Creativity and Personality for Cash

Thomas Frank pores over the literature on creativity, and pins down its themes, motivations, and its intended audience:

Those who urge us to “think different” . . . almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science — by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

He determines that this literature sells creativity as not simply a personal trait that brings meaning and fulfillment as it helps create lasting, substantive work. Instead, it’s a “class virtue,” and the “property” of the professional-managerial class (not, say, artists, writers, or performers):

Creativity is what [the professional-managerial class] bring[s] to the national economic effort, these books reassure them — and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

Now, I’ve just begun reading Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in the World That Can’t Stop Talking, and it begins with a short recent-history of the rise of extroversion as a self-evident virtue, describing a move from societal reverence for character to personality. And the gist is not that “personality” — being personally “winning” or extroverted — is a way to a happier and more meaningful life, but the domain of the professional class to advance itself financially.

It begins to seem like these two things, creativity and extroversion, are being treated as two sides of the same coin. And that coin is huge and made of platinum. These are not traits for self-actualization, they are commodities to be harvested and cashed in.

And here’s the really big dissonance for me: What I think of as “creativity,” or at least of the “creative person” (and I hope I am one), enormously overlaps with introversion. It’s the folks who are sick of making small talk and want to be left alone to do their own thing who are creative, because for god’s sake who can be creative with all this chatting and networking and whatnot going on? That’s my prejudice, anyway.

Then you have Alan Jacobs who says:

[T]he problem is that there’s actually no such thing as “creativity.” It’s a made-up concept bearing no relation to anything that exists. It’s a classic case of what the Marxists used to call “false reification.” Let’s never speak of it again.

Well, I guess “money” doesn’t actually “exist” either. It, too, is a (false?) reification. So maybe it all makes a kind of twisted, extremely disappointing sense.

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