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Creativity - appropriated by business and sold back to us

By Malcolm King - posted Friday, 23 March 2007


 The term “creativity” is now used so liberally and defined so broadly in job advertisements, corporate flyers and on university websites (where it's usually married with “innovation”) as to be meaningless.

The colonisation of “creativity” by everyone from real estate agents to government spin doctors is not surprising. The great advantage of emphasising creativity instead of “commodification” in the current economic climate, is that it makes commodification sound natural.

British sociologist Frank Furendi says in Where have all the intellectuals gone? that creativity has become a feel good term, intended to make us all feel a little bit better about what we do, whether its about stocking shelves at the supermarket or playing piano in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

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"The promiscuous designation of the label 'creative' overlooks the fact that achievement involves hard work, painful encounters and personal development. Creativity is not a personal characteristic but the outcome of inspired, hard earned achievement," Furendi says.

We need to take a “reality check” on the instrumentalist and functionalist use of the term “creative”. I suggest that the benefits of the new economy - or the information economy - is wildly blown out of proportion. And it's not the first time we've made such a mistake.

One of the reasons we had the Dotcom crash in 2000 was that companies who bought in to the online information revolution realised that it lacked content. It wasn't exactly a South Sea Bubble. It was more a case of lots of froth but no bubble. The only difference is that today we have a lot more hardware.

But the spin is still there and that's where most of the hard work is being done. It's the appropriation of one perspective of creativity by business as a catch-all term to lure both buyers and sellers in to the marketplace. And we're not even too sure what bag of goods we're being sold. I believe we're being sold more electronic mediums rather than content.

Organisations market creativity like this:

  1. Creativity is an essential human attribute.
  2. Creativity is the key to economic prosperity - the engine of the market.
  3. Therefore, the market is simply an extension of the fundamental workings of human nature.
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It's a false and invalid argument but to suggest otherwise may be elitist - and didn't we get rid of all that elitist arts stuff in the 1980 and 1990s? Yes and no. We produced a lot of students who couldn't spell and didn't know the apostrophe rules but they could write long critical essays deconstructing The Truman Show. But I digress.

The guys in Enron and HIH thought of themselves as creative too and they didn't want people snooping around asking a whole lot of questions. It's time we asked some hard questions from people who propound creative solutions. What do they really, really mean?

Some years ago I was a programs leader helping to run a raft of creative writing and communication programs at a large university. We taught creative writing under the umbrella term “creative media” (whatever that was).

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About the Author

Malcolm King works in generational workforce change. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University. He also runs a professional writing business called Republic.

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