Does Creativity Exist?

“Creativity does not actually exist at all.” –Monica Reuter

I just read Monica Reuter’s new book on creativity (Palgrave, 2015). She makes the provocative argument that creativity doesn’t comes from individuals; it comes from groups, and from large networks distributed through society. Creativity is always defined by influential people in society, and its definition changes depending on the country you’re in.

Reuter’s new book is academic, so only serious scholars will read it. But you’ll get the gist from these representative quotations:

  • “Creativity does not actually exist at all…it is merely those products and ideas which are so labeled in our various societies and cultures. It is a culture-bound term that is socially constructed.” (page 2)
  • “There simply is no creativity unless a group of influential people agrees that it is.” (page 14)
  • Reuter likes my book Group Genius; she writes “Sawyer leads the charge in dismantling the idea of the lonely genius.” (page 22)
  • Reuter rejects as myth the idea that creativity is linked to psychopathology. The myth persists because “we have a deep-seated need in our society to glorify creative individuals” and “We prefer the myth because we have an occasionally desperate need to retain this ideal notion of the individual genius.” (page 27)
  • “Creativity should be seen as constructed within cultural meaning systems.” (page 45) “Whether or not a product is creative depends on social judgment.” (page 49)

Reuter concludes with an interesting empirical study: She interviewed students in an applied art and design school, and asked them when they felt most creative. They said: while alone (73%), doing personal art (73%), having freedom to create (88%), and when they have passion (92%). She also interviewed prospective employers of these graduates; it turns out that they don’t value creativity that highly in hiring. Only eleven percent of employers said creativity was more important than skills. Only five percent said they wanted colleges to do a better job helping graduates be creative.

Reuter’s conclusion is pretty cynical: “What employers want are good little working ants. What students want is freedom, to work alone, passion, doing something new.” (page 73) Do you agree?

15 thoughts on “Does Creativity Exist?

  1. I would have to agree. On the whole, value, including the value of creativity, is not intrinsic to the idea, or the product, but is rather conferred by the social structure within which it is embedded. I think you make this point very well in your book, Explaining Creativity, regarding the art students that were studied by Csikszentmihalyi and Getzels (1976). Every time I read about this study it is presented as an example of the ‘problem finding’ approach which is considered to be the creative approach to art making – but you point out that such an approach would not have been as valued 200 years earlier, when artists worked within a completely different social milieu. Art history is full of examples of artists that were not valued for their creativity (Botticelli, Vermeer, Van Gogh), but became famous later, when social ideas of art and creativity changed (and vice versa). So I would say that creativity does exist, just that it is “virtual” – like the value of the green pieces of paper we keep in our wallet. In one sense they are not real, they are just pieces of paper, that we all agree to give value to. On the other hand – people live and die because of it, and that is pretty real!

  2. I absolutely do NOT agree!!! Thanks to your quotes, I will not seek out the book – will not be reading it either. I routinely quote from and refer to “Group Genius.”

  3. I agree with Reuter’s analysis of what employers vs. individuals want. If you primarily see “being creative” as a means to make yourself more attractive on the job market, this ought to be taken into account. If, however, you see creativity as being useful for personal fulfillment or creating your own value (as opposed to being “a good little ant” for your employer), creativity is still a worthwhile goal.

    As for what “creative” means, and whether it exists, I find Reuther’s comments (as excerpted, I haven’t read the book), to be a restatemet of what’s known as the “criterion problem”. The fact that there can be no general criteria for “creativity” i, and that the creativity of products is best determined by social judgment, has been discussed by many creativity researchers (e.g., Czikzentmihalyi, Amabile, Sawyer). However, many socially-constructed phenomena do exist, so I’m not necessarily prepared to accept that creativity does not exist, simply because it requires culturally-bound judgment to be recognized. I’ll need to look at her full argument to see if I find it compelling.

    All in all, it sounds like an interesting book and I look forward to reading it. Thanks for the heads-up.

  4. Whilst I accept that influences are going to come from a variety of collective sources i don’t believe that creatity requires any collective approval. Art is in the eye of the beholder and therefore only requires an audience of one to ‘legitamise’ the creativity. Imho

    1. I wonder what people who work in the art world would say about the claim that “it only takes an audience of one”? Is there anyone like that reading this? Your painting probably wouldn’t sell for very much if only one person liked it, I would guess. But you could argue that market value does not define creativity…but then, what does?

  5. What of Tesla, Newton, Van Gogh, Poe, Beethoven,Mozart, Gandhi, Franklin and Austen? If I must agree with you that creativity can only be collaborative and only in groups, defined by society and not ever by the individual, then doesn’t this actually limit creativity? If everyone did agree with you, wouldn’t we lose more transformative creatives? If there is “either/or” and no “and” in your theory, won’t your collaborative creativity become self-defeating? Maybe we need our “myths” and misfits and exceptions to the rule.

  6. This is Reuter’s claim, not mine! In fact, my 2013 book ZIG ZAG is focused on enhancing individual creativity. I think of creativity on multiple levels: individuals, groups, and organizations. We need all three!

  7. It’s an interesting argument. Might be missing a few qualifiers though. She seems to be attacking the notion of creativity, but in fact her argument may hit upon any notion or idea. For instance, like creativity, words also only have meaning because of the social aspect, and people agreeing on their meanings. Does this somehow invalidate or render insubstantial all the books and ideas that have been constituted from words? Do they also “not exist”?

    Perhaps the meanings of words “emerge” from groups in a way that the notion of creativity does not. She implies that creativity is a cultural value conferred from the top-down, I think, which seems a bit reductionist to me. ISn’t the relationship between the producers and the audience a lot more complicated than that?

  8. Also, if what she’s saying is true, then shouldn’t “creativity” be distributed evenly across societies? If all it takes is a group of influential people to determine creativity, how does she explain disparities in the creative milieus? I mean, Vienna around 1900 produced many ideas, works and innovations–in many fields. How would her argument explain this? There has to be more to it than just a group of influential thinkers annointing creative objects, although I could see how one might believe that within one’s own discipline…

  9. Good questions…My guess is she would say, what makes you think that Vienna 1900 was “more creative”? That’s your own value judgment in your society right now, she could say.

  10. I am afraid Monica Reuter is pretty much wrong about it. Most people overlook creative side because their priority demands to get going somewhere else. However, everyone is not busy in priority work. And a group is formed of individuals, so it’s totally absurd to say creativity comes from group. If you look at the final outcome as a large product coming from a collection of people that’s different thing but there are creations in every field which are individual efforts.

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