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?