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MARGINAL UTILITY: Freak-flag Creativity
[14 July 2006]
Like Calvinists who stockpile life's finer things in hopes of shoring up their sense of themselves as elect, hipsters surround themselves with the trappings of creativity and trust that this substantiates their claim to being cool.
I've long been an ardent admirer of David Crosby's anthem about staying true to himself, "Almost Cut My Hair", in part because I always assumed it was an ironic joke. Over an ominous minor-key progression complimented by some blistering, splenetic guitar fills, Crosby sings how he "owes it to someone" not to cut his hair and to instead let his "freak flag fly", presumably to give other free-thinkers out there a symbol in the form of his own head to rally around.
In most instances, the loony egotism of this notion would be enough to prove that the song was satirical, but this is David Crosby we're talking about, so more internal evidence is required. I point to the line "I'm not giving in an inch to fear", delivered with a palpable desperation utterly at odds with the evident pun, and to the concluding verse wherein Crosby says he's going to "find a space inside to laugh". Now, this could indicate that he's going to laugh inwardly at the Man as he sticks it to him with his unkempt do and luxuriates in the interior headspace he's created with his declaration of independence. But I had thought Crosby, in a surprising moment of clarity, was laughing at the belief that cutting your hair could be seen as a significant political act, that the idea you could "owe" it to someone to look a certain way was just ludicrous.
But recently I've begun to wonder instead whether Crosby was a prophet for a new notion of what it means to be creative. Ever since creative became a noun (as in "Let's hire some creatives to work on that toilet-brush redesign"), there's been something dubious about the way we regard creativity. At first it seemed that the word had been co-opted by management gurus. Richard Florida's 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class did the most to evoke this feeling, positing a new generation of hipsters who are guided in all things by their unerring sense of where creativity can be found. These "knowledge workers" are allegedly attracted to bohemian urban locations which exude tolerance and allow individuals to manifest their boundless creativity in manifold ways and be rewarded for it. Florida's thesis is that cities must lure these predestined creatives in order to rebound from urban decay and thrive in the coming decades, when creativity shall rule over the economy as both its most productive method and its most cherished commodity. (Creatives, who apparently spurn money, allegedly do their innovative work for corporations in order to be incented with ever more creativity.)
Creativity, from this point of view, is a lifestyle rather than a cogent expression of innovative insight; it's merely a matter of parading your nonconformity in front of a host of approving fellow nonconformists and demanding that your bosses don't interrupt your innovative and intuitive processes by requiring you to follow a dress code or abide deadlines or work according to established procedures. While it's held to provide the social benefits of innovation and tolerance, creativity predominantly serves as the intangible and thus irrefutable support for a person's self-importance -- that the world hangs in the balance as you decide whether or not to cut your hair. Creativity excuses the egotistical pose that one should be exempt from the rules that apply to the lesser people, the people not sophisticated enough to figure out that they should live in Austin and not Houston, Boulder rather than Colorado Springs, New York City rather than pretty much anywhere else.
The business press typically links creativity with a "radical" willingness to "think outside the box" and "reinvent" brands or industry practices. Often advertisers, the preeminent "creatives" in the business world, are depicted as nutty types who devise campaigns that are "especially original" or "more unique". Sometimes they are regarded as bordering on subversive in the way they challenge management to question assumptions about how to reach customers. But advertising is never subversive; its goals are always the same: selling more and grabbing market share. And it is always mercenary, always for hire.
If advertising is creative, than so is any salesperson. Not much separates an ad man from a used car salesman, particularly when seen from the perspective of their mutual goals. They have to get your attention, they have to disorient you so that you forget what you thought you wanted and then smoothly introduce new ideas into your head that you'll mistake for your own. Used-car salesmen are on the front lines; they are the foot soldiers in the sales war that ad men are allowed to conduct on high from their executive suites in Midtown. Yet we don't ordinarily celebrate the used-car salesman's stalling and suggestive selling tactics as creative; instead we call them manipulative. Perhaps one reason we laud ads for their cleverness is that we want to temper the contempt and manipulation inherent to them. If we are responding to creativity rather than manipulation, we can feel less vulnerable and gullible.
But depicting advertisers as zany and creative is more than an attempt to redeem them of their explicitly commercial motives. It seems an attempt to harness all creativity to entrepreneurship and customer management. It's part of a larger cultural bias toward measuring creativity in sales; we are constantly reminded that the drive to increase sales is what inspires the most truly authentic creative acts. With Florida's vision of creativity as a place on a corporation's organizational chart, it's harder and harder to imagine creative acts outside of the business paradigm. The impulse to create and the impulse to earn are blurred together. The growth economy's insatiable demand for novelty absorbs all creativity to itself and makes it seem as though creativity is merely the invention of something novel rather than the primordial act of making itself.
To its new champions, creativity is more than simple ingenuity. Florida defines creativity as innovation that comes from special people whose freethinking ways make them naturally more artistic, more capable of producing novelty. Like Calvinist grace, this natural, ineffable quality is not a matter of disciplined work habits but something that you discover within yourself -- or not, depending on God's disposition toward you. When you have it, you can't help but evince it in everything you do, which becomes, by definition, creative. If you lack it, your efforts will be regarded as dull, inevitable or derivative. Because originality itself is impossible, creativity defined in terms of originality is wholly subjective. The bottom line is if you try to be creative, chances are you fail and if you go around telling people you're creative, you're not. (I know; I majored in creative writing.)
The truth is that pretty much everyone is creative within the sphere of their day-to-day routines, often through sudden, spontaneous responses to well-worn routines. We may not regard our quotidian problem solving and streamlining of our personal affairs as exalted creativity, but if economics professor Robin Hanson is right, it's the stuff of true innovation. Writing in "Outside Shot", the page BusinessWeek reserves for heretical ideas, Hanson distinguishes between self-promoting freak-flag creativity and the more humdrum work of technological development:
Creative new clothes or music may change fashion, but are soon eclipsed by newer fashions. Large and lasting economic innovations, like steam engines or cell phones, are rare and tend to be independently 'invented' by many people.… The innovations that matter most are the millions of small changes we constantly make to our billions of daily procedures and arrangements. Such changes do not require free-spirited self-expression. (BusinessWeek, 3 July 2006)
Real creativity amounts to the near invisible adjustments active minds make in the course of wrestling with life. Rather than working in isolation, creativity flourishes in response to assigned or routine tasks and thrives in situations where individuals can inspire each other with ideas. Whereas freak-flag creativity hinges on the bogus notion that you can invent things in isolation from the society you live in, and all this does is blind you to the ways that society is shaping you, making it impossible for you to resist such shaping. Motivated by vanity and fixated on originality, phony creativity isolates you from others, who compete for your spotlight, and plants the seed for that essential consumerist thought that one's own tastes are always unique and always best, and must be expressed through serial purchases.
Such creativity doesn't make society progress; it just makes fashion change. Reified into creative places and a creative wardrobe and a creative set of references, creativity itself becomes a valuable object one displays — a mark of distinction, like owning a Prius or being able to speak fluently about Asian film — rather than characterization of how one thinks. It's essentially a synonym for cool, the arbitrary sense that some people and things are more urgently current than others. Creativity cloaks cool with the trappings of merit, offering an ersatz explanation of where cool comes from. Rather than the mere byproduct of the inexorable turning of fashion's wheel, coolness becomes the necessary consequence of innovative minds busily working to enliven culture. If the majority of us don't notice our native creativity (let alone trumpet it and expect plaudits for how daring and radical we are), it's because creativity has been popularly reconceived as the pursuit of novelty, recognized in only the most flamboyantly and ostentatiously cool.
Since creativity is so closely linked with novelty, it's necessarily shallow, fixated on surfaces. This may explain our culture's current fascination with design independent of function in such things as Apple's products, Wes Anderson's films, Ikea's furniture, Target's inventory. Because evident attention has been laboriously paid to the way these things look, they seem to exude creativity, even though they often fail to provide the basic functionality we'd hope from them, as when the touch wheel on the iPod becomes acutely sensitive, or the Ikea shelf warps on the first humid day, or the hermetic Wes Anderson film meanders pointlessly without ever engaging an audience emotionally.
In Hanson's view, people "often join the crowd behind a new idea just to declare their creativity, which distracts them from really trying to make that new idea work". One's eagerness to signify one's creativity becomes a surrogate for actual innovation. This recapitulates the hipster's dilemma (and the hippie's dilemma, before), especially for arrivistes whose primary creative insight is to appear on a scene already reputed to welcome and nourish artists: By moving to the right neighborhood they signal their desire to appear creative and associate themselves with it, but they can't ever be sure if they are being creative, which, after all, is impossible to measure. Again, like Calvinists who stockpile life's finer things in hopes of shoring up their sense of themselves as elect, hipsters surround themselves with the trappings of creativity and trust that this substantiates their claim to being cool.
Thus if we want to consider ourselves one of the special creatives, we are obliged to take great pains to seem creative and must figure out just how to decorate and fly our freak flag. We have to identify the most important up-and-coming trends, seizing on them and broadcasting our choices to everyone -- wearing the right clever T-shirt, living in the appropriate zip code, dropping the names of the correct films and bands and artists and writers, carrying the newest gadgets, and make sure everybody notices us doing it. I don't know about you, but I think I'd rather cut my hair.
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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.
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