Perspectives on creativity

What creativity means depends on who you ask, and the context. It seems evident that creativity is multi-faceted, but that promotion of a particular aspect of creativity is likely to serve a particular agenda.

Over the decades there have been a variety of perspectives:

  • 1950s-60s: the psychology of creativity, in particular development of testing for creative aptitude in individuals
  • 70s: creativity focused on creative arts as an important aspect of learning and life
  • 80s – 90s: organisational creativity, creativity in business and management, identifying the attributes of successful creative people
  • 00s-10s: creativity as systemic, collaborative, a ‘useful’ and measurable attribute.

What are the agendas underpinning these perspectives?

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam

Bac Ha girls, N. Vietnam © Belinda Allen

The development of creativity research in the 1950s was driven by a perceived need for the US to produce creative scientists to compete in the space race against the USSR. The idea of creative science in harness to political interests had been realised in the Manhattan Project for WW2, where the ‘atom bomb’ was first developed.

The 70s was the decade of ‘alternatives’, and many new educational and life-style ideas emerged, albeit based on pre-existing ideas such as those of Dewey, Emerson and Thoreau. Of interest was the integration of creative activities such as art, music, dance and drama into education and into people’s lives in the interest of a ‘holistic’ approach to learning and life.

This approach became unfashionable in the economically rational 80s and 90s, and educational systems went ‘back to basics’, and became more accountable. With the rise of the global marketplace and manufacturing, industrial leaders realised that creativity had a place in management and planning to compete effectively with other businesses, and other countries. The technology revolution that had been predicted in the 50s meant that new kinds of jobs, and whole industries, emerged which relied on creativity as intrinsic to their organisation.

Since the turn of the millennium there has been boom, bust and boom again in the creative technologies sector, but other industries have learned from the most successful companies how creativity contributes to success in the contemporary economy, and a demand has developed for creativity across disciplines. Research combined with experience has shown that creativity is not an aptitude isolated in an individual but is a systemic process and product, relying on aptitude, motivation, opportunity, collaboration and recognition. The expectation from industry that education institutions should provide work-ready graduates now incorporates such graduate/employee attributes as innovative and creative leadership, problem-solving and communication skills. The focus on measuring creativity now is in the assurance that education is indeed developing the capabilities valued by employers.

Other cultural perspectives

All of these perspectives are based on the western European/Northern American context, which is also represented in my homeland of Australia. Some of this history may relate to other contexts and cultures, but the experience of and attitudes to creativity are likely to vary widely. In Cambodia, for instance, the word for ‘creative’ also means ‘crazy’, and art as an endeavour has been devalued and diminished from the time of the Communist revolution there.

My context is the former, having been born in England, and educated and raised mostly in Australia. But I am fascinated by the idea that some other cultures, such as Australian aboriginal, place creative endeavour such as art, music and dance as central to their lives and spiritual practices, while in the west there is the tendency to relegate creative practice to a performing elite, with the audience alienated from the idea that this could be an inclusive practice. Singing in church may be one of the few remaining bastions of democratic creative expression, while the rise of ‘Karoake’, mainly in developed and developing Asian nations, may represent a democratic opportunity for creative expression in those cultures. In eastern cultures it is common for communities to be engaged in creative production around religious and cultural celebrations, and ‘creativity’ is less focused on individual achievement.