Monday, 15 June 2015

Is creativity research elitist?

This is a piece by a chap called Keith Sawyer who says that creativity research is elitist. It's a pretty confused piece (it's short - you can read it first) but there is are some nuggets in there.

First, what is Sawyer talking about? By 'elitist' he means something along the lines of 'unduly privileging those of high social status': the examples he gives are that "The most prominent historical studies of creativity focus on high-status individuals: top art schools, Nobel-prize winning scientists; corporate CEOs" and that "Simon Kyaga’s highly publicized studies (2011, 2012) about creativity and mental illness defined creative people from an elitist perspective: anyone from one of these occupations: university teachers, visual artists, photographers, designers, display artists, performing artists, composers and musicians, and authors". You can just about see what he's getting at. You have to imagine a dinner party in a university town somewhere at which people are saying "and what do you do?" to each other and the people who say "I'm a photographer" or "a display artist - here's my card" are the ones everyone looks up to, while others have to look at their meals in shame as they admit to being a mere doctor, politician or hedge fund manager. You can imagine it, but I wonder whether the corporate CEOs are enjoying the party much, even in the best seats next to the avant garde composers. (But you can be sure that that Nobel-prize winning scientist who made the comments about women in the lab is pretty glad to be at that party and being a high social status person again.)

You can see when Sawyer gives his examples of people who are studied for creativity (ballet dancers, novelists) rather than people who are not (cheerleaders, vintage motorcycle repairers) what he is really getting at. Creativity research appears to favour participants in the kinds of high art that the middle classes enjoy. If that's correct, then something is clearly wrong with creativity research: making up pop songs or raps is not to be overlooked.

But there's a rather bigger problem here. As Sawyer himself points out, actors, ballet dancers and performing classical musicians (Sawyer says "I myself am a highly trained classical pianist", but don't dismiss him for that reason alone) are not carrying out particularly creative acts. The creative jobs in these arts are playwright, choreographer and composer. Cheerleaders (apparently) tend to make up the routines themselves: that is choreography and it is potentially a creative act rather than a skilled artistic or interpretative one like acting. There are clearly some grey areas in all this, but unless you are going to allow me to claim that I was particularly creative in switching on my computer this morning with a graceful sweep of my left hand, let's restrict 'creative' to 'coming up with new stuff'. That's nothing to do with elitism: that's creativity researchers looking at the wrong people.

Sawyer also makes the point that all this 'elitism' is perhaps leading to bad science. "Kyaga found that these “creative” occupations were correlated with a higher rate of mental illness. But as every undergraduate learns in statistics, “correlation is not causation.” Maybe Kyaga just discovered that educated, upper-class people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. Andreasen argued that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than non-writers. Here’s a thought experiment: How many of you believe that church ministers are more likely to have a mental illness than an accountant?"

That's a weird one. I think Sawyer is expecting people to think that church ministers are every bit as normal as accountants. (And aren't accountants often educated people? Are accountants and ministers that different in America?) But I would have thought that church ministers were much more likely to suffer mental illness than accountants. Sawyer's point is that they are creative people because they make up sermons every week. Granted, and let's add in the performing side of things, the publicity and the loneliness on a regular basis, the unsociable hours, the demands to console people at difficult times in their lives, the low wages, the possibility of losing your livelihood for relatively minor moral failings that would leave accountants untouched, etc, etc. Surely the risk of mental illness is pretty high?

I agree with Sawyer that church ministers have a job that includes creative and artistic elements. It's similar to a stand-up comedian or singer-songwriter on those fronts, people who write and perform their own material. But perhaps it's worth asking which of those parts of the job (the making up new stuff or the public performance) - or both or neither - is correlated with mental illness. The demands of skill and artistic interpretation in the performance of a tricky bit of music are great; so are the demands of being a comedy writer for a successful sitcom. Are particular people drawn to - or broken by - these professions? And are there particular people who are drawn to professions that include both demands?

No comments:

Post a Comment