Confusing Artists With “Creatives”

One of the more interesting asides in the extensive coverage of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts’ shutdown has been the information that in the past few years the institution had been offering a PhD in creativity. The first handful of recipients were awarded their degrees in 2022 – among them were a “psychotherapist, a wine writer, an Ethiopian filmmaker, and a Philadelphia School District administrator.”

Unlike a traditional PhD program, where a small number of candidates are selected to contribute to a field’s base of knowledge with original research and scholarship, this doctorate was sponsored by a whiskey distillery and sought to teach students “to think more creatively” through “intensive immersion in creative thinking,” according to the university’s official website. (It also deviates from many other PhD programs by charging tuition – more than $50,000 a year for at least three years – and fees, rather than being one of the fully funded programs that is the university norm.)

The sins of the American arts institutions – saddling students with tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt as they train them for jobs that don’t exist, the absence of real artistic instruction, their contribution to the vast divide that exists between the credentialed and the uncredentialed in income inequality and quality of life – have been well documented. But this is mostly discussed in terms of what the university is failing to do – educate, sustain a meritocratic system, create well rounded individuals capable of critical thinking and a love of learning — rather than what it is choosing actively to do. The university system is not failing at these goals, because they are not the goals of the university at all. It is probably more productive to see it as succeeding, flourishing even, at its intentions, which become obvious once the perception shifts away from romantic and nostalgic notions of the life of the mind.

That nostalgia is used to sell you a product that is different from the way it is advertised. It’s hard to tell what exactly the University of the Arts creativity doctorate program provides – there is no reading list or syllabus available because one does not study creativity, one is immersed in it. The vagueness must be part of the point. For the contemporary university, where students are treated like clients, having real standards and expectations goes against the “customer is always right” model. Hence the widespread acknowledgment of grade inflation. How can anyone fail a PhD program in creativity, when creativity is a word that can mean absolutely anything? It is a perfect encapsulation of what the contemporary arts institution has turned into: a university more focused on money than pedagogy, the transformation of the ivory tower into a corporate boardroom, and the focus on churning out creatives than artists.

What even is a Creative? The word, shapeshifting from adjective to noun without anyone’s permission, seemed to float out of the ether of the millennium changeover, closing the divide between someone writing an advertising jingle for a prescription medication that includes kidney failure in its possible side effects with someone painting a portrait with someone designing a new type of drone that can kill civilians even faster than before.

But as Samuel W Franklin documents in The Cult of Creativity, the word “creativity” doesn’t go back much further than that. According to his research, the first entry of “creativity” in a dictionary dates to 1966. This current trend of using “creativity” as corporate-speak is not a distortion of its original intention, that is what the word has meant since its entrance into the mainstream. The word barely existed until the 1950s, when in a Cold War-induced paranoia the United States sought to make itself distinct from its enemy, the communist Soviet Union. Unlike the evil empire, which demanded conformity and sacrifice from its people to achieve its greatness, The United States sought to establish itself as a land of individuals, free to think and behave and live as they chose – as long as they still met their productivity quotas.

The United States didn’t want artists. Artists were unpredictable, politically undesirable, and socially unacceptable. But what it did want was the aura of greatness and specialness that artists had, and it wanted to bestow those traits on workers in technology, advertising, and science who were more socially and politically aligned with its own goals. And that could be accomplished with the word “creativity.” Ostensibly more democratic than artistic ability, which was dependent on technical skills and knowledge that only a few possessed, creativity instead was supposed to be what powered or inspired the artist, the source of the impulse. And, it was believed, that was possessed by all and could be used to in your own special way the way Leonardo da Vinci used the same intangible stuff to paint the Mona Lisa.

The desire was not to elevate the already nonconformist or arty, but to convince the normies to conceptualize themselves as unconventional, creative, quirky – in the hopes that they could be encouraged to “think outside the box” of what a pesticide is supposed to be or what a weapon of war could accomplish. Creativity was sold to the worker as a way of making labor more meaningful and fulfilling, but it also became a way of improving one’s value on the job market. It’s no longer enough to have skills and knowledge, now to be desirable to potential employers one must prove oneself to be innovative and creative. And thus began an empire of self-help, classroom curricula, conventions and coaches, podcasts, nutritional supplements, books, gadgets, organizers, and stickers with cute little motivational mottoes to paste on your mirror, all designed to help you unleash your creativity.

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Franklin writes, “For an engineer or an advertising professional to be creative was not simply to be productive, though it was that, but also to model oneself not on the machine but on the artist or poet… Though this didn’t necessarily change anything about the actual products these workers were employed to invent, design, and sell, it did implicitly add a moral aura to their work by shifting the emphasis from product to the process itself, creativity.” It also made the creative worker easier to exploit, as fulfillment and meaning, supposedly two things creative work provides best, become prioritized over compensation, security, and work-life balance. A truly creative person wouldn’t even want those things, as they would interfere with the passion and ambition that powers creativity.

It also had another benefit for the American economy: it downgraded the artist in the public imagination. Artists were no longer great people (I mean “men,” this is midcentury America after all), they no longer had something like genius that others lacked – the artist was just another guy, the same as a worker on Wall Street or a software engineer. Worse, actually, maybe, since the artist chose to express themselves creatively in ways that made so little money.

The rise of creativity also helps to explain the art school’s drift away from technical instruction and historical knowledge since the postwar era. Teaching the right and wrong ways to compose, draw, or construct could potentially interfere with the authentic forms of expression the creative individual already has. When I hear people make an argument for getting an MFA, the reasons made most frequently are about the “time and space” a university gives them to “find their own voice” and focus on work, rather than any real instruction on how to write a sentence, a paragraph, a story, a book.

If a creative is an artist without the art, then a PhD in creativity is the perfect product for an arts school that has dropped the human from the humanities. That cranks out well credentialed graduates while forgetting to teach them how to live or think or feel, only to produce.


  • I recommend very highly Louis Menand’s The Free World for understanding how the artist became a usable figure of propaganda for the “American way of life,” Angela McRobbie’s Be Creative for understanding why the creative is the perfectly exploitable neoliberal subject, Nathalie Olah’s Steal as Much as You Can for understanding how the university-based art world has become a tool of class warfare against the poor, and Richard Sennett’s The Corrosion of Character for what all of this does to your soul.

  • Romania ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

  • I got an ad for an off-brand, compound pharmacy mail order knockoff of Ozempic this morning. Brought to you by the same company that sends men pills that might stop them from going bald but also sometimes brings on psychosis. I’m sure this is going to go great. Anyway, I did like the first three episodes of the WSJ’s podcast miniseries “Trillion Dollar Shot.” The fourth one turns into a jaunty “now how can we all make a lot of money off of this,” as expected, so you can skip it.

  • Do you really need art school or do you just need to watch the weird short films of Cecelia Condit???

  • Also, for more on this subject:

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