Denied Economies and Creative Performances by Kerry Thomas


Kerry Thomas, 2012, Rumination, Chicago

Kerry Thomas, 2012, Rumination, Chicago

What has the economy got to do with creative performances and the making of artists and their artworks?

Over the last ten years I have been researching creative practice in university art school studios and senior school art classrooms. The focus has been on how students ‘invest’ in the creative life, oftentimes seeking to become creative artists, and working under pressure of high stakes assessments, to produce creative artefacts – paintings, drawings, installations, digital media works and so on. The related issue of what role, if any, do their teachers play in assisting them in the development of their creative performances and in what they make has also been investigated.

What my colleagues and I have uncovered is that students in the university art school and senior school art classroom tend to explain creativity as innate, a natural attribute or a part of their personalities. Students prize their creative autonomy as if it uniquely stems from their inner resources where truth to the self is paramount in the realisation of expression. For some, belief in the self extends to a nostalgic reverie or fetishization. This belief in the self is widely normalised and legitimised through regular formal assessments conducted in school based or university coursework where the focus tends to privilege the capacities of individual students with regard to how their ideas and processes evolve from one assessment episode to the next, and end of year exhibitions. Belief in the self as a cause of creativity is a view that coheres with popularist community conceptions made all the more spectacular today by the media hype that surrounds the uniqueness of the artist and their experience as celebrated in retrospective blockbuster exhibitions and biennales held in major galleries and museums internationally.

In the main, students’ discourses roughly cohere with the legacy of Romantic and Modernist traditions in aesthetics and art, romantically reinterpreted, while loosely drawing on their folk knowledge of psychological research into creativity over the last fifty years. For instance, one might claim they are a good lateral thinker, a legacy of Guilford, and another that their creative impulse is prompted by a deep personal experience that resonates with Dewey’s concept of experience and coheres with a powerful discourse in C20th century art that privileges feeling as the cause of making art. Another might say it is their natural facility with certain materials such as paint or digital media that causes their creativity, although they may not be sure of where they are headed, echoing a moving target concept as proposed by Tomas in the late 1950s.

The research has also revealed that students, despite a belief in creative autonomy, are often at a loss in how to proceed. Those most involved repeatedly reveal their intense desire to be on the look out for ideas and concepts, materials and other resources, along with people and institutions that offer them support while contributing to the stockpile of their own resources. Paradoxically, such acquisitions are rarely recognised explicitly or as part of an exchange but rather are more often than not conceived of as a stroke of good luck, the result of human kindness or perhaps as a moment of inspiration, contributing to an enhanced belief in the artist’s intuition. For instance, students talk about critical moments when a teacher offers them a reassurance that indicates they believe that the student ‘had something’ which the student reflects on with deep affection while tactfully not revealing the actual detail of what transpires. On the other hand, they might be suspicious of an apparent intervention by a teacher, weighing up a perceived violation of their own intentionality. On another occasion, an idea drawn from an exhibition may be forgotten in time in the belief that it was always part of their repertoire.

Handbook Of Research On Creativity

Handbook Of Research On Creativity

How can we understand these paradoxical aspects of the students’ emerging creative practice? When we examine the literature, theories of the creative process underrepresent the sociality of creative practice while over determining its means-ends basis. Those theories that focus on creativity as a system, as proposed by Csikszentmihalyi[1] and others that seek to differentiate how creativity occurs as an interaction between an individual, domain and field are helpful. All the same they lack the fine grain needed for identifying causes that emerge in the micro moments of a history of practice that contributes to creative performances and the outcomes of those performances.

The French realist philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu provides a key to understanding these paradoxes in his theory of practice that can be applied to creative practice in the senior classroom and art school, and the artworld more widely. For Bourdieu practices that exist within different fields of cultural production form up as denied economies, or economies that refuse to declare themselves as such. They entail double truths and contradictory logics. Everything is done to maintain the denied economy, also explained as an economy of symbolic goods. Propensities towards reciprocity, identification, recognition, gratitude and the production of belief and its reproduction become hallmarks in such economies which are collectively shared so that particular social and material actions are not viewed as having an economic advantage.

Bourdieu’s concepts of the ‘habitus’, ‘symbolic capital’ and misrecognition’[2] are particular instructive. Bourdieu describes the habitus as a social competency located in time and place that inscribes the actions of individuals, groups and institutions, in particular practices. The habitus occurs as a product of history, although it is forgotten as history. Access to capital within a habitus involves the investment in, and circulation of, scarce resources that are desired and believed in and are highly sought after, although they are misrecognised as capital. Thus contrary to popular wisdom that conceives of the art school as a site of freedom or of finding one’s self, this is only one aspect of the truth: the senior art classroom and university art studio can also be viewed as cases of the habitus that become sites of struggle and competition for scarce resources where a virtue is made of misrecognising economic dimensions. Both aspects are critical in the double truth and economy of creative practice.

As such, the habitus is dependent on the capacities of players – teachers, students, and others who watch on – to maintain the social order in their belief in creative autonomy or at lease a desire to believe, even though their actions regularly violate their beliefs. Those who are most likely to prosper in this denied economy are best able to manage duplicated actions enacted as a savoir-faire or ‘feel for the game’ in their hunt for the acquisition of scares resources and in their pursuit of the creative life. The players’ actions do not strictly occur by a necessary calculation or strategic masterminding of events but rather through conduct that is perceived as honourable or ‘the only thing to do’. Time is dedicated to not only the search for successful outcomes but the maintenance of the fiction of creative autonomy which is upheld in the belief that the player is worthy of the honour and the game is worth the effort.

What emerges is that creativity is ‘caught’ rather than either taught or learned as a lock-step creative process, or occurring as a natural talent. It develops as a social knowledge and in an embodied way, similar to the acquisition of a second language, in the incremental adjustments and ineffaceable cuttings that are made to a player’s dispositions and readiness for the game. In the shorter and longer term these dispositions contribute to a player’s capacity to anticipate the game and thus escalate their chances of profit: but even then there is no watertight guarantee.

[1]See Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). A systems perspective on creativity. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Handbook of creativity (pp. 313-338). Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press.

[2]For further detail about these concepts and Bourdieu’s explanation of ‘a feel for the game’ see Bourdieu, P. (1997). The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Dr Kerry Thomas is Associate Professor, School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and Visiting Fellow at the College of Fine Arts, at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Along with Professor Janet Chan sheis the Co-editor of the recently published Handbook of Research on Creativity (Edward Elgar). Her research and publications are primarily concerned with the study of creative practice as a function of misrecognition, and as a form of practical and social reasoning.

The book is also available for subscribing libraries on

Handbook of Research on Creativity


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