal’ people do not, they show us new experiences and emotions that otherwise would not exist. Is that not really what it is to be creative? Rather than placing them at the margins of society, cutting their benefits and excluding them from our public spaces with hostile architectures and austerity politics, they should be at the forefront of society, showing the rest of us what experiences there are to be had in this world.
We face multiple omnicidal threats in this tumultuous world – planetary environmental catastrophe, the re-emergence of institutionalised fascism, technological dystopia, rampant income inequality, billionaire escapism fantasies and the rest – in order to think through these problems, we can’t just think ‘creatively’, we first need to radically rethink what it means to be creative in the first place.