BY AMY F. OGATA
Associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City.
We can’t seem to get enough of that word.
We encounter it everywhere: in stores, in media, in business, and now, according to a recent article, “Creativity: A Cure for the Common Curriculum” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it is a general educational requirement on some college campuses.
In the article, Thomas R. Fisher claims, “Humans are naturally playful, creative beings … we’re doing something to kids in grade school that drums the creativity out of them.” Parents of young children have heard this before. They encounter the mixed message that their children are “naturally” creative, but also that the “right” toys will stimulate certain cognitive skills, and specific kinds of play or classes might help to develop imagination or musical ability. A similar logic is now being used on college students with the promise that their “innate” talents can be honed with creative thinking courses.
But why do we have such faith in creativity? What does creativity promise that we are so anxious get? The architectural critic Brendan Gill once described creativity as “a word as light and wayward and almost as untetherable as milkweed down.” The word “creativity” is associated with synonyms such as imagination, inspiration, innovation, and individuality. But these are as abstract as creativity itself.
Why, then, is there so much effort to lay claim to something so ill-defined and elusive?
Creativity is an attractive, perhaps even sacrosanct, idea and we often understand it in only positive terms. In this sense, it has attained the status of a cultural myth. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, childhood creativity was discussed as an untapped natural resource that could be cultivated and harvested for strategic future gains. Baby boom birthrates and Cold War tensions gave childhood creativity a special allure. Creativity became the useful opposite of totalitarianism and social conformity, and it renewed a much older exceptionalist notion of American ingenuity. Yet the trope of its universality, especially in children, was accompanied with the concomitant fear of its loss.
|Herbert Matter, Poster for Knoll Furniture, 1955.|
My book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America, attempts to historicize the idea of creativity rather than accept it as a “natural” fact. I argue that after World War II, creativity was a discourse that was understood in rosy, nationalistic terms and was embedded and materialized in toys, houses, school architecture, arts education curricula, and public museums. While toymakers invoked creativity to sell educational toys year-round, educators and architects embraced the idea of creativity as a way of engaging school-aged children in learning. For middle- and upper-middle-class parents of baby-boom children, creativity was a productive means of cultivating both childrens’ minds and their own hobbies and interests. “Creative” building toys, playhouses, sculptural playgrounds, well-stocked playrooms were recommended in parenting magazines as ways of nurturing individuality and self-reliance. Low-rise public schools, psychologically informed arts education and new types of “hands-on” museums made creativity a key ingredient in building and sustaining democracy. Creativity served many interests and it was invoked, discussed, and given material shape in an era of dramatic social and educational change, and looming geopolitical anxiety.
Creativity was also a new field of scientific research. Postwar psychologists began to study the subject in earnest after J.P. Guilford gave his inaugural address on creativity in 1950 as president of the American Psychological Association. While some explored the qualities that distinguished great artists and scientists, many more promoted the idea that creativity was innate and often overlooked in American children. Harold H. Anderson argued at a conference in the 1950s that “creativity was in each one of us as a small child. In children creativity is a universal. Among adults it is almost nonexistent. The great question is: What has happened to this enormous and universal human resource?”
The desire to harness childhood creativity and a sense of peril motivated the expansion of the creativity discourse in the postwar era, just as it has today. Dan Berrett, author of the Chronicle article, suggests that colleges implementing creativity requirements reason that students “will be more adaptable both as employees and citizens in an uncertain future.” The rhetoric of creativity in education is strongly tied to the marketplace and the fear that insufficiently creative Americans will lose out in the global economy. Robert J. Sternberg of Oklahoma State University’s Institute for Creativity and Innovation wonders how students will be able to compete in a changing global economy and surmises that without adapting, “we’re going to be left behind in the dust.” These sentiments precisely echo postwar fears of Soviet scientific and military advancement and the radiant image of the creative child as the authentic figure of hope.
Amy F. Ogata is author of Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. She is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City.
“At a time when the news media is again concerned about a crisis in American creativity, schools are cutting funding for arts education, major foundations are modeling ways that students and teachers might ‘play’ with new media, and museums worry about declining youth attendance, Designing the Creative Child makes an important intervention, reminding us that these debates build upon a much longer history of efforts to support and enhance the creative development of American youth. I admire this fascinating, multidisciplinary account which couples close attention to the design of everyday cultural materials with an awareness of the debates in educational theory, public policy, children’s literature, and abstract art which informed them.”
—Henry Jenkins, Editor, The Children’s Culture Reader