The Contested Meanings of Creativity

At a recent speech to mark the opening of NUI Galway’s O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance, President Michael D. Higgins warmly welcomed the new theatre, but he went on to warn of today’s widespread misuse of the term ‘creativity.’ Similar to the language of an advertising slogan, he said, ‘creativity’ is in danger of being ‘reduced to the rhetorical.’[1]

President Higgins’s thoughtful exasperation is understandable. Since the early 2000s the word ‘creativity’ has been transformed from a term whose meaning could be decided on the basis of dictionary nomenclature—’creativity: the ability to make, bring forth, or beget’—to a word whose meanings have become ever more diffuse and more encompassing. These days creativity is all around us. It’s everywhere from this year’s Crinniú na Casca, to the successful Galway 2020 bid for European Capital of Culture to a plethora of ‘creative campus’ initiatives; there’s even a government body called ‘Creative Ireland‘.

In each of these instances, creativity is understood as an unalloyed good: a quality so benevolent that it is able to serve people, social wellbeing, and business equally well. Creativity is now so widely accepted as an unequivocally friendly and consensually positive umbrella term that it threatens to eclipse the word ‘criticism’ as the primary descriptor of the social value of the broad field of the Arts and Humanities. Like the word ‘democracy’, creativity is in danger of becoming what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas describes as ‘an unthought known’: something that may be extremely well known and familiar to us, but about which—somehow—we are unable to think.

Nevertheless, and despite its seemingly invincible aura of consensus, ‘creativity’ today remains a contested term. This is because of the ways in which the rhetoric of creativity has been used for decades to support an economy based on undermining social protection in the interests of a privatisation agenda whose sole goal is increasing individual investor profit. From at least the 1980s, the arts and creative artists have had a central role in rent-rising urban regeneration projects, and also—just as crucially—in the celebration of a deregulated economy. As sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappelo show in their magisterial study of post-1968 France, the late 1960s cultural critique of capitalism was re-appropriated in the 1980s and harnessed to what they describe as ‘the new spirit of capitalism’. This economic renaissance liberated workers from routines and hierarchical management and at the same time normalised the idea of precarious work, lower wages and increasingly higher levels of work commitment. Under neo-liberalism, what the ideal worker has most come to resemble is a theatrical actor: endlessly flexible, prepared to work all hours, never speaking out about money and, of course, de-unionised. The bible for this way of thinking is Richard Florida’s controversial 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class where true creativity is presented as indivisible from marketability. And, like Florida, a good many government policy makers now operate on the assumption that there exists a naturally close link between artistic work and profitability.

For artists themselves, this constitutes an extraordinary situation. On the one hand, creativity as a discourse enjoys huge contemporary prestige because of the way in which it affirms the requirements of a global service-based economy committed to massive levels of profit. On the other hand, the majority experience for most writers, actors, musicians and artists is one of struggling hard to make ends meet—frequently working several part time jobs at the one time—simply in order to practice their creativity. The performance theorist Shannon Jackson offers a deft summary when she remarks that ‘Creatives are charged with motoring innovation and the affective life of a globalizing service economy — even as they simultaneously face the precarity and atomization of being “flexible” laborers’ (Jackson 2012: 11).

Jackson’s point—and that of others like Gregory Sholette in Dark Matter and literary critic Sarah Brouillette in Literature and the Creative Economy—is this: when ‘creativity’ is used rhetorically as a banner term it functions not just to disguise inequality, but also actively to promote it. The exciting, positive and expressive connotation of the word creativity—that etymological sense of bringing a new world into existence—is used to mobilise enthusiasm for working exclusively for a market economy. Creativity in this sense is about improvising, imagining and inventing, but strictly within the context of the absolute fixity of pre-determined economic assumptions. This is defeatism par excellence. It’s defeatism because it is an acceptance that politics is dead—killed off and subsumed by an overarching capitalist economics. For anyone interested in creativity as a living practice, then, creativity in the rhetorical sense may be the very first thing that needs to be rejected.

Criticism is about something different: about asserting the social value of disagreement. From the Greek word criticus—one who judges or decides—the activity of criticism suggests that living in a good and democratic society is about the quest to establish the importance of an ever expanding variety of social needs and individual voices against the tyranny of inherited orthodoxies and arbitrary exercises of authority. Criticism requires courage because its central concern is value and this entails a ‘tireless polemical energy’ (McDonald 110). In short, criticism is about exercising and developing a set of reflexes that regard orthodoxies as more worthy of suspicion than obedience.

However a dichotomy between creativity and criticism is a false one. Criticism cannot exist or makes no sense without creativity because without it, criticism has nothing to evaluate; and creativity requires criticism because you cannot create something or bring something into existence without a knowledge of the social world the act or enterprise is entering.


[1] Lorna Siggins, ‘Higgins warns of threat to creativity,’ Irish Times 11 April 2017: 2. President Higgins’s speech can be found at ‘Speech at the Official Opening of the O’Donoghue Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance,’ 10 April 2017

Lionel Pilkington

Lionel Pilkington is Professor of English in the School of Humanities at NUI Galway, and is the author of Theatre and the State in 20th Century Ireland: Cultivating the People (London and New York: Routledge, 2001) and Theatre & Ireland (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2010).