"When a word is used loosely, however, like an overflowing suitcase, it loses its capacity to convey precise meaning.  When everything is creative, nothing is creative.  What then is the way forward?"

Look up the word “creative” on the internet and you get, in no particular order: creative wireless speakers, creative branding, the Creative team of the Hillsong Church (“encompasses many areas, not only worship music and singers”), creative media, creative business, creative pizza (“We Don’t Just Make It, We Create It”), Awakening Creativity “(your genius is already within”), Testing Creativity (“instant results”), creative cities, Creative Kids (a voucher scheme), creative leadership (“our goal is to build the mindset of Human Intelligence 2.0”), and my personal favourite: 9 Ways to Become More Creative in the Next 10 Minutes (“creativity is a skill to be learned, practiced and developed just like any other”).

And now that we are all stuck at home, we can add two more to the list: “Fighting COVID with Creativity” and the intriguingly named “5 Most Creative COVID-19 Songs by Malaysians”.

Are all these things really creative?  The answer may be less important than the fact we can accept their claims to “creativity” as plausible.  These may be legitimate, and that’s enough to pass muster.  What harm is the self-description doing in the end anyway?

Try substituting the word “medical” or “legal” for “creative” and quickly you will come up against the limits of interpretive acceptability.  Yet, centuries ago, these terms too were bandied about with similar abandon.  You didn’t need to be a licenced medical practitioner to be a doctor, and many of the remedies in vogue at the time were, well, creative, to say the least.  If we now use the word “medical” to describe a precise set of objects and activities, and the word “creative” to describe an array of endlessly diverse ones, it is because we have changed, in outlook if not vocabulary.

So, what does the broad application of “creativity” today tell us about ourselves?

The word creative comes from the Latin creo, meaning “to create or make”.  In the Medieval period it was strongly associated with the biblical story of God’s creation of the world from nothing: creatio ex nihilo.  What we now call arts and culture weren’t seen as creative, only skilled. More importantly, people weren’t creative, since this quality was reserved for God.  If some artistic work was outstanding in some way, it was inspired by God.  The artist had little to do with it, which is perhaps why they so rarely put their names to their works.

During the Renaissance a new conception of what it meant to be human drew creativity into an earthly orbit.  Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (full title Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) published in 1550 marks the moment when, like God’s spark of life passing to Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco, man (and it invariably was a man) became a primum mobilum: a creator in his own right.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the artist was firmly established as the locus of creativity, associated especially with the glories of English literature, from Shakespeare to Keats. Here, though it has not been around for a hundred years, arose the negative image of creativity as the exclusive preserve of the talented few.   In the writing of art critic John Ruskin, and the ‘great man’ history put forward by Thomas Carlyle, creativity narrowed to a handful of individual geniuses.

In the twentieth century, creativity has escaped this narrow pen, in large part because it is obvious that many other areas of life have a significant creative component to them.   The scientific advances of the modern period are as magical and mysterious for most people as the appearance of life itself to those in the Middle Ages.  That science should be seen as creative seems only its due.  Where else do the discoveries of string theory, quantum physics, and higher mathematics come from if not from the well-springs of our endless fertile imaginations? Thus creativity has become associated neither with God nor human beings, but with a process, one that could be objectified and analysed like any other.  

In 1950, the psychologist JP Guildford gave an address to the American Psychological Association in which he recommended a “scientific” approach to conceptualising creativity and measuring it psychometrically.  Like Vasari’s book, it marks a transformation in collective understanding that is then reflected in a changed use of a word. “Creativity” began its heady ascent into its present bloated definition, appended to everything from the search for the grand unified theory of particle physics to the search for the perfect shaving experience.  But why has the word “creativity” been allowed to inflate to such fatuous proportions?

The answer is to be found, again, in what is happening in the non-creative domain.   Since the 1980s, many Western countries, Australia included, have been de-industrialising, leaving behind the age of mass manufacturing and becoming instead purveyors of services and IP.  Where manufactures have continued it has been in niche markets.  So, it has been imperative to boost, even valorise, the processes of product innovation, to emphasise “the value add”.  What better word to use than “creative” one with such an impressive past?  Industry has snagged the word for its own purposes, leaving arts and culture in the position in the 1990s of having to snag it back (hence “the creative industries”).

When a word is used loosely, however, like an overflowing suitcase, it loses its capacity to convey precise meaning.  When everything is creative, nothing is creative.  What then is the way forward?

One solution is to reverse direction, to insist that only certain things are genuinely creative.  There’s some merit in this.  There’s the creativity involved in arranging a spice rack, and the creativity involved in writing War and Peace.  To equate the two is to trivialise the second, and creativity generally.

Another solution, perhaps less obvious, is to allow the word to grow in its many meanings and to look for where it might be headed next.  Today, the world faces unprecedented challenges – inequality, environmental degradation, the two-edged sword of social media, and now a world-wide pandemic. If we are to rise to them, we will need more than just new i-phones and portable 3-D printers.  We will need a whole new way of life – dare I say it, a more creative way of life, one not so corrosive of the bonds that tie us to the natural world, and to each other.

“The meaning of a word is its use” claimed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  As “creativity” continues it epic semantic journey through the current COVID-19 crisis it illuminates the new aspirations of those who deploy it.

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Dr Julian Meyrick is Professor of Creative Arts at Griffith University's Centre for Creative Industries.

The son of an English father and Australian mother, Julian studied politics and economics at Exeter University. He took an MA in theatre directing in the US and was later Associate Director and Literary Adviser at Melbourne Theatre Company. He has a PhD in the history of Australian theatre and was a Research Fellow at La Trobe University. From 2012 to 2019 he was Professor of Creative Arts at Flinders University.

He has directed over sixty theatre shows, and is winner of the Helpmann Award for Best New Work in 2012. He is a member of the Currency House editorial committee and the Council for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Board, and is Artistic Counsel for the State Theatre Company of South Australia. He is a regular media commentator on matters of Australian theatre and Australian cultural policy.