The Rise and Rise of Creativity

Utterly fascinating piece by Steven Shapin, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, exploring the way in which creativity entered modern discourse. It’s quite shocking to learn that creativity was barely mentioned before the 1920s and that its adoption as a defining human characteristic can be traced back to post-World War Two economic and political concerns:

Creativity was a moment in the history of academic psychology. As an expert-defined category, creativity was also summoned into existence during the Cold War, together with theories of its identity, distinctions between creativity and seemingly related mental capacities, and tests for assessing it. But creativity also belongs to the history of institutions and organisations that were the clients for academic psychology – the military, business, the civil service and educational establishments. Creativity was mobilised too in the moral and political conflict between supposedly individualistic societies and their collectivist opponents, and it was enlisted to talk about, defend and pour value over US conceptions of the free-acting individual. This served to surround creativity with an aura, a luminous glow of ideology.

The Cold War ended, but the rise of creativity has continued. Many of its expert practices have been folded into the everyday life of organisations committed to producing useful novelty, most notably high-tech business, the management consultancies that seek to serve and advise innovatory business, and other institutions that admire high-tech business and aim to imitate its ways of working. That normalisation and integration have made for a loss of expert control. Many techniques other than defining and testing have been put in place that are intended to encourage making the new and useful, and the specific language of creativity has tended to subside into background buzz just as new-and-useful-making has become a secular religion. Should this continue, one can imagine a future of creativity without ‘creativity’.
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