On Creativity and Creativities

July 6, 2022

Author Articles

Chris Bilton, Stephen Cummings and dt ogilvie explore the complex concept of creativity.

‘What is creativity?’ and ‘How can I be more creative?’ are questions we are often asked. People sense that creativity is important, a combination of novelty and value which drives every aspect of our lives, in the arts, in business, in sport, in everyday living, so these are good questions. A good place to start some answers is to say what creativity isn’t. First, creativity is not a special type of thinking belonging to a special kind or person. Second, it’s much easier to define creative outcomes than the creative process: but understanding the process is the key to unlocking the value. Our main contribution is to show that there can be more than one process and the answers to finding your best way to be creative are within you.

In our new book Creativities, we have attempted to draw together various theoretical frameworks for understanding creativity with some practical examples to help people find their own unique ‘recipe’ for creativity and how they can be more creative. Each recipe will be different – shaped not just by our experiences and abilities, but by the people we are working with and the purpose and context of the task.

Recognizing this enables us to realize that each of us can add something to collective creative processes. An advantage of this approach – recognising creativity as a collaborative process involving many different ingredients – is that it allows for an ‘incremental’ approach to ability. Rather than being born creative, we can cultivate our creativities.

The popular alternative version to this view of creative development is an ‘entity’ theory – where talent is innate: you’re born creative. Or you’re not. The problem with this is that it assumes that hierarchies of creative ability are fixed. We pre-judge and separate the creative from the non-creative in a form of ‘creative profiling’. That nerdy looking guy in trendy clothes: he’s creative. That woman with a bag of groceries queuing for a bus: she’s not. This often disadvantages girls and women, working class and ethnic minority groups. So, for example, in schools, when boys are successful this is more likely to be attributed to talent, whereas girls are praised for effort. The implication here is that the hardworking grafter can never achieve true creative excellence.

This may be one reason why creative industries have an equality problem – those who secure successful careers in music, film and TV have to draw on economic capital to support themselves through unpaid internships and underpaid work. They draw on social and cultural capital accumulated through home, family, school and social connections. Above all they draw on their own reserves of self-belief (what Albert Bandura called ‘self-efficacy’ beliefs). And these self-beliefs – the belief (or delusion) that we possess unique creative talents – can be reinforced when a teacher or mentor tells us, or implies, that we are creative and others aren’t.

Opening up creativity to an incremental approach – where different creativities can be nurtured, networked and combined – avoids that binary separation. This is not quite the same as the boosterish claim that ‘We are all creative’ (which subtly reinforces the idea that creativity is innate). We argue instead that each of us possess a unique creativity – which can be unearthed and cultivated in combination with other creativities to produce innovation and change.

Back to answering those two questions. Creativity is certainly not a simple object. It is paradoxical and unfolding – the combination of many, often opposite, things. Something which is unexpected and challenging but at the same time something which is valuable and fits the needs of the moment. Arthur Koestler describes the act of creation as bisociation – the unexpected combination of apparently contradictory elements. This creative tension can be found and tapped into by seeking out diversity of thought from a diversity of people.

In Creativities we aim to help the reader identify and develop their own creative process and consider how to join this with other creativities. We start with the ‘What’ of creativity – what ingredients will we use? Rather than thinking outside the box, we argue that creativity comes from changing the shape of the box – stretching it in different ways.  

We then consider the how, where, who and why of the creative process. The ‘How’ leads us to thinking about creative teams and how those teams can be led. Here too there is no single recipe, but a range of approaches to select from and combine.

The ‘Where’ considers the organisational set-up within which creativity is nurtured and sustained. Different organisational forms – loose and tight, complex and simple – can be configured and combined to support different creativities.

The ‘Who’ highlights the multiple contributions to the creative process, especially those which come in after production, from audiences and users.

Our final element, the ‘Why’ of the creative process, touches upon all of the others. What do we want to do with all of these creativities? What drives us, what happens when our motivations change and we need to start again?

Watching Paul McCartney at this year’s Glastonbury, reliving more than six decades of creativity, collaboration and personal reinvention, we could all see his creative ‘talent’. But what was even more striking is the way his creative journey meshes with other creativities, not just John, Paul and Ringo, but Linda, Brian Epstein, Jimi Hendrix, all the way to jamming/bi-sociating with Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl on the Pyramid Stage. Creativity is not a singular talent, it is the product of many creativities. Each of us can tap into our individual creativity, connect it with other creativities, make up our own unique recipe that we can lean into but adapt over time as we evolve. We hope our book can help you to find yours. You may not be a Beatle with Wings, but your creativities can still take flight.

Creativities: The What, How, Where, Who and Why of the Creative Process is out now.

Chris Bilton, University of Warwick, UK, Stephen Cummings, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand and dt ogilvie, Rochester Institute of Technology, US

Read a sample chapter on Elgaronline



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