The Smithsonian Institution

The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History

reviewed by edward tenner

The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History

The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History 

Samuel W. Franklin

University of Chicago Press, 253 pp.

edward tenner, a frequent contributor to the Review, is a research affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution and Rutgers University.

Once upon a time, the corporate motto “THINK,” decreed by IBM’s charismatic autocrat, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., was emblazoned on office walls and memo pads alike.

In the information age that followed, Steve Jobs saw Watson and raised him with the mantra, “Think Different.” Today IBM is back in the game, with a new motto in a recent full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal imploring prospective customers to “Let’s create!”

Whatever the reality in high-tech corporations over the decades, there are few values nominally more prized than creativity — unless it is that kindred standby, innovation. In The Cult of Creativity, the cultural historian Samuel Franklin supplies a vital missing chapter of business history by refusing to accept creativity as a self-evident good and reframing it as a movement binding academic social scientists, university administrators, corporate managers and government agencies. It began during the Cold War and continues to mutate in our own times.

In the Beginning

The American creativity movement began not among artists, writers, or musicians but in business circles where corporate bureaucrats had long replaced shirtsleeve entrepreneurs. Today, the world of William H. Whyte’s Organization Man, with its lifetime white-collar careers and affordable suburban ranch houses, seems a fantasy. But Whyte’s book became a bestseller partly because the men who led the system recognized the dangers of bureaucratic risk aversion, already stigmatized as conformity and even now notorious as groupthink.

The centripetal forces within mass society might be irreversible. But in the zeitgeist of the time, the challenge of international communism seemed to demand a capitalist alternative rooted in defense of the individual against the collective — a Cold War humanism that promised what Watson called “a new age of Pericles,” its citizens liberated from drudgery to pursue higher purposes.

However, according to Franklin, neither executives like Watson nor journalists like Whyte launched the creativity movement. That honor goes to psychologists, “nominally scientists” (ouch!). Psychologists, it seems, could define new social norms with an objective authority that clerics and philosophers could not claim, giving creativity an apparently unassailable status.

The president of the American Psychological Association, Joy Paul Guilford, started the snowball rolling in his address to the APA’s annual meeting in 1950. His audience was then turning against what were perceived as the manipulative collectivist movements of the century’s first half — the behaviorism of BF Skinner and the time-and-motion studies of Frederic Winslow Taylor. And crucially, research funders like the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the Carnegie Corporation of New York responded enthusiastically, as did many academic notables outside psychology.

Creativity neatly squared the circle because, as Franklin notes, the idea helped reconcile psychologists’ potential conflicts of interest between contractual obligations to corporate and government clients with their ethical commitment to individuals. Best of all, creativity was a trait that could be nurtured in every person — a universal form of excellence.

Creativity research was soon institutionalized, as celebrity writers including Truman Capote, and the poets William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Roxroth met with psychologists at the Institute for Personality Assessment and Research for days of lavishly funded Rorschach testing and exalted talk. The National Science Foundation established its own Utah Conferences on the Identification of Creative Scientific Talent.

Some newcomers to the field were practitioners of creative grantsmanship. Donald MacKinnon, a former wartime spy recruiter, transitioned to finding “highly effective people” with foundation and military dollars decades before Stephen Covey mass-marketed the idea. Aided by his brother spymaster, John Gardner, then the president of the Carnegie Corporation, he received a generous five-year grant to compare highly creative folks to merely “effective” ones.

The creativity movement soon began to encounter the paradoxes that have beset it ever since. For feminists like Betty Friedan, creativity for women wasn’t painting or writing at home but finding fulfilment in the professional and business careers long denied them. Creativity researchers took note and moved to address their once-endemic sexism. But another issue remained: the “criteria problem.” Once the concept was extended from the fine arts to science, commerce and industry, there could be no agreement on a definition and the movement risked becoming what Franklin calls a “tautological spiral.”

Further research revealed that the most creative people, marching to their own drummers, were not disposed to be managed by corporate drillmasters. Managers concluded that instead of accommodating geniuses who might never deliver workable ideas, they should focus on increasing the creativity of striving worker-bees.

From this strategy the brainstorming movement was born, the idea of Alexander Osborn, chair of the ad agency BBDO, who made inspiring creativity his retirement project. It became an early example of what is now known as the “hype cycle”: rapturous promotion by the media followed by bitter reflection. One of Osborn’s former competitors, David Ogilvy, even declared brainstorming “the delight of sterile loafers.”

The next creativity movement in line, the “self-actualization” of psychologists like Abraham Maslow, encountered contradictions of its own. Was creativity something that could be kindled in every man or woman? Or was it a quality of innovative souls threatened by the resentment of their inferiors — “a race of improvisers,” as Maslow put it in 1971, revealing the tension between psychology’s promise of universal fulfilment and its obsession with elites.

Maslow was also torn between regarding artistic activity as a paradigm of the creative life or as a means to prepare people to be more effective employees. His accomplishment, Franklin concludes, was shifting the corporate mindset from the hierarchical world of Eastern cities to the hipper capitalism of Silicon Valley.

The real conflict in the creativity movement may be between those who believe that work exists to support creative use of leisure time (e.g., four-day workweek advocates) and those who seek to infuse work itself with creativity.

Franklin gives credit where it is due in a short chapter on the role of the consulting firm Synectics in revising brainstorming techniques to help the once-dominant United Shoe Machinery Corporation to diversify successfully after being threatened by antitrust litigation and foreign competition. He also notes that the creativity movement inspired innovations in advertising — notably Bill Bernbach’s iconic 1959 campaign for the VW Beetle, which used graphics and deadpan humor to turn a strange-looking relic of Third Reich engineering into the heir to a practical American heritage abandoned by a wasteful, tailfin-worshiping Detroit. Creativity could be profitable.

The last chapters of Franklin’s book continue the story of the creativity movement’s oscillation between mass enthusiasm and bitter disillusionment, as revealed by the controversy surrounding the most recent best-selling champion of the concept, the urban planning professor and consultant, Richard Florida. Just as the expansion of state universities as engines of creativity in the 1960s onward relied on the illusion that new Silicon Valleys could be spawned by infusions of (now dwindling) state appropriations, Florida’s influential 2002 book Rise of the Creative Class seemed to offer a key to urban revitalization — only to be followed by controversies over gentrification and the displacement of bohemian urban pioneers by investment bankers and creative accountants.

If there is one notable omission from Franklin’s careful scholarship, it is the absence of an idea that fascinated leftist academia at the very time the creativity movement was first sweeping corporate America: the alienation of workers from the products of their labor, and the possibility of a new industrial order of collective ownership that gave the proletariat leisure for self-expression, as suggested by newly published early manuscripts of Karl Marx. The real conflict in the creativity movement may be between those who believe that work exists to support creative use of leisure time (e.g., four-day workweek advocates) and those who seek to infuse work itself with creativity.

• • •

And the beat goes on. After The Cult of Creativity went to press, a new dimension of creativity studies appeared: artificial intelligence programs that could often match workaday writing and illustration, and sometimes surpass them. Silicon Valley appears poised to augment the product of some white-collar workers, but also to render others redundant. The early Marx would have eagerly cited the training of large language models like ChatGPT on writers’ texts to expropriate their style, welcoming these brain workers to the proletariat. The question Franklin might fruitfully explore is whether creative destruction might be destroying the creators.

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