Are artists and writers
now merely slaves to a
The validity of the pursuit of wellbeing through creativity seems to be accepted without question by the educational establishment, the business and political worlds and the media in general. Arts organisations consider it a major part of their brief to encourage and invest in the development of creativity and we find frequent references to the 'creative industries'.
There has been a consequent repositioning of creativity itself as a kind of business asset which can be harnessed, rather than the gift which it is perceived to be by many creative individuals.
There is no consensus as to what exactly – or even loosely – creativity is, and what it might mean to those who are doing the creating, as opposed to those who are vicariously involved in the process as facilitators or investors. Over the past 20 or 30 years, a fairly lucrative industry seems to have grown up around the concept of creativity, while those who do the creating remain, with a few obvious exceptions, poor in monetary terms and largely excluded from the decision-making processes.
There is an edifice of administrators and consultants who are paid to mediate between creative practitioners and the general public, who in turn are seen as potential beneficiaries of the wellbeing therapy which creatives are supposed to provide. Now a new and even more alarming word has crept in – 'leaders' – with people being paid to lead creative ventures and to be trained in the hypothetical leadership required.
We can find many examples of the emphasis on creativity as a transformative, therapeutic activity, rather than a personal state of being. There seems, moreover, to be a largely unquestioned linking of creativity with wellbeing, which in turn results in the perception of the pursuit of creativity as a means to some socially desirable end. Creativity is all too often characterised as the key to raised self esteem, good citizenship, team building, community cohesion, collaboration and general human happiness. Alarmingly it is also seen as the answer to every employer’s prayer, giving young people the ability to ask questions, solve problems, think critically and innovate.
While these skills are certainly educationally desirable, it is debatable whether they are invariably products of creativity, or even whether they have very much to do with creativity at all. Questioning, innovating, problem- solving and reflecting critically are the key skills of a good scholar and, possibly, of a desirable employee. So is the ability to write a factual summary of a complicated situation.
The truly creative individual, however, frequently moves beyond these to make intuitive and sometimes quite uncritical leaps, doesn't necessarily care about innovating, may make some very odd connections indeed, and may not even see the value of reflecting critically about anything. And where critical reflection is an element of a practitioner’s creativity, he or she may deliberately seek out and explore uncomfortable (and sometimes politically unacceptable) truths about how we live our lives.
Creativity involves working at something which is meaningful for ourselves. We interrogate characters and events, ideas and themes, words and images, obsessively.
In fact, creative practitioners do not consider their creativity to be a wholly unmixed blessing. It can involve extremes of depression and elation, can be at once fulfilling and frustrating, energising and exhausting. Perhaps most problematic of all, from the point of view of potential employers, a significant percentage of creative people are not, in any sense, 'joiners'. They are not natural team players, nor do they wish to be, nor are they enthusiastically collaborative. On the other hand, creative people can be defiantly iconoclastic, persistently anarchic, subversive loners. Even a casual exploration of the personal lives of artists and writers reveals a catalogue of dysfunctional personalities.
Does this matter? Not at all, in terms of the art or literature they produce (although the popular media would perhaps differ). But once we begin to see artists and writers as contributors to desirable, socially acceptable norms, I think we begin to damage creativity itself. Much intensely creative endeavour is undertaken defiantly and in solitude. Even highly collaborative arts such as theatre begin with an idea and the group experience of theatrical development work is – of necessity – circumscribed by rules and rituals, most of which are designed to protect the creative impulse, the creative individual, from too much unwarranted interference by those whose job it is to contribute to that vision. Even genuinely collaborative projects such as film, or video games, only work well when there is a shared creative vision and/or a single highly creative and independent individual who is willing and able to synthesise the work of many individual contributors.
Yet throughout the media, only children are dubbed lonely, while the word loner itself is now used in an almost exclusively pejorative sense, being reserved for sociopaths, hackers and potential suicide bombers. Quietly self contained children are chastised for not joining in, while even CBeebies talks about 'core pre-school values such as teamwork'. Solitude and self sufficiency, coupled with the capacity for independent thought and action may sit uncomfortably with current ideas about creativity, especially those promoted by people who do not themselves create but who are often funded to teach the creatives how to become facilitators of a theoretically desirable form of teamwork and a kind of conformity. In many cases, this is quite the opposite of creativity – it is a thinly disguised orthodoxy.
It is safe to assume that politicians and employers might find some elements of real creativity both alarming and undesirable. I think we should not be afraid to say what we feel: that many artists and writers believe that creativity is not something to be acquired as a means to an educational, therapeutic or transformative end. Application and editorial skills can be taught. Inventiveness and originality can be encouraged. And creative people can, of course, teach and inspire others. But that is not why we create.
Creativity involves working at something which is meaningful for ourselves. We interrogate characters and events, ideas and themes, words and images, obsessively. At best, we seek to know how we might live our lives, and to respond to the world in which we find ourselves. We see this as a worthwhile activity in itself, a gift without provisos or conditions. All practitioners need to earn a living and most of us are well aware of commercial constraints, but there is a sense in which the end product and the audience – for the duration of much of the creative experience - is immaterial to the creator. While we are working, I think that many of us simply do not care what other people think. And when we do devote too much time to caring what other people think, the end product often seems to us to be unsatisfactory and unfulfilling.
Creative endeavours involve inspiration, playing with ideas, the hard work of making, obsessive thinking, and complete absorption in the act itself. These processes are mysterious and private.
For many creative people, the doing is far more important than the achieving, but such attitudes are frowned on within an increasingly prescriptive and commercialised cultural world. The end product is seen as obligatory. The pass certificate has to be achieved. There has to be something for investors to stamp their logo on, justification for their very existence. An end product can validate. It can reward (although not always or even often in monetary terms) and it can encourage. But the end product of any creative endeavour can also depress and sadden, since letting go of a piece of work, declaring it finished, can be very like a bereavement.
Creative endeavours involve inspiration, playing with ideas, the hard work of making, obsessive thinking, and complete absorption in the act itself. These processes are mysterious and private. The creator will do what he or she does, relentlessly, in spite of, rather than because of, any attempt at external 'leadership' which will be seen as a challenge. Leadership only works in this sphere where the leader is an accepted part of the creative process. We can provide the conditions which allow creativity to flourish, we can teach the skills that assist creation, but creativity should be seen as worthwhile in itself, rather than as a means to something else, however desirable that something else, for example wellbeing, may seem.
The idea of linking creativity with wellbeing must have been, I sometimes feel, an invention of those who had few truly creative impulses. Although the tortured artist is something of a myth, the creative practitioner does not necessarily feel well. He or she frequently feels very ill indeed. He or she may also be profoundly selfish. And sometimes, the creator feels nothing because he or she is in a completely different area of consciousness, from which returning to normality can be painful.
The emotional turmoil of Stephen King's crazed writer in 'The Shining', going berserk when interrupted, is only an exaggeration of a state of mind which all creative people have experienced at one time or another: the knock on the door, the unwanted telephone call, the person from Porlock, the lack of understanding that a momentary interruption can jar the writer or artist out of the world of the creation for an hour or a day or forever, and the accompanying sense of frustrated fury.
This is not to say that such total absorption happens all the time, or even very often, which is perhaps just as well for literary or artistic marriages. The 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration dictum is still valid. But we should not be persuaded to deny our own experience of the creative switchback. We must recognise that when politicians and administrators speak of 'creativity' they may mean something quite different from what is understood by the individual creative artist. Creativity can certainly be inspired in people. But it cannot be harnessed to a therapeutic, educational, political or economic agenda without ultimately doing violence both to the creator and the thing created.
Catherine Czerkawska is a playwright and author