Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> creativity
Kate Southworth on Mon, 19 May 2003 19:43:45 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> creativity


This is a draft section of a paper about net art and creativity that I am
working on.  I know that this version is a bit dry - I would really
appreciate any comments or suggestions that anyone could offer.

very best wishes

Contemporary challenges to historical notions of creativity

Kate Southworth 

"Our general culture is [...] permeated with ideas about the individual
nature of creativity, how genius will always overcome social obstacles, that
art is an inexplicable, almost magical sphere to be venerated but not
analysed" (Pollock, 1988 pp. 20-21)

>From the historical and contemporary literature on creativity, it is evident
that a single, correct solution to the problem of defining 'creativity' does
not exist, but rather it seems that humanity's understanding and definition
of it shifts over time and across cultures.  Inevitably then, that which is
valued as the product or expression of creativity likewise shifts in
relation to historical and social processes.  It would seem that the concept
of creativity enjoys a reflexive relationship with the changing demands of
capitalism, and that encapsulated within changing notions of creativity are
indications of the human attributes that are valued and revered by different

Many of the dominant notions of creativity stress its derivation 'from an
external cause: from God, from an abstracted Nature or human nature, from
permanent instinctual systems, or from an animal inheritance' (Williams,
1977, p. 206).  Marx on the other hand places emphasis on human creativity
and self-creation.  In the field of art history ongoing Marxist and feminist
challenges to the orthodoxy of the discipline have critiqued the prevalent
view of art as 'something mysterious which happens as a result of the
artist's genius' (Rees & Borzello, p 5).  Instead, the new approach to the
study of art history sees 'art as intimately linked to the society which
produces and consumes it' (Rees & Borzello, p 5).  New art historians now
study the relationship of socio-political, cultural and economic influences,
such as, for example, how galleries, critics, funding bodies, ideology,
dominant culture and counter culture affect the production and consumption
of art.  In discrediting the old art history, words like 'creativity'
'genius' and 'originality' among others, have become taboo, serving as they
do 'only to obscure a whole (old) world of assumptions about what art is'
(Rees & Borzello, p 5).  The connotations and references associated with
these words are historically located in a world whose systems of
understanding and explanations differ vastly from today.  That new art
historians have been able to so convincingly challenge the very concept of
creativity is partly due to the ways in which they contextualised the
concept historically.

According to Raymond Williams' Keywords, the word 'Create' came into English
from the Latin creare -'make or produce', and had specific connotations with
the divine creation of the world.  It wasn't until the sixteenth-century
that the concept was extended to include 'a kind of making by men' and was
itself part of the changes that constitute the historical shift from the
Middle-ages to the Renaissance (Williams, 1983 p.82).  By the
eighteenth-century the words 'create' and 'creation' were associated with
art and thought, and it is from this relationship with art that the word
'creative' developed.  The actual word 'creativity' only appeared in the
English language in the twentieth-century.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, the notion of 'genius' was the repository of many of the ideas
later transferred to 'creativity'.  The eighteenth-century Romanticism of
Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be seen as influencing the emphasis on inner
feelings as a source of artistic inspiration.  Pitted against scientific
rationalism, a conflict emerged between intellect and feeling, which 'was
personified as one between the overly rational scientist and the artist as
the misunderstood genius' (Albert & Runco, 1999, p 23).  Here genius is
perceived 'as an atemporal and mysterious power somehow embedded in the
person of the Great Artist' (Nochlin, 1989, p153).  By the end of the
eighteenth century it was felt that whilst many people may have talent,
'original genius' was regarded as 'truly exceptional and by definition was
to be exempt from the rules, customs and obligations that applied to the
talented' (Albert & Runco, 1999, p.21).  The kind of creativity then, 'that
could be ascribed to 'mere' talent, was opposed to that bound up with the
personality of the Romantic 'genius'....  [that] 'linked genius to a type of
personality, and to concomitant (non-conscious) modes of creative process'
(Battersby, 1998 pp.311- 312).

In recent years feminist and Marxist art historians have challenged this
concept of genius, rejecting the notion of 'a beautiful object or fine book
expressing the genius of the author/author', (Pollock, 1988, p.6) instead
arguing that there is essentially no difference between creative activity
and every day activity (Wolff, 1993; Vazquez, 1973).  Contemporary debates
regarding the similarity of creative and everyday activity can be seen to
have their roots in the historical developments that took place in Europe
from the period of the Renaissance.  The emergence of early capitalism and
'the historical separation of the producer from his [sic] means of
production', resulted in artists being the only group 'whom the division of
labor had passed by (B Hinz. cited in Burger, 1984, p.36).  Because art's
development was temporarily halted at the handicraft stage of development
within a society where the division of labour increasingly became the norm
it began to be seen as something special and removed from other forms of
production (Burger, 1984, see p. 36).  Artistic work, then, 'came to be seen
as distinct, and as really 'creative', as work in general increasingly lost
its character as free, creative labour' (Wolff, 1993, p.19).  Thus, the
'creative' work of artists, musicians and writers, 'not yet affected by or
integrated into capitalist relations and the domination of the market',
became seen as an 'ideal form of production, because it ...[appeared] free
in a way that other production ...[was] not (Wolff, 1993, p.17).

Albert, R. S. & Runco, M. A (1999). 'A History of Research on Creativity'.
In Sternberg, R. J (Ed) Handbook of Creativity (pp.16-31). Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press
Battersby, C. (1998). From 'Gender and Genius' in Korsmeyer, C. (Ed)
Aesthetics: The Big Questions (pp. 305-313) Oxford, Blackwell Publishers
Burger, P. (1984). Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis, University of
Minnesota Press
Nochlin, L. (1989). 'Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?' in Women,
Art, and Power and Other Essays (pp.145-178). London, Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Pollock, G. (1988). Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the
Histories of Art. London, Routledge
Rees, A. L. & Borzello, F. (1986). 'Introduction' In Rees, A. L. & Borzello,
F. (Eds.) The New Art History (pp.2-10). London, Camden Press Ltd.
Vazquez, A.S (1973). Art and Society: Essays in Marxist Aesthetics, London,
Merlin Press.  (Original Spanish edition, 1965)
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords; A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London,
Fontana Press
Williams, R. (1977).  Marxism and Literature. Oxford, Oxford University
Wolff, J. (1993), The Social Production of Art: Second Edition. London, The
MacMillan Press Ltd.

Kate Southworth (May 2003)
katesouthworth {AT} gloriousninth.com

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net