A Genre of Surpassing Banality
October 13, 2013 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Thomas Frank discusses the literature of the creative class.
posted by sendai sleep master (59 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd like to see Schopenhauer catch on in business circles. "Order 5000 copies of 'The World As Will And Representation' - I want every single employee of this company to read it".
posted by thelonius at 9:19 AM on October 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Creativity is easy. You just connect some concepts that have a low probability of being connected. I can do it with text right now.

"The seven thousand nine hundred and fifty seventh green polkadot fingernail was placed in an aluminum container inscribed with the message 'penguin ashtray glow.'"

I can say with very high certainty that this sentence has never been been written before, and that this idea had never been thought by anyone. It is an entirely unique creation, and entirely useless. How did I know how to synthesize this creative thought? I read about this method in an article in Scientific American on information theory, maybe 30 years ago.

Creativity is overrated.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:21 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm not going to be sorry to to see the TED backlash go mainstream. I see so many recommendations for TED talks, but so few of them really pan out to be worthwhile, and most of those are speakers I already know about on subjects they're already really into. (e.g., David Byrne on the effect of performance acoustics on musical development over history.)

TFA seemed to parallel The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the "creative class".
posted by immlass at 9:27 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can say with very high certainty that this sentence has never been been written before, and that this idea had never been thought by anyone. It is an entirely unique creation, and entirely useless. How did I know how to synthesize this creative thought? I read about this method in an article in Scientific American on information theory, maybe 30 years ago.

Isn't this the exact opposite of creativity? It's algorithmity instead
posted by dng at 9:30 AM on October 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


TED talks are definitely subject to Sturgeon's Law. There are a some great ones (Mike Rowe's, for instance, is great, but it basically says "nevermind 'follow your dream', go work hard"), but there are some that are ... not.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:40 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlie don't surf,

You might like the things my friend writes when he's bored at work. They are randomish.

http://councilofgandalf.deviantart.com/art/The-Klatchkey-Syndrome-341798861?q=gallery%3ACouncilofGandalf&qo=9
posted by ELF Radio at 9:46 AM on October 13, 2013


Superb. Best essay I've read in months. Summary:

Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.”
posted by EnterTheStory at 9:52 AM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


As a (n accidental) graphic designer, I spends hours upon hours researching the creative process and its results.

My conclusion: There are many stunningly creative people out there. Very, very, very few of them are writing about how they do it. The proof is in the pudding, not the process - in fact, real creativity generally breaks rules rather than following them. (That doesn't mean that there aren't rules; just that they are the very rudimentary jumping-off point.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:56 AM on October 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Thinking outside the bollocks.
posted by chavenet at 9:59 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd like to criticize Frank's lumping in of NPR with TED, but, of course, there's this.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:07 AM on October 13, 2013


So "creativity" is really about...marketing? No consumption of "creative" product, no "creativity."

Aargh.

I'm always depressed by arts 'n' crafts stores, the high-end kind, that sell wooden chairs painted in Mexican folk art motifs, jewelry made from anodized aluminum, and asymmetrical pottery. They spring up in vacation spots near major cities and other picturesque areas. The product is often much the same. Though real local or national craftspeople may be putting in their effort making these things, I wouldn't be surprised by an Etsy-like scandal or two, where the crafty items are actually made by impoverished workers in Indonesia. It seems impossible to be radically different and successfully marketable (unless you're a very high-end, conceptual artist).
posted by bad grammar at 10:11 AM on October 13, 2013


And yet his creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.

Except that newspapers, magazines, universities, and record labels are all businesses, no different than 3M or Procter & Gamble or Sam's Club. Those things do not encompass the "creative world" any more than Salon or the New Yorker encompass the world of critical thinking. Just because the things these people are selling are ostensibly "creative" products doesn't correspond in any way to actual human creativity. They're still just products. (Also cf., the David Byrne thread.)

Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

What he's describing is canonization, not creativity. Creativity does not depend on being granted entry into any kind of club. Not every creative person is Van Gogh, nor needs to be. Plenty of creative people languish in obscurity their whole lives, and not all unhappily. It is possible to possess your full creative powers and still tell all these people to fuck off.

I agree that there's a lot of BS out there about the "creative class" etc etc., but this article doesn't seem to do much to enhance or broaden the idea into anything useful. He criticizes the bog-standard punching-bags of the "corporate creativity" backlash and instead offers ... nothing. Can we have a backlash against these tedious letters of complaint next?
posted by mykescipark at 10:20 AM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I like Neal Stephenson's take from his google talk. The best minds of our age are employed coding spam filters and gaming google's ranking algorithm. Lack of creativity is not the problem. It's allocated in silly ways.
posted by bukvich at 10:25 AM on October 13, 2013 [21 favorites]


Glad to never need read a book about creativity again. They promise something a book could never deliver: how to be creative by reading about other creative people - like how to get rich by reading about rich people. In fact one can get rich by retelling the same creative people stories with a catchy book title.

It is great to see an entire genre of non-fiction with its tropes exposed, there are many other genres that could follow.
posted by stbalbach at 10:33 AM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I used to believe in creativity, then I believed in domination and submission. Now I believe in creativity applied to domination and submission.
posted by Teakettle at 10:38 AM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


"The seven thousand nine hundred and fifty seventh green polkadot fingernail was placed in an aluminum container inscribed with the message 'penguin ashtray glow.'"

You are Raymond Roussel and I claim my five pounds.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 10:51 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I laughed at his reference to "Thriving on Chaos". I did my marketing degree in the late 80s (before escaping to teach physics and now I stack shelves). Tom Peters' later books were perfect examples of non-creativity. Each book was thicker than the last and contained the same anecdotes. If I have to read about Peters' malfunctioning car dashboard one more time I'll scream.
posted by EnterTheStory at 10:56 AM on October 13, 2013


I recently saw Steven Johnson speak at an urban design/urban planning conference and marveled at how readily he acknowledged that the story of user-generated innovation isn't so simple, that networks are only good at fixing certain kinds of problems and terrible at other kinds of problems. His anecdotal approach seemed like what I've read about in Tania Li's work on fads in international development, a strategic simplification intended to rally widespread support for a project. The problem was that while he seemed to know the limitations of networks, I am not sure that the readers of his books (or probably the summaries of the books) know that. Or want to know that.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:11 AM on October 13, 2013


I think there's some determined point-missing here. I don't think Frank is saying Van Gough was truly creative because he was accepted by the experts; he's saying what's meant by "creative" now by hip managers might build on the edgy romantic authenticity of the truly creative, but puts that image over its opposite.

I think it's also a mistake to say universities are a business like any other. For-profit universities, with a mission of maximizing shareholder value, are a recent phenomenon. Whether they are really universities is controversial. The old model was an institution with a mission that found a way to support that mission (after all universities evolved from churches); the financial support was not the whole point. Similarly with the artists we now celebrate.
posted by Schmucko at 11:12 AM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't this the exact opposite of creativity? It's algorithmity instead

Inspired creativity is finding the right algorithm.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:27 AM on October 13, 2013


Insipid creativity is pedantry.
posted by mr. digits at 11:28 AM on October 13, 2013


Randomness ≠ Originality ≠ Creativity
posted by Navelgazer at 11:30 AM on October 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


I once read a PhD thesis about creativity. On the first page there was a flowchart depicting a creative process. It consisted of three boxes, labelled "Problem, "Creative thought", and "Solution". The author's comment was that "perhaps the middle box needs certain elaboration".

Years later I discovered that Jonah Lehrer had managed to turn this first-page quip into a full length book, without actually moving a single step beyond it.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:00 PM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


So "creativity" is really about...marketing?

Yes. Ever since Warhol.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 12:05 PM on October 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Interestingly, creativity is not something we see valued (let alone taught) in the educational process -- at least below university postgraduate research level. Indeed, most schooling seems to be focussed on crushing the creative urge in the student, substituting arid repetition of facts and technique for vital insight and innovation.

It's as if our culture pays lip service to something while doing its best to avoid that something.
posted by cstross at 12:10 PM on October 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


So "creativity" is really about...marketing?

Yes. Ever since Warhol.


yeah. by which I mean, in a way, "yeah".

Because I've seen way too many worthy concepts (movies, novels, albums etc) not achieve market success because, despite all the brilliant creativity happening on what we like to call the artistic side, the same was not happening in marketing. If the project even got off the ground, it died a quick death when it came to trying to find its audience, because some gang of drones in suits just put it through some predictable paces, then went out for drinks.

Seriously. Look at any breakout work of pop art of the past half century and superlative as the raw content may have been, if there wasn't some level of equal brilliance in marketing, it didn't catch on.

The Stooges for instance. How could I Wanna Be Your Dog NOT have been a monster hit? Because nobody in marketing met it halfway, got behind it.
posted by philip-random at 12:13 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even Picasso needed his Khanweiler.
posted by mr. digits at 12:18 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Inspired creativity is finding the right algorithm.

An algorithm is defined as "any trick that works repeatably."
posted by charlie don't surf at 12:38 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's as if our culture pays lip service to something while doing its best to avoid that something.

Thank you... this is a brilliant summation of the last half decade of my life in a large corporation.

The funny thing is, the engineers and marketers and even managers in that corporation were astoundingly, amazingly creative. And their ideas were thrown away, as the company writhed and struggled to not look at them, to never change anything, all the while screaming "Innovation!" over and over. The word literally makes me physically ill now.

For "ten pounds of good ideas pounded into a thousand miles of track", go read up on TRIZ. I'm sure there will be more business manuals on it.

I'm going to go have my flashback anxiety attack now.
posted by underflow at 12:43 PM on October 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Creativity is overrated.

I had been curious about what uncreative people think creativity is. Turns out it's uninspired.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:45 PM on October 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I can say with very high certainty that this sentence has never been been written before, and that this idea had never been thought by anyone. It is an entirely unique creation...

oh you artists, you think you being so creative with your unique sentences. everyone knows that with a finite alphabet and bounded word length the total set of written works is finite: every sentence, every book ever written. unique? you might as well have never typed it, a simple algorithm specifies your sentence and every other one... given enough time to run.
posted by ennui.bz at 12:51 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good insight! Creativity is the lapdog of monetization - monetization via TED, museum art...you name it. The irony inside the latter insight is how the generally unsung creativity of the financial class - in its seemingly endless invention of ways to leverage the end product of our desires - sucks nearly everything into its black hole, appears, when exposed, as the real source of the true power of the upper classes.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:28 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: yeah. by which I mean, in a way, "yeah".
posted by Diablevert at 1:36 PM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


if you really want to know how valued creativity is in the marketplace, take a creative job just about anywhere. Chances are extremely ( extremely, extremely) good that you will be at, or very near, the bottom of the pay scale.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:57 PM on October 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


"The seven thousand nine hundred and fifty seventh green polkadot fingernail was placed in an aluminum container inscribed with the message 'penguin ashtray glow.'"

FUCK.

(Goes to delete a certain sentence in his current work in progress)
posted by jscalzi at 2:16 PM on October 13, 2013 [19 favorites]


An algorithm is defined as "any trick that works repeatably."

Just about any creative work you enjoy is built upon a set of rules that have been learned over centuries that are known to work. The creativity comes in tweaking those rules just enough that the end result says something meaningful.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:33 PM on October 13, 2013


> The funny thing is, the engineers and marketers and even managers in that corporation were astoundingly,
> amazingly creative. And their ideas were thrown away, as the company writhed and struggled to not look at
> them, to never change anything, all the while screaming "Innovation!" over and over.

HP flat out told Steve Wozniak that his itty bitty desktop computer soldered together from existing parts was a great idea but was not right for HP, and that he should do it on his own as a startup. So hokay, he did. You got a great idea? Don't try to interest Megacorp in it. They might indeed actually know a great idea if it bit them on the ass, they just don't care to get bit on the ass. Go do it yourself as a startup.


> creative job

jumbo shrimp
posted by jfuller at 3:41 PM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had been curious about what uncreative people think creativity is. Turns out it's uninspired.

or as John Cleese put it a while back ...


comes in around the 2 minute point
posted by philip-random at 4:29 PM on October 13, 2013


And now for a dull version of one of the dullest 'human' algorithmic artistic careers.

(It's a self link to an applet that is past its Bar Mitzvah age, and needed a little help to work with current browsers) Also, grouchy.
posted by hexatron at 4:39 PM on October 13, 2013


> I think there's some determined point-missing here. I don't think Frank is saying Van Gogh was truly creative because he was
> accepted by the experts; he's saying what's meant by "creative" now by hip managers might build on the edgy romantic
> authenticity of the truly creative, but puts that image over its opposite.

This. Frank's actual line: "Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus."

I'm going to take that as explicit acknowledgement of the difference between creativity in se--which, like many a rose, can be born to blush unseen--and "what we call creativity", which is a different fish entirely.


That said, just because you were born to blush unseen doesn't prove you won't suddenly and unexpectedly get a sudden rush of popularity. Even poor wretched Henry Darger had a bit of a moment not long ago.
posted by jfuller at 4:50 PM on October 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The seven thousand nine hundred and fifty seventh green polkadot fingernail was placed in an aluminum container inscribed with the message 'penguin ashtray glow.'

Randomness ≠ Originality ≠ Creativity

Randomness is not itself creative, but it can beget creativity in observers as they search for (and unconsciously invent) meaning in what they're seeing. Creativity is an existential defense mechanism.
posted by jon1270 at 5:50 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


And now for a dull version of one of the dullest 'human' algorithmic artistic careers.

Zombo.com?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:03 PM on October 13, 2013


Even poor wretched Henry Darger had a bit of a moment not long ago.

Had? Surely he's canon now. Major part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Folk Art in NYC, etc.
posted by escabeche at 6:31 PM on October 13, 2013


This "penguin ashtray glow" thing, you gotta working prototype? I can
connect you up with some fat wallets that have been looking for something
like this to get behind. Have your people call mine. This just might be the New Black!
posted by Chitownfats at 7:16 PM on October 13, 2013


one of the dullest 'human' algorithmic artistic careers

I was sure this was going to link to Tao Lin.
posted by hap_hazard at 7:22 PM on October 13, 2013


The point of this paragraph -
And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.
- is to mark Mr. Csikszentmihalyi as a philistine who doesn't know what creativity is. Take a hint from the last quotation there.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:36 PM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Randomness is not itself creative

My statement was not at all random. It was highly creative. There could be an actual fingernail that was 7957th in a sequence, it could be colored in green polkadots, it could be placed in an aluminum container, and the container could be inscribed with the words "penguin ashtray glow." The sentence has semantic meaning, you could even visualize the event it describes. It just doesn't have any context that would give it significance.

This is random:

d95mx4RCyeDJwF0NU84u
kZ8BHONwpxkuO9WKw2GB
nilSxHWDouHaWz7ADTCB

Anyway, as I said before, creativity is overrated. Nowadays it is sometimes conflated with originality, which also is overrated. Creativity and originality are not linked. You could have a creative idea that was not original, you just might not know that idea already existed. You could have an original idea that was not creative, like writing down the results of a hundred dice rolls and using them to select every n-th word from a random book, then writing down those words in a sequence.

But more to the point, it was only in modern times that originality and creativity were considered valuable. Just in the arts for example, until modern times (and even today in certain genres) originality was undesirable and an artist's merit was judged on his ability to exactly duplicate the works of his predecessors. That's what a "masterpiece" is, it is a work that shows mastery, in the sense that it shows the student has shown sufficient ability to duplicate the work of his master.

Or as one of my art professors said it, "Does the world really need more designers to create new and original silverware? Aren't the designs we have today varied enough to appeal to anyone's tastes, and useful enough?" Sometimes the world just doesn't need newly created creative crap.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:47 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, but, did the world "need" Picasso, Stravinsky? Weren't we already
ass-deep in putters-of-paint-on-canvases and writers-of-chicken-scratches-on-
paper-indicating-musical-sounds? Your professor's short-sightedness would
have left the spork stillborn!
posted by Chitownfats at 8:37 PM on October 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sometimes the world just doesn't need newly created creative crap.

Maybe sometimes! But not now.
posted by escabeche at 8:52 PM on October 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Does the world really need more designers to create new and original silverware? Aren't the designs we have today varied enough to appeal to anyone's tastes, and useful enough?"

Somehow, this reminds me of a quote from Fight Club: "I flipped through catalogs and wondered: What kind of dining set defines me as a person? "
posted by rmd1023 at 9:07 PM on October 13, 2013


"Does the world really need more designers to create new and original silverware? Aren't the designs we have today varied enough to appeal to anyone's tastes, and useful enough?"

I'm clueless on silverware, but we definitely fresh and original music, cinema, fiction. As long as life keeps offering fresh passions, problems, questions, atrocities etc.
posted by philip-random at 9:43 PM on October 13, 2013


I recall Moliere said there were only a about 17 basic plots of stories, and only about a dozen basic characters. You can dress it up and stage it differently, but you're still just remixing themes that have been around for centuries.

BTW the spork was patented in 1874. It is one of the varied and adequate silverware designs that already existed. However as far as painting goes (and I am a painter) I always quote Jean Dubuffet, who said, "The job of the painter is to cover a surface in an interesting manner." I have never been quite sure if he was serious, or he was joking, or both. But I am sure he is right.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:37 PM on October 13, 2013


cstross: "Interestingly, creativity is not something we see valued (let alone taught) in the educational process -- at least below university postgraduate research level. Indeed, most schooling seems to be focused on crushing the creative urge in the student, substituting arid repetition of facts and technique for vital insight and innovation.

It's as if our culture pays lip service to something while doing its best to avoid that something.
"

It's said that the practice of engineering is design with constraints, and as such I believe you need both creativity and a critical eye to succeed. My only undergraduate degree is in Computer Science, so perhaps my experience differs from that of yours, but we generally require students to have vital insights and make things in every class. Student's homework is typically the construction of software, the underpinnings of which is typically graded by how well it performs the assigned task. Sometimes faculty include additional constraints, like coding styles, but these serve to make the software clearer, rather than obfuscate it.

The curriculum's lack of rote repetition certainly made it more appealing than say history or biology. I don't think more than 1 percent of CS degree holders could tell you who first described quicksort, or who recommended the median of three heuristic for choosing the pivot. Instead we ask you to solve smaller problems, culminating in quicksort.

If our culture somehow undervalues creativity, it's not a universal educational process doing it.
posted by pwnguin at 10:58 PM on October 13, 2013


I don't think more than 1 percent of CS degree holders could tell you who first described quicksort

"shellsort" is named after Shell, the guy who invented it. I conclude that bubblesort was invented by Mr. Bubble.
posted by thelonius at 3:47 AM on October 14, 2013


Note that cstross is a denizen of Scotia Minor, as far as what might be meant when he says "our culture". Though Wikipedia says he has a degree in Computer Science also.
posted by XMLicious at 3:48 AM on October 14, 2013


"Creativity" is a worthless concept because it's an insipid generality that tries to round up everything that's unique and interesting. If you recognize something as "creative," that means it's formulaic. If you try to "be creative," you've immediately put yourself in bondage. It's a dormitive principle of thought and work.
posted by mbrock at 12:46 PM on October 14, 2013


phillip-random: despite all the brilliant creativity happening on what we like to call the artistic side, the same was not happening in marketing.

In my experience, what you commonly see is almost an inverse relation between the creativity of the product and the creativity of the marketing team. This actually makes perfect sense:
posted by lodurr at 2:05 PM on October 14, 2013


It's all Einstein's fault for saying "Imagination is more important than knowledge." But you know what's even more overrated than creativity? Efficiency.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:13 PM on October 14, 2013


the biggest problem with things being overrated is the backlash. knowledge, creativity and efficiency are all incredibly valuable, and are all overrated. when the inevitable backlash hits (either locally, in the mind of an individual, or memetically), we lose a great deal of the benefit we could be getting from the overrated thing.
posted by lodurr at 6:17 AM on October 15, 2013


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