Imagine That!

Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius

Can Creativity Be Value-Neutral?

Some answers to questions about the value of creativity.

Dear Ben2501,

In response to our last post, (Almost) Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Creativity, you raised some interesting questions. Your general point, that there is a value judgment involved in evaluating creativity, is well taken. There are

long-standing debates in psychology about who does the evaluating and how this affects outcomes. Van Gogh, for example, was completely ignored while alive, but is now considered one of, if not THE, most important painter of the 20th century. Does that mean he was not creative when he was alive because his peers did not understand his importance, but became creative after he died because we now do? There's a nonsensical notion for you! Historically what happened was that he was so novel that he was incomprehensible to his peers, so his effectiveness took time to become apparent. So creativity isn't something that pertains to the individual, but to the individual within society. The social dependence of effectiveness is why creativity is intrinsically value-laden.

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In defining and valuing creativity as something that combines novelty and effectiveness, we are expressing a viewpoint that is common in America today. Other societies and groups and other times have differently valued creativity and its component parts. The Amish, for example, are content with effective forms of technology developed in the 19th century; they eschew novelty in that corner of cultural life. Their rejection of technological creativity is as much a value judgment as the mainstream view that technological creativity is a positive good.

Is it possible to talk about creativity or its component parts without making any value judgment, as you suggest? Consider what happens when we look at novelty apart from effectiveness. Many children draw pictures that are uniquely fresh and charming - and certainly novel in a personal sense. There is always a first time for drawing a human figure; a first time for discovering and drawing blended ideas such as flying cats or balloon dogs. But the same naiveté that makes these pictures so lovable also means that juvenile art will not be considered new or interesting at the adult level or for society at large. Personal novelty is not the same thing as social or professional novelty. Novelty is a relative concept.

The same goes for effectiveness. Your brother-the-dentist is an apropos example.

One can certainly be extremely effective without being novel. On the other hand, effectiveness is also an intrinsically relative concept. I don't think you'd really want to go to even the most effective dentist you could find a mere 200 years ago - among other things, there were no antibiotics or antiseptics and no anesthesia! Effectiveness can be determined only in relation to other possibilities.

What both these examples tell us is that, yes, you can be novel without being effective, and effective without being novel, but both novelty and effectiveness are INTRINSICALLY socially and historically relative, value-laden concepts even so. There's no escaping that fact.

Does that make creative people more valuable to society than non-creative people? Obviously not. Your brother the dentist probably makes a lot more money than we do! In this respect, his services are "valued" more highly than ours. But, hey, maybe that's because his profession draws heavily on creative improvements to dental care at the forefronts of dentistry, rapidly incorporating effective novelty into dental education and practice! No one wants a dentist who does personally novel things to our teeth, but we do want a dentist whose professional practice is up-to-date on the latest new and effective techniques. Valuing creativity can simply amount to understanding that without people who can create effective change, problems (in dental care and elsewhere) go unsolved and society stagnates. But how much change society wants or can stand, well, that's beyond this blog....

Personally, we value the kind of novel effectiveness that is permitting us right now to have this electronic conversation!

 

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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