The Invention of the Creative Person

“Human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.”[1]  Is it really?  “The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation … What we can do — what America does better than anyone else — is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.”[2] Is this the first step?  Does the United States do this better than anyone else?  Who will respond to the rallying cry to live the creative life?  Today, there are a growing number of people who work in “creative industries,” and even a number of people who identify as “creatives.”  But what is a creative person?

Attempts to describe creative people often produce a baffling array of characteristics.  Creative people are described variously as introverted and extroverted, smart and naïve, playful and disciplined, rebellious and conservative, open-ended and severely critical, and more. But as one blogger observes, “most of these [descriptions] seem to focus either on an idealized vision of an artist or the blog-writer’s idealized self-image!”

As with so many of the labels that we use to identify ourselves, the creative person is an invention.  Even words like “creative,” “creator,” and “creativity” are of remarkably recent vintage.[3]  Our notion that certain individuals are creative has been shaped by significant developments in the way that modern people understand the human mind.  The creative power of the human mind was made plausible by modeling it on the readily available Christian idea of the divine creator.  As Edward Craig argues, this re-articulation of the human mind in terms of God’s actions relies heavily upon the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei as a kind of defense mechanism against the loss of the Medieval cosmos.[4]

Other forces have also shaped the way that we think about creative people.   One of the most significant has been the industrial revolution and rapid technological advances.  In an influential speech that essentially jump-started American research into the psychology of creativity, J. P. Guilford suggests that, in the face of these changes, “Eventually about the only economic value of brains left would be in the creative thinking of which they are capable.”[5] The fear of the machine and artificial intelligence continues to highlight creativity as one of the last bastions of humanity that must be nurtured and preserved lest we lose ourselves in a world of simulacra.

This anxiety works both ways.  For some, the creative person is a sinister reservoir that could spill over into an otherwise ordered and civil society.  In the eighteenth century, some likened creativity to a contagious force that can spread social and political chaos.[6]  The work of the artist, especially, was thought to be born of madness and also to breed madness.   There is no doubt that human creativity can be distorted for evil ends. It has the power to unleash monsters, and when it does we, like Dr. Frankenstein, may spend the rest of our days chasing those monsters.

Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to deconstruct the creative person.  Christine Battersby, for example, suggests that the modern concept of creative genius is a male fantasy.[7] Behind this concept, she says, lies a sort of freedom that, until very recently, only men have enjoyed in Western society.  Others question how important the creative person is for this thing we call the “creative process.”  Perhaps creative people are those who are in the right place at the right time, and they are subject to forces beyond their control.[8]

There are many Christians adding their voices to the chorus that sings the possibilities of creativity. In the midst of our culture’s present optimism about the creative potential of humanity, we must pay careful attention to the ways in which we continue to invent the identity of the creative person.  The creative person, like any identity that we construct for ourselves, can easily become an idol that we serve, a burden that sucks the life from us, or both.  The only way to ensure that our identities as creative people do not, in the end, destroy us, is to allow them to be unmade and refashioned by the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  In a post that will appear in April, I will offer some thoughts on what it means for the creative person to also say, “I have been crucified with Christ.”



[1] The Rise of the Creative Class, viii.

[2] President Barack Obama, quoted on http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/economy/innovation. Accessed March 23, 2014.

[3] The first recorded use of “creative” occurs in 1816. The word “creator” is first used to refer to human agency in 1579, and the first recorded use of “creativity” to refer to a human process occurs in 1875. See “creativity,” “creative,” and “creator” in The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol III, prepared by J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

[4] The Mind of God and the Works of Man (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987).

[5] “Creativity” The American Psychologist 5 (1950): 444-454.

[6] For interesting reading on the topic of enthusiasm and inspiration in eighteenth century writings on creativity, see Timothy Clark, The Theory of Inspiration (Manchester University Press, 2001) and William Keach, “Poetry, after 1740,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: The Eighteenth Century, ed. H. B. Nesbit and Claude Rawson, 4 (Cambridge: University Press, 1997), 147 – 150.

[7] Gender and Genius (Indiana University Press, 1990).

[8] Ironically, recent interest in the way that creative people are shaped by forces beyond their control sometimes points back to the ancient Platonic theory of inspiration.  This is seen most clearly in some forms of structuralism that make artists the unwitting subject of social and cultural forces.  Amongst psychologists working on the important social dimensions of creativity, one could point to the work Teresa Amabile and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

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3 Comments

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    I loved this the most: ‘​The only way to ensure that our identities as creative people do not, in the end, destroy us, is to allow them to be unmade and refashioned by the cross and resurrection of Jesus​.’ A great statement for all our supposed identities, not just creative ones, of course. I look forward to your post in April expanding on that theme. On the whole I think we spend too much time (we are so coddled by our self-esteem culture–myself included!) worrying about the ‘type’ of person(ality) we are–creative, intelligent, humorous, entrepreneurial, etc., and what that type of person ideally is like, then we do just getting on with the work that’s been given us or whatever is right in front of us for us to do, that very common thing in need of our attention. (For example, right now I should be writing my thesis.) Meanwhile our attention keeps being drawn to an idealized projection of our finely drawn self. Social networks generally feed this addiction, enabling the simulacrum that is our online persona. We’re stuck in a hall of mirrors, man. We need more windows. This may require breaking some of the mirrors, if we’ve erected them in front of the windows opening out upon the natural vistas which may be seen from our room. And that is one of the potentially very valuable affordances of art–truly creative aesthetic works–that they might serve as windows opening out upon reality.

    • Denny Kinlaw says:

      An unnecessary (yet enjoyable) variant of Travis’ lucid comment:

      “Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun. But after a while, getting used to the vision, and not liking the genuine draught from chaos, commonplace man daubs a simulacrum of the window that opens onto chaos, and patches the umbrella with the painted patch of the simulacrum. That is, he has got used to the vision, it is part of his house-decoration. So that the umbrella at last looks like a glowing open firmament, of many aspects. But alas, it is all simulacrum, in innumerable patches.” -D.H. Lawrence

      • Travis Buchanan says:

        Of course Lawrence would speak of man’s wonderful erection. Seriously, this is a great thought–thank you for posting it. Here’s George Steiner approaching the same truth:

        In a manner evident and yet mysterious, the poem or the drama or the novel seizes upon our imaginings. We are not the same when we put down the work as we were when we took it up. To borrow an image from another domain: he who has truly apprehended a painting by Cézanne will thereafter see an apple or a chair as he had not seen them before. Great works of art pass through us like storm-winds, flinging open the doors of perception, pressing upon the architecture of our beliefs with their transforming powers.

        A clear-paned window (or Lawrence’s slit in the umbrella) is perhaps too clear and transparent a thing to compare a work of art too, and does not offer enough respect for the art’s own unique presence or being in the world. When we look out through a clear window we are unaware of the window itself, focused instead on whatever it is that lies beyond it that happens to have captured our attention. The apostle Paul’s ‘through a glass darkly’ might be more appropriate–stained glass perhaps would do better than my original window (and happily brings sacred associations). Iain McGilchrist (2009) has written helpfully and illuminatingly on this semi-opaque and so semi-transparent quality to art by and through which we are granted a vision of the outside world or reality, as it were, in a way which gives full recognition to the existence of the work of art in its own right. He says:

        A painting is not a thing in the world: nor is it just a representation of the world. In a marvellous phrase of Merleau-Ponty’s, we do not see paintings, as much as see according to them. They are, like people, and the forms of the natural world, neither just objective things, nor mere representations of things: they permit us to see through, and according to, themselves. They have a semi-opaque (or semi-transparent) quality, not disappearing altogether, in which case some reality or other would be seen in their place, a reality which they would no more than represent. No, they have reality of their own. But equally they are not mere things, existing ‘out there’ independent of us or whatever else it is that exists. We are aware of them but see through them, see the world according to them. To take the example of the Claude painting: we neither allow our eye simply to rest on the pure thing in front of us, a canvas measuring such and such, with so and so patches of blue, green and brown on it, nor do we see straight through it, as though ignorant that we are looking at a painting, and imagining we look through a window. Equally with poetry: language does often function as if it were transparent, when we are reading a piece of prose, and unaware of its facticity. But in poetry the language itself is present to us—semi-transparent, semi-opaque; not a thing, but a living something that allows us to move through it and beyond, though never allowing the language to disappear as though it played no part in the whatever it is beyond language that it yields to us. (183–84)

        I’m sure you have your own lucid opinion on the matter too, Denny, which I would enjoy hearing sometime.

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