Discussion of Anxious Creativity and the 900-student creativity course taught at the University of California, Irvine by David Trend.
Discussion of Anxious Creativity and the 900-student creativity course taught at the University of California, Irvine by David Trend.
History has shown that crisis brings out creativity, as people find themselves facing unexpected challenges and innovating out of necessity. Countless innovations and scientific breakthroughs have come from disasters and wars – penicillin, jet engines, and the internet to name but a few. Can we muster this same energy in these stay-at-home days of coronavirus?
I’ve been getting this question from University of California undergraduates in a creativity class I teach (now online, of course). Many are looking to creativity to feel better, but say they don’t know how. I reply that we are all acting creatively in countless ways, but rarely recognize our actions as such.
There is nothing unusual in this creative disconnect. Recent surveys show 80% of the American public seeing creativity as essential to their lives and work, but that 70% think they just don’t have it in them. Much of this comes from misguide views about creativity, often coming from stereotypes about natural talent, inherent genius, and artistic originality.
The problem has structural roots. For years researchers have reported a “creativity crisis” in American schools and business, generally due to risk-avoidance owing to economic anxiety. Students are obsessed with grades and future earnings, while companies stick with what already works. This results in a climate of lingering anxiety, only amplified by a fear-driven formulas of much news and entertainment.
With nowhere to turn, a stressed-out America now runs to the now-booming self-help industry, which promises salvation in finding one’s “inner artist” or regaining the “magic” of childhood. The coronavirus epidemic has pushed this trend to new heights, as consumers search for answers from external sources.
The result is a growing panic as people scramble to find, build, or otherwise maximize their creative profiles – often blaming themselves when they fail. And of course failure is inevitable, since recognized forms of creative success place it out of reach for ordinary citizens. An entrenched culture of media celebrity props up this view.
It’s time to view creativity as the universal quality it really is. All of us have it, just like we have intelligence. But like the failures of I.Q. testing long ago revealed, the problem lies in valuing only certain types of ability. This not only leaves out anyone who isn’t an “artist,” but it’s often loaded with biases against those lacking the time or resources to gain conventionally-recognized skills.
Especially in this moment of crisis, we need to embrace the “everyday creativity” in the typical things we do in solving simple problems, improvising around the house, or making a meal from leftovers. The online popularity of DIY mask-making is a great example of this, although, once again, few see this activity as a “creative” pursuit. Ditto for postings on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter –– all so ubiquitous that their creativity seems inconsequential.
This dismissal of everyday creativity also comes in part from beliefs that “creative” always means something “new” or “original.” The truth is that most famous creatives borrowed from the past or built of work by others. Michelangelo copied classical sculpture, much as Shakespeare did with ancient myths. And no, Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone by himself.
Cognitive science says that mimicry is an essential part of human learning and communication. Researchers explain that most creativity is “combinational” in that we put together already known or found elements to create something else (like decorating a room). This can lead to “exploratory” creativity when combinations produce unpredicted outcomes (making up a new recipe). Creativity never comes from a vacuum.
Generosity is another important part of creativity. This is because nearly all creative acts are done with someone or with some recipient in mind. Psychology long has recognized that doing for others returns self-esteem to the giver. In everyday creativity this comes from that satisfaction of begin appreciated, needed, or simply connected to others.
One joyful example of this of such social creativity is the global “clap-for-carers” phenomenon happening daily all around the world. Usually at 7 or 8 pm, homebound people go to their windows and doorways, and start clapping, hooting, or banging pans to recognize health care workers who are risking themselves to save lives.
It’s a spontaneous creativity much like that seen at rock concerts, now transformed as a collective affirmation. The beauty of these ordinary forms of creativity lies in their availability to everyone. We all can be creative if we realize that we indeed to have it in us, use it all the time, and need to give ourselves credit.
Just released: Creativity is getting new attention in today’s America –– along the way revealing fault lines in U.S. culture. Surveys show people overwhelming seeing creativity as both a desirable trait and a work enhancement, yet most say they just aren’t creative.
Like beauty and wealth, creativity seems universally desired but insufficiently possessed. Businesses likewise see innovation as essential to productivity and growth, but can’t bring themselves to risk new ideas. Even as one’s “inner artist” is hyped by a booming self-help industry, creative education dwindles in U.S. schools.
Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails examines this conceptual mess, while focusing on how America’s current edginess dampens creativity in everyone. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Anxious Creativity draws on current ideas in the social sciences, economics, and the arts. Discussion centers on the knotty problem of reconciling the expressive potential in all people with the nation’s tendency to reward only a few. Fortunately, there is some good news, as scientists, economists, and creative professionals have begun advocating new ways of sharing and collaboration. Building on these prospects, the book argues that America’s innovation crisis demands a rethinking of individualism, competition, and the ways creativity is rewarded.
Available from all major booksellers. More info at: https://www.routledge.com/Anxious-Creativity-When-Imagination-Fails-1st-Edition/Trend/p/book/9780367275068
Can robots be taught to imagine? Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence group is doing just that –– developing computer versions of what many consider humanity’s quintessential trait. The software world long has pursued sentient consciousness as its holy grail. But until now, it’s only been found in science fiction movies like A.I., Ex Machina, and Transcendence. DeepMind engineers say they have cracked the code by combining two kinds of machine-learning. The first is linear, which is nothing new, with the computer applying a predefined algorithm over-and-over till it finds answers and then remembering them. In the second more radical approach, the computer tries many algorithms to find which work best, and then changes the very way it approaches problems. Combining the purely linear with a more systemic approach, DeepMind’s “Imagination-Augmented Agent” mimics intuitive learning in a way prior software hasn’t. It’s not exactlythe same as human imagination, but it comes closer than ever before to what neuroscientists say the brain does.
While robotic imagination may be improving, human thought isn’t faring as well. Most people feel uncreative and without inspiration, as discussed in earlier chapters. Corporations say innovation is withering as well. Novelist Ursula Le Guin recently observed that, “In America today imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work.”[i]Beyond the abandonment of a creative genre or two, American society also is undergoing a wholesale commodification of imagination itself. Disney is most famous for this, its “Imagineering” (imagination + engineering) brand one of the most viciously protected anywhere. But hundreds of companies evoke imagination to conjure an aura of specialness ––seen in promotions like Bombay Safire’s “Infused with Imagination,” GE’s “Imagination at Work,” Electrolux’s “Power to Capture Imagination,” Lego’s “Imagine,” Microsoft’s “Imagine Academy,” Nestle’s “Feed your Imagination,” Samsung’s “Imagine,” and Sony’s “Made of Imagination.”
The connection of imagination to commercial products reflects the powerful linkage of purchasing to consumer self-image. Expressing oneself through buying brings a passing feeling of agency, maybe even of accomplishment. Some critics say that shopping is more meaningful than voting for many Americans. Henry A. Giroux speaks of “disimagination” in describing how public consciousness is overwritten in this process, as people lose abilities to imagine on their own. To Giroux “The power to reimagine, doubt, and think critically no longer seems possible in a society in which self-interest has become the ‘only mode of force in human life and competition’ and ‘the most efficient and socially beneficial way for that force to express itself.’” Going even further, Giroux links disimagination to a rising collective amnesia, stating “What I have called the violence of organized forgetting signals how contemporary politics are those in which emotion triumphs over reason, and spectacle over truth, thereby erasing history by producing an endless flow of fragmented and disingenuous knowledge.”
Imagination can be seen positively, of course. With this in mind, much of this chapter exploresways people can envision a better and more just world. Obviously this might take a little encouragement in an age of disimagination. But it’s far from impossible. Most definitions describe imagination as the mental process behind creativity, as seen in the Oxford Dictionary: “Imagination: The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.” Put another way, creativity is imagination actualized for a purpose –– generally assumed a positive one. As stated by a leading expert in the field, “Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It’s applied imagination.” Dig a little deeper into this lexicon, and one finds that very problem that worries Le Guin and Giroux. A quick look at Roget’s Thesauruslists such synonyms for “imaginative” as “dreamy,” “fanciful,” “fantastic,” “quixotic,” “romantic, and “whimsical.” Nice as these sound, such vaporous associations equate imagination with the same romantic idealism and inconsequentiality dogging creativity. This explains why advertisers seem so keen on imagination. As one marketing firm put it, “We don’t see imagining as a real task. It’s an enjoyable game. By asking a prospect to imagine something, you bypass that critical part that throws up objections, and sneak into their mind through the back door of the imagination.”
How about seeing imagination differently? Maybe as a roadmap for one’s life or future? Or a way to imagine important people in one’s life? Perhaps even a vision for community, country, and the larger world? After all, isn’t society itself an imaginary construct? Doesn’t everyone want to make it better? To Le Guin, “To train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.” She concludes that “Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.”
By David Trend:
Heard about Generation Z? The demographic growing up in the 2000s? It’s a bigger group than Boomers or Millennials–––and it has one further distinction. “Members of Generation Z are ‘digital natives’ who cannot remember what it was like not to have access to the Internet –– no matter when, no matter what, no matter where,” according to Forbes Magazine. This is a group raised on networked “connecting” with others, sharing, and buying things. It’s second nature to Gen-Zers to upload their favorite music on YouTube, post images on Facebook, and sell things on Etsy or eBay. Much is being made in creative economy talk of how networks now blur traditional producer/ consumer roles, manifest in the new figure of the “prosumer.” In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Prescott and Anthony D. Williams effused over the democratization inherent in the new “Openness, Peering, Sharing and Acting Globally.” Of course, there is nothing really new about home-made items, crafts, and people’s willingness to share. What’s different today is the ability to copy digitized materials and circulate them via electronic networks. Digitization also has made Generation Z the first demographic to be completely tracked by “big data” analytics.
Some creativity industry experts argue that this is nothing short of a revolution, driven by ongoing change more than any clear future. Evolutionary economist Jason Potts and collaborators have proposed what they term “Social Network Markets” unlike the top-down models of industrial capitalism. Characterized by fluidity and exchange through complex fields of actors, the new social network markets are less governed by competition and profit than by communication and preference. Participants are “Not ‘buying’ the property, but buying into the social space.” Moreover, the dynamics of these new markets are highly interactive. As the Potts group put it, “a social network is defined as a connected group of individual agents who make production and consumptions decisions based on the actions (signals) of other agents on the social network: a definition that gives primacy to communicative actions rather than connectivity alone.” Almost by definition, this process rules out conventional manufacturing or professional services. Instead, the networks generate value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices.”
The beauty is that much of what is online now is free––seeming to arrive just in time in a tight economy. While a lot of the “free” stuff available online is user-generated (selfies, birthday announcements, anecdotal postings, etc.), a huge volume of material comes from other sources (news outlets, filmmakers, commercial music producers, artists). On the surface it looks like old Marxist doctrines are being reversed as items seem to be “decommodified” in the sharing economy. This idea has become an anthem of resistance in some circles. The Burning Man Festival, to take one example, has stated: “When we commodify we seek to make others, and ourselves, more like things, and less like human beings. ‘Decommodification,’ then, is to reverse this process. To make the world and the people in it more unique, more priceless, more human.” This may be all well-and-good in the real-life sharing of food and weed at Burning Man. But when things get virtual, it’s usually a large corporation that owns the websites, servers, and networks that make sharing possible. Continue reading “Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else”
By David Trend:
Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature? Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.? Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?
I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency. Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization. Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues. My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand. But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.
Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over. We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”
By David Trend
“The central question upon which all creative living hinges is: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures hidden within you?” With this entreaty, author Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her recent bestseller Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which offered an artistic cure for an anxious American culture.[i] Speaking directly to widespread feelings of disaffection and powerlessness, Big Magic romanticized artistry in Gilbert’s signature blend of sentiment and cliché––packaging familiar views (human creativity, divine creativity, etc.) with a self-help twist about creating one’s “self” in new and better ways. While one easily can write off Big Magic as yet another feel-good advice book (which it surely is), I think it’s time to take Gilbert’s approach to creativity seriously and ponder why such ideas now get so much traction.
Publicity doesn’t hurt. Reviewers effused over Big Magic as a “book-length meditation on inspiration” (Newsday) to “unlock your inner artist” (Woman’s Day) and “dream a life without limits” (Publishers’ Weekly).[ii] This message resonated well with the rising chorus promoting creativity as an innovation engine and economic tonic. While no one would dispute the positive benefits of a little artistic dabbling, at what point does such wishful thinking begin to border on delusion? Or put another way, when does fantasy paper over reality? Might it be that America’s fondness for make-believe is party behind the nation’s political confusion and disaffection? Do fairy-tale versions of life infantilize a citizenry that should know that answers don’t always come easily? Certainly the fantasy-version of reality offered by certain politicians would fail any thoughtful analysis. But instead, many leaders continue treating their constituents like children, with entire governments encouraging populations to set worries aside and simply “Be Creative.”
In Magical Thinking and the Decline of America, historian Richard L. Rapson took a long look at the nation’s romantic idealism. “Probably in no other society of the world can one write the script for one’s life as completely as United States. This fact has made the nation the ‘promised land’ for much of the world over the past two centuries,” Rapson wrote. “The flight into endless self-improvement and innocent optimism has a long lineage in our past.”[iii] Perhaps anticipating Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Rapson pointed to the disconnection between America’s self-image as an “exceptional” driver of human history, and the growing evidence of the nation’s falling fortunes. This has led to what Rapson described as a growing “flight from knowledge and reality into faith and fantasy,” resulting in large part from “an American public increasingly in thrall to the fairytales told by the mass media.”[iv] It also promotes a “cultural fixation on the individual, the personal, the biographical, the confessional, and, all too often, the narcissistic,” and hence the rise of new “magic words” like “self-awareness,” “personal growth” and other aphorisms promoting everyone to “be all that you can be.”[v]
Individualism lies at the heart of American idealism, dating to the country’s Enlightenment Era origins, when the autonomous subject was invented as a counterpoint to deific and royal authority. Necessary as individualism was (and remains), no one could have predicted how its value could be magnified and distorted in neoliberal times. The initial affirmation of personal identity, which encouraged people to vote and participate in society, soon morphed into “striving to get ahead” and “winning at any cost.” Eventually the “self” would become an American obsession of theological proportions. “The purpose of nearly all the current gospels is to put believers ‘in touch’ with themselves,” Rapson further explained.[vi] This new brand of secular “faith” also comports well with the religiosity many Americans still profess, especially evangelical strains that promise economic gain to dutiful worshippers. Continue reading “Creative Magic”
“What you have to understand about Trump, first of all, is that he’s a performance artist, not a politician,” explained filmmaker Michael Moore (one of the first public figures to predict Trump’s election). In recent months, considerable attention has been given the President’s apparent distain of reality or what some nominally call “truth.” But maybe its time to look at Trump’s “creative” approach to factuality in a different way. Say what you will about The Donald, his ability to get public attention is astonishing. And while some critics question the President’s grasp of “reality,” others see a calculated shrewdness in his behavior––an underlying strategy not unlike what Naomi Klein discussed in The Shock Doctrine.
Is this veteran huckster simply putting on an act?
After all, aren’t all politicians “performers” in some sense of the term? You would expect that in an age of media spectacle most Americans are accustomed to this idea. The problem is that many still yearn for authenticity in their leaders’ words and deeds. Hungering for a vision of a better world, voters will cast aside doubts about a candidate’s claims and promises––only to be disappointed when reality sets in. This partly explains why Americans have become cynical about democracy. One often hears laments for idealized past when “truth” prevailed, that it could be recognized it when it appeared, and that the concept informed America’s behavior in the world. In actuality, Americans (and their politicians) have always had a “creative” relationship with the truth. Might the President simply be taking this tradition to its logical end?
A discourse quietly has begun percolating in recent months, which places Trump’s antics in the realm of artistic expression. And if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Before the recent election cycle, Trump’s most visible role had been that of a media showman in various incarnations of his well-known Apprentice TV shows. His books The Art of the Deal (1987), The Art of Survival (1991), and The Art of the Comeback (1997) are peppered with references to his “creative” financing and bookkeeping. A quintessential proponent of creative capitalism, Trump wrote that “Deals are my art form. Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry. I make deal’s, preferably big deals.”Art itself is a “con” to Trump, who once quipped that “successful painters are better salesmen and promoters than they are artists.” The Trump family has made a fortune from the creative economy –– from Donald Trump’s own entertainment enterprises, to Melania Trump’s career as a fashion model, to Ivanka Trump’s clothing and accessory lines, to Donald Trump, Jr’s. real estate investments in New York’s artistic East Village. Recently, famed performance artist Karen Finley put the matter bluntly in stating that “Donald Trump owes all of his wealth to arts and culture.”
The Trump-as-performance-artist premise isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Entrepreneurial success often hinges on creative traits like imagination, novelty-seeking, risk taking, and “thinking outside the box.” Also, the President’s iconoclastic slash-and-burn assault on liberal sensibilities fits within certain well-established aesthetic traditions. Dada and Surrealist artists of the early-20th century delighted in upsetting bourgeois sensibilities. Often linked to anarchist movements of the time, Dadaist “anti-art” upended conventional logic, aesthetics, and morality to shake up a complacent society and open the way toward a better world. André Breton’s Surrealist manifesto of 1924 advocated “the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” One outraged reviewer in American Art News called the movement “the most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.” Continue reading “The Performance-Artist-in-Chief”
It’s not always easy living up to one’s ideals, either personally or as a nation. Americans like to think of the United States as a welcoming place where everyone has equal chance. But historical baggage and anxious times can make such generosity difficult.Behind the America’s mythic open door, newcomers often find that civic belonging comes with strings attached––riddled with conditions, limitations, and in some instances, punitive rites of passage. And for those already here, new rationales emerge to challenge civic belonging on the basis of belief, behavior, or heritage. This book uses the term “elsewhere” in describing conditions that exile so many citizens to “some other place” through prejudice, competition, or discordant belief. Even as “diversity” has become the official norm in American society, the country continues to fragment along new lines that pit citizens against their government, each other, and even themselves. Yet in another way, “elsewhere” evokes an undefined “not yet” ripe with potential. In the face of daunting challenges, elsewhere can point to optimism, hope, and common purpose.
Elsewhere in America uses the concept of “belonging” to frame a uniquely multidisciplinary exploration of division and marginalization in the U.S.––in a study encompassing material conditions, discursive contexts, and affective states. Through 12 detailed chapters, Elsewhere in America applies critical theory in the humanities and social sciences in examining recurring crises of social inclusion in the U.S. After two centuries of struggle and incremental “progress” in securing human dignity, today the U.S. finds itself riven apart by new conflicts over reproductive rights, immigration, health care, religious extremism, sexual orientation, mental illness, and fears of terrorists. Why are U.S. ideals of civility and unity so easily hijacked and confused? Is there a way of explaining this recurring tendency of Americans to turn against each other? Elsewhere in America engages these questions in charting the ever-changing faces of difference (manifest in contested landscapes of sex and race to such areas as disability and mental health), their spectral and intersectional character (as seen in the new discourses on performativity, normativity, and queer theory), and the grounds on which categories are manifest in ideation and movement politics (seen in theories of metapolitics, cosmopolitanism, dismodernism).
Many of us think about a better world. But opinions may vary over how to get there, and especially about what “there” we want. The imagination and realization of worlds has become a driving force in “real” and ”virtual” environments, with both negative and positive consequences. Worlding: Identity, Media, and Imagination in a Digital Age explores the many realms of experience we inhabit as we move back-and-forth between reality and representation in our daily lives. But in doing so, Worlding concentrates on ways of improving our common existence. As discussed throughout this book, “worlding” can be selfless or selfish. It can reinforce what exists or point to something else. But it can never be neutral. Throughout this book, “worlding” will be examined as a word, an argument, and a possibility.
Worlding is a word. You won’t find the term worlding in any dictionary, even though the term has been in use for nearly a century. Martin Heidegger popularized the neologism in his 1927 Being and Time to mean “being-in-the-world.”The idea was to use a verb signifying something ongoing and generative, which could not be reduced to either a philosophical state or a scientific materiality. Since then worlding has appeared dozens of times in philosophy, politics, cultural studies, and technology studies. The word has been appropriated, contested, but never quite pinned down––and so retains a remarkable flexibility. In “Ways of Worlding,” P.J. Rusnak catalogues many of the ways worlding has been treated in different disciplines and for varying purposes. Noting the term’s Heideggerian ontology, Rusnak cites worlding in discussions of colonialism and imperialism, secularism and faith, patriarchy and heteronormality, utopian and dystopian futurism, aesthetics and artistic expression, online networking and virtual community building, ecology and sustainability, proprioception and kinesthesia, pedagogy and situated learning. Linguists have taught us that terms like “worlding” work less as fixed essences than as mediators of differences among the utterances and concepts around them. But this undetermined character hardly makes “worlding” innocent, deriving as it does from a noun referencing concepts of origins, boundaries, ethnicities, governance, and even consciousness itself. It is to this broad vision of worlding that this book dedicates itself.