Friday, April 26, 2024

"The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History"

From the Milken Institute Review,  

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....