Each historical moment heats up particular words so bright they glow like Times Square neon. During the American Revolution, "liberty" was white hot. The sixties pushed "love" into the footlights. Today's word is "creativity." Creativity -- as in the MacArthur "genius" grants, the Ted Talks, American Idol, Mad Men, President Obama's defense of immigration, finding the next Google-like inventor, YouTube, and on and on. While "death" rightfully dredges up 154,213 titles on Amazon, "creativity" instantly summons a not-too-shabby 15,443. No surprise that before his fall, Jonah Lehrer's bestselling books were all about the "C" word.
Mind you, I'm a fan. I'd kiss creativity's soft little head any day. All the same, our collective exaltation of it is extreme and highlights a cultural problem: We're over-glorifying a fantasy of individual innovative genius, and asking it to carry weight it was never meant to bear. As the text copy of Lehrer's now discredited, Imagine: How Creativity Works, puts it: "Imagine reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind and its essential role in our increasingly complex world." The line is banal, a "duh," but at the same time, its subtext implies that CREATIVITY will save us. Really?
To understand what I'm suggesting, think for a moment about one of our favorite pop culture heroes: Don Draper of Mad Men. If you believe the show's premise, creative solutions come to those with a trigger to their temples: You're in advertising. Your client has demanded something NEW. Your lackeys have drawn up mediocre ideas, the clock has ticked down, and now it's on you. That's when Draper, the 007 of Madison Avenue, clicks into deep-inventiveness overdrive, sketches the stunningly original ad which delights his customers - and wins a bonus.
Okay, not quite and not always. But I've conveyed the core fantasy. Think of those cartoons where the character, backed into a corner, paints a door and lets himself out. It's all about the corner. Draper's appeal isn't only that he's a sexy ad genius, it's that he's desperate, and his desperation delivers a jolt of self-recognition to our unconscious minds; it permeates us as deeply as his creative escape. The two go hand in hand.
And, if we take stock of our situations even a little frankly, we will quickly notice that we're kind of cornered too. Not so much the our-own-inevitable-death thing, but rather more by some of those other AK47s aimed at our heads -- climate change, nuclear terrorism, gridlocked government, our weird new media/virtual world, and the out-of-control global capitalism that threatens us all with a future of serfdom tilling fields for gillionaire hedge fund operators.
How will we save ourselves? The 001 percent can build family terrariums on Mars -- for everyone else there's ever deeper inventiveness. No accident that the other day I saw a man sitting on the sidewalk selling bumper stickers that read, "What would Don Draper do?" The social safety net is shredding, and upward mobility has slowed to a crawl. So creativity is the straw left to grasp. We are in Don Draper's thrall because he invents his whole identity, and because he keeps -- barely -- swinging to safety on a rope he's just sketched with chalk.
And, here's the clincher: his survival suggests that, just maybe, creativity is enough to save us, too. If we can win American Idol, or write a wildly original film script, or something -- then maybe someone will offer us loan forgiveness or health benefits, or raise our social status above the rest of the lumpen mass. So too, if we can sketch out the affordable solar panel, or Gerry-build a scheme that stops Greenland from melting, then we can cop a MacArthur while helping everyone rediscover the word "future."
Revealingly, Draper's genius is focused on selling stuff. Read biographies of real people and you learn that objects -- or works of art, scientific discoveries, and social changes -- that are meaningful tend to come into being through slow labor, sustained individual AND collective effort, patience, and sacrifice. Growing creativity into something that is actually useful, bringing it to a successful level of mastery, is a process opposite to Draper's desperate version. There are exceptions, but creative mastery usually does better when underpinned by a living wage, encouragement, practice, and dialogue. And did I mention time? The amount of trial-and-error time required for even small bits of creative mastery is humbling.
Asking creativity to save us from all we're now facing, and from all we're failing to do collectively, institutionally, and politically is a desperate act, a measure of our sense of helplessness in our too-rapidly evolving world more than of our well-being. Yes, our creative capacity is awesome, yet how ironic that overvaluing it has become our collective, unconscious, proxy for hope.