Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rethinking the Creativity Argument

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

Embracing the Creativity Concept:
It's been a decade or more since our sector embarked on a sea change in our attempt to better position the arts in the public discourse by embracing the wider concept of "creativity".  The tipping point was probably Richard Florida's publication of the The Rise of the Creative Class.  We rushed to embrace the idea that creativity was the new currency of an information world - an asset that was, and would continue to be, critically essential to growing economies in an increasingly competitive marketplace, and that the arts were at the core of creativity.  We did this I think in part because we saw it as a way to expand the appreciation for the value of the arts.  Creativity lent itself to an umbrella concept that we saw as inclusive of more than just the "arts" (at least as the "arts" are perceived) and we saw that as a way to more easily and more convincingly make the case that the arts had value to a civic society.  It was really the first open door for us in some time, and we 'ran' through it.

I was an early big fan of that approach.  I saw it as a way to appeal to businesses, the media and decision makers and a mechanism to boost the data of numbers in support of our value.  And I believe that it worked well for us.  We created new data that showed that an arts centric creativity concept was far larger and a greater dynamic than just the fine arts, and that framing the arts as part of a creative paradigm was more compelling in terms of the numbers - jobs, income generated, economic impact and so on.  Those numbers got the attention of government, businesses and the media - at least to a greater degree than our previous attempts focusing exclusively on the arts.

Over the past decade, as the creative matrix has dominated the center stage, certain difficulties with the approach have arisen.  While the creativity class argument caught the attention of the business community - we quickly recognized problems.  The business community was on a similar track over the past decade - but rather than formatting the discussion around 'creativity', they focused on a concept more easily meaningful to them -- the concept of innovation.  While we have had some success in getting them to appreciate that creativity is intricately tied to, and a part of, innovation, and while they now talk about creativity, they still don't fully embrace the two as the same concept.  Moreover, we have had very little success in convincing them of the role the arts play in fostering and nurturing creativity - at least to the extent creativity is the same thing as innovation.  The reason is apparent: It is hard to quantify creativity in any 'results' sense, let alone figure out how to effectively and consistently manage such an amorphous and elusive idea (and of course to us, the arts are what they are precisely because the creative process itself cannot be so quantified and objectified.  We see that as a value, they see that as a problem - or at least a challenge).  Then too the whole idea of creativity (or even innovation) as a new currency is difficult for the older cohort of senior management to grasp.

Government decision makers more easily appreciated that creativity and a class of workers and businesses clustered around such a concept could be significantly important in both an economic and social sense, but because - as a class - the creative workforce was largely unorganized and in no way could be counted on to act as any 'bloc', it was, and remains, difficult for politicians to see how to translate value of the creative class, and its value to society, into some kind of political currency that is workable to them.

The media initially latched on to the whole notion of a creative class, but not, I think, nearly to the extent we had hoped.  Yes, there are clearly more and more articles, books, surveys and the like that try to understand and explain 'creativity'- indeed there seems a spate of new such explorations and analyses weekly, but not nearly as much linkage of creativity to the arts as we need.  In part the media failure to fully appreciate the role of the arts in and on both the process of, and the impact on, creativity is because today the media prefers sound bites and spin to in-depth analysis and any exploration of subtle nuances.  And while the concept is appealing, it lacks the cachet of glamour and glitter, and that is anathema to the media.

So while the bigger tent provided by our embracing creativity has opened doors to us, given us additional ways to make the case for our value, and arguably even expanded the audience for our arguments, it hasn't yet anyway turned out to be the magic bullet that is our savior.

At what cost?
What bothers me is not that our embracing of the creativity concept has had problems, nor that it hasn't born all the fruits we might have hoped for - but rather that I have this nagging fear that it may not turn out to be in our best interests to have so subsumed the arts under the creativity banner.  Creativity is about process - art is the result.  In embracing the concept that the important thing is the process, I am concerned we may be marginalizing the end result - the art that comes out of the process.  By championing creativity as - if not universally within each of us as innate capacity, then something that can be both embraced and learned - I wonder if we are lessening the value of art as one of humanity's unique gifts - that which sets us apart - that which exemplifies our finest instincts.  Everyone can write, but that doesn't make everyone a great 'writer';  everyone can create, but that doesn't make everyone an 'artist'.  Mind you, I am not touting the intrinsic value of the arts argument here.  In making our case to various groups and to the wider public, I believe we need lots of arrows in our quiver - and the creative sector and 'creativity' umbrella has served us well in many regards.  But as a strategy, after a decade, it now seems to me that it is fair to question whether or not we ought to re-think, at least in part, our fully embracing creativity as a mantra over art.

I'm not questioning that the expanded creativity banner has been helpful in changing the perception that the field is much wider, deeper and broader than merely the fine arts, nor that such an expansion hasn't been beneficial - particularly in making the economic benefit argument. Nor do I mean to discount the value of the creativity framework in moving towards greater access to the arts, developing a wider audience for our stories, and even in addressing the social equity issues - though both access and equity in the creativity sphere is not the same thing as access and equity in and to the arts.  I fear that while a host of activities from design to architecture, animation to fashion, graphics to even gaming can all legitimately be framed within an arts ecosystem, creativity as the framework for that ecosystem may somehow detract from what art and artistic creation is really all about.   I'm just worried that we are losing something in moving from the arts to creativity as a jumping off place.  I am worried that we subsume the arts when we embrace creativity as that jumping off point.  And that such sublimation may not be in our ultimate long range best interest.  I fear the arts are getting lost in the vast cavern that is creativity.  I fear that as the cachet and novelty in talking about creativity wears off, the arts will be even further isolated and distant from the center point at which we want them.   I worry that creativity may be the flavor of the month (decade) and that it may not have the 'legs' the arts as a concept has.

I wonder if - despite all the positive outcomes that our moving from being the 'arts' to being the 'creative' sector has brought, we may have blurred the lines too much and lost an exalted platform from which to operate. I wonder if creativity is an even more difficult argument in the long run, than the arts are.  I wonder if we are in danger of forsaking one of our greatest assets - the perception of art as 'special' and distinct and exalted - an enterprise with a legacy more fully developed in the public consciousness - for the less defined, less meaningful creativity hodgepodge.  I wonder if everyone is creative, then what distinguishes the artist.  I'm not suggesting we abandon embracing the wider idea of creativity (of which the arts are at the core) nor am I suggesting it was a mistake in the first place.  It has probably been more of a net gain than loss - so far, but the jury is still out.   I wonder if we shouldn't move to reclaim ourselves as the arts before it is too late. I don't want the 'arts' banner to disappear under the 'creativity' banner - and I see signs that is what is happening.  I suppose this is heresy in some quarters.  But I wonder.

Have a great week.
Don't Quit.