Commodifying Creativity

Today I spent some adding photographs to my Red Bubble account – creating products from my creativity. At the end of the day I was tired from deciding which photographs worked better as iPhone cases, which ones looked better on tote bags, and whether my existing edits would translate to the new iPhone 6 cases. Of course, everything looks fantastic (I have to say that), but really I was just making sure that I am part of the Creative Creep described by Joshua Rothman.

In the article he describes how we have linked creativity with producing some kind of output – a TED talk, a hit blog, a best selling book, an iconic t-shirt. The concept of creative outputs has also moved into the corporate world, with “creativity” now a valued skill in executives (and a stack of self-help books are available to help you unleash yours).  The article returned to an older concept of two types of imagination:

People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates, as Engell puts it, like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life.

This second kind of imagination, or creativity, is something that resides inside our minds/heart/soul – whatever your term for it. It is the part of you that sees the beauty in the passing moment. Many years ago I lived in Papua New Guinea. At times we had to catch small boats in the early morning, or early evening. Sometimes the wind would smooth the water so it looked like rippled glass, at other times the bioluminescence would glow in the wake made by the outboard motor. Momentary breath-taking beauty that can’t be commodified, but can be experienced by anyone open to looking at life around them through the lens of an inner creativity.

Rothman goes on to discuss how “in contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem.” The irony of reading that line after a day of putting my images onto stuff hammered home, but I found some peace in the last paragraph of the article. Here Rothman refers to a poem by Coleridge that opens with an observation of frost at midnight. I was immediately drawn back to my first weeks in winter in Mongolia. It  was -30C outside. Inside the central heating kept us cosy, but the contrast between the heat and the cold created amazing ice patterns on the windows of our apartment. I found myself watching them change throughout the day, melting in the sun, re-freezing into a different pattern a night, disappearing completely when the temperature warmed a few degrees. Whole worlds in miniature would appear and disappear with the rising and setting of the sun.

 Among the many things we lost when we abandoned the Romantic idea of creativity, the most valuable may have been the idea of creativity’s stillness. If you’re really creative, really imaginative, you don’t have to make things. You just have to live, observe, think, and feel. Coleridge, in his poem “Frost at Midnight,” uses, as his metaphor for the creative imagination, the frost, which freezes the evening dew into icicles “quietly shining up at the quiet moon.” The poem begins: “The Frost performs its secret ministry, / Unhelped by any wind.” The secret, silent, delicate, and temporary work of the frost is creativity, too. It doesn’t build, but it transforms. It doesn’t last, but it matters.


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