In one of his better known essays, Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot argued that the act of artistic creativity is of necessity always an act of the subjection and integration of the individual artistic talent into the existing deposit of the artistic past. There can be no true creativity without the immersion of the self into the corpus and community of past creation. But there is another view of creativity as utter rejection of the past in favor of the completely novel, the blazing of a trail all of one’s own. And that view of creativity, it may be fair to say, is the one that predominates today. Creativity as the plowing of fresh snow that has never before been touched by human hands. It is a view that has become a model today not only for artistic activity, but also for the ordinary working person. One hears frequently about “creativity” as a corporate virtue, for example, that requires setting oneself off from the herd of other workers through some stroke of genius or brilliancy. One certainly hears about it as an academic virtue. But is there a downside to the valuation of creativity, understood in this sense?
A new book argues against this view of creativity as destructive of the possibility of community and, in turn, of genuine human flourishing: Against Creativity, by Oli Mould (Random House). Whether the issue really is “neoliberal appropriation” or instead some deeper explanation, the book looks well worth exploring.
Everything you have been told about creativity is wrong.
From line managers, corporate CEOs, urban designers, teachers, politicians, mayors, advertisers and even our friends and family, the message is ‘be creative’. Creativity is heralded as the driving force of our contemporary society; celebrated as agile, progressive and liberating. It is the spring of the knowledge economy and shapes the cities we inhabit. It even defines our politics. What could possibly be wrong with this?
In this brilliant, counterintuitive blast Oli Mould demands that we rethink the story we are being sold. Behind the novelty, he shows that creativity is a barely hidden form of neoliberal appropriation. It is a regime that prioritizes individual success over collective flourishing. It refuses to recognise anything – job, place, person – that is not profitable. And it impacts on everything around us: the places where we work, the way we are managed, how we spend our leisure time.
Is there an alternative? Mould offers a radical redefinition of creativity, one embedded in the idea of collective flourishing, outside the tyranny of profit. Bold, passionate and refreshing, Against Creativity, is a timely correction to the doctrine of our times.