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The surprisingly short history of creativity

Artists lay claim to it. So do industry leaders looking to engineer profits. How did this buzzword come about?

Management culture of the mid-20th century began to standardize creativity as a stand-alone discipline.H. Armstrong Roberts/Classic Stock/Getty Images

In elementary school, I went to an elective pull-out program that fostered creativity the way gym class honed fitness. Each year, we’d build a kid-centered world unto itself, complete with government, stock market, and glue-daubed cardboard inventions. (My cardboard creation was a house cleaner robot, more than a decade pre-Roomba.)

The program’s firebrand teacher, Mrs. Eiselen, cheered all our brainstorms and ideas — the more unexpected, the better. In her classroom, skyscrapers rose from colored paper foundations and everyday rules got turned on their heads. There was even a “Talk On and On” event that urged us to chat about whatever we wanted rather than raise our hands before speaking. From time to time, our created worlds sent tendrils into real life. When undersea explorer Robert Ballard launched the Jason Project, one of my classmates wrote a song that Ballard and his crew sung at sea.


My pull-out program stemmed from an idea with a surprisingly short history: that creativity ought to be cultivated as its own discipline. We tend to think of creativity as something that’s been around since cave painters, the driving force behind human artwork, stories, and inventions of all kinds. Yet the word “creativity” didn’t exist until just over a hundred years ago. As historian Samuel W. Franklin notes in his forthcoming book “The Cult of Creativity,” the concept gained much of its cultural currency in the mid-20th century, when executives and other leaders tried to stimulate creativity in hopes of churning out better ad spreads and new technologies. With these titans’ encouragement, Americans began to see creativity as a virtuous end in itself, buying into the promise that expanding our creative abilities could fulfill us individually and secure our collective future.

Today, we’re leaning on that promise more than ever, as more thinkers issue fresh calls to tap into creativity — and its inquiry-based sibling, curiosity — to tackle challenges from the climate crisis to the global drift toward autocracy. Addressing problems like these will require “a much deeper fundamental inquiry” involving an extensive search for new solutions, says designer and Radical Curiosity author Seth Goldenberg. The Atlantic and New York Times columnist David Brooks put it a bit differently: “If a society is good at unlocking creativity, then its ills can be surmounted.”


The argument for creativity as a noble stand-alone pursuit has wide appeal. It assures artists and visionaries that in an ever more standardized society, they can still make their mark on the world. CEOs like it because it serves their desire to capitalize on the next big idea. And new ideas and ways of seeing the world can, of course, supply starting points for tackling a slew of problems.

Yet in becoming all things to all people, creativity has also become something of a cipher. As Franklin points out, how can the same concept drive both soulful artistic feats and an impersonal capitalist economy?

Like soldiers invading enemy shores

If you stopped someone in the street a century ago and asked them what creativity was, they’d probably have looked at you like you had three heads. It wasn’t until the 1920s that British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead defined the term. Whitehead called creativity “the principle of novelty,” stating that each instance of creativity was “a novel entity diverse from any entity in the ‘many’ which it unifies.”


Around this time, what Whitehead might have called creative momentum was thriving among artists in a Paris apartment on rue de Fleurus. There, the writer Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, hosted evening get-togethers where the likes of Thornton Wilder, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henri Matisse hobnobbed for hours. Guests in these and other arts circles credited the free-wheeling dialogues with inspiring ideas they wouldn’t otherwise have had.

But it wasn’t until mid-century that people started trumpeting creativity’s virtues beyond the arts, into broader realms. As a Cold War standoff emerged between the world’s two great powers, US leaders and officials decided that asking new questions and devising fresh solutions were the surest ways to gain the upper hand on Soviet rivals. Ad agency heads and companies like General Electric began to adopt standardized ways to reproduce creativity, like choreographed brainstorming sessions guided by trained leaders. The term “brainstorming” was meant to conjure images of soldiers raiding enemy shores.

The push to foster innovation, albeit in regimented ways, matched the zeitgeist. As millions of people pursued creativity at leaders’ behests, they could feel reassured that despite the modern world’s uniformity, they had a path to making their own lives extraordinary — and potentially making bank in the process. “On one hand, to be creative was to reject the demands of society,” Franklin writes in “The Cult of Creativity.” “On the other, it was also to be utterly productive and useful.” Workers at Madison Avenue ad firms might clock in at 9 on the dot, carrying out their bosses’ orders to convince people to buy stuff. But by approaching their work creatively, they could feel more like renegade artists than pitchmen, in touch with the human impulse to generate something totally new.


Captivating bohemians, worker bees, and CEOs, creativity came to seem like such an unalloyed good that most of us can’t remember when people didn’t clamor for seminars on out-of-the-box thinking. And some of this enthusiasm is justified from a productivity standpoint. In a San Francisco State University study, people who pursued more creative activities like art projects notched better evaluations at work. This may be because creative projects prompt people to hone new approaches to tough tasks, a skill that can help them feel more engaged on the job — just as my school friends and I looked forward to our mind-bending pull-out class. Likewise, a McKinsey survey found that the higher businesses scored on a creativity scale, the more apt they were to post higher-than-average revenue growth.

Yet given how closely profit-seeking has become entwined with the push for creativity and curiosity, it’s fair to ask: Can concepts forged in a desire to come out ahead serve a future that demands greater global collaboration? Goldenberg thinks they can. He’s urging leaders to establish what he calls “fourth places,” physical gatherings or spaces that inspire the kind of divergent thinking Gertrude Stein’s salons — or Mrs. Eiselen’s imaginary worlds — once did. “The Fourth Place is where we reclaim our identity as civic actors,” he writes, “manifest a sense of purpose as we do the work of imagining what comes next.” One salon-like event, he suggests, could be an epic three-day equivalent of a dinner party focused on conversations about the future.


It’s true, perhaps, that societal support for idea sessions and “fourth places” could encourage questioning and problem-solving that’s less tethered to capitalist motives. “We don’t need new dating apps. We don’t need new ways to grow food,” Goldenberg says. “What we do need to do is decide: What do we believe in? What do we value? And what do we want the world to look and feel like?” That kind of questioning, he adds, could inspire things like economic systems that reward people not for how many hours of work they do, but for how much they contribute to others’ well-being. “It’s such an extraordinary opportunity to say, well, let’s be very rigorous about this. What does it mean to exchange value in this society now?”

But the thrill of devising such solutions belies the long, frustrating slog of putting them into practice — which, naturally, is where people tend to bail out. I once attended a salon-like “unconference” event called Foo Camp. The head of O’Reilly Media invited more than 100 people, including Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly and former California governor Jerry Brown, and housed them on O’Reilly’s bucolic campus. People pitched tents under the apple trees and talked about how to foment revolution or utopia. We drifted home on a high.

Three years later, I’ve lost touch with most of the people I met that weekend, and event coordinators didn’t follow up with us all to see what projects, if any, our creative sparks had ignited.

To be fair, the camp happened months before COVID-19 hit the planet. But I thought of it when I read Franklin’s argument that innovation and creativity are overvalued as one-stop solutions — and that fresh ideas can distract from perfectly good existing ones, like capturing carbon to slow climate change. “It seems to me,” Franklin writes, “most of the biggest problems actually have a plethora of solutions already lined up.”

That’s not to say that the Foo Camp ethos is wrongheaded. We need the kinds of creative salons Goldenberg champions, spaces that jolt us out of status quo loyalties and supply oxygen when old ideas get stale. But we also need to be clearer about exactly whose interests our creative efforts serve — and how to make sure new and mature insights get nurtured into full-fledged solutions that enrich lives, not just companies. Unless we value contemplation and follow-through as much as we do the next big idea, creativity on its own — like many brainstorming sessions — can yield an unsettling series of loose ends.

When I transport myself back to Mrs. Eiselen’s construction-paper realms, I don’t just remember how we became kid Edisons, each of us inventing something new. I remember how we discussed and worked and revised until the world we were creating became one we actually wanted to inhabit.

Elizabeth Svoboda, a writer in San Jose, Calif., is the author of “What Makes a Hero?: The Surprising Science of Selflessness.”