Creativity Is Partially A Social Construct

When I was writing my post last week about research suggesting that creativity is often a choice people make, I kept seeing citations referencing an article written by Howard Becker. So I followed up on those citations. It was actually Becker that pointed out many times creative practice involves executing repetitive tasks.

In his article, Becker suggests there is a lot of what we would objectively consider creativity being done out there. It isn’t rare or special at all.  However, societal rules often dictate who and what gets to be considered creative. It is not what is being done, but rather who is doing it.

This doesn’t contradict the idea that creativity is an individual’s choice because internal perception about what is worthwhile is often shaped by external factors, including societal perceptions. Whether you decide to self-censor or just do it, and the rationalization behind just doing it, can be very personal.

There have been other articles written about the fact that people say they value creativity but are afraid of the disruption it might introduce so what is acceptable creativity often falls in a pretty narrow range.

Or as Becker puts it, (my emphasis)

I think it likely that what we, from a different standpoint, might call creative often makes trouble by being “too” creative, too different, not easily assimilable by the organizational apparatus already in place to deal with the category its products belong to, and thus not entitled to such an honorific title as “creative.” Only a short distance separates “creative: from “pain in the ass.”

Becker says there is creativity all around us, but it is being performed by groups who aren’t “allowed” to be creative for various reasons.

Conventional judges, working in conventional organizations, may well classify whatever such workers do as ordinary, certainly not creative or original, because that entire category of work or, alternatively, any kind of work done by members of those social categories, conventionally falls into the category of “uninteresting” and therefore essentially incapable of generating creativity. If the problems those people deal with in their work aren’t “important,” no solution they create can deserve the label of “creative.”

I wondered if an element of this is what reinforced the idea of the starving artist–the sense that the suffering outsider has license to be creative in a manner and magnitude that a person without that backstory isn’t. Accidentally mix up the bios and maybe the starving artist has to starve a little longer while the person standing to their left gets discovered.

Becker cites the example of a mother who has to balance the dietary preferences of a family of fussy eaters against a food budget, what is stocked in the stores and how much time is available for preparation. In other environments, a person navigating such challenges with aplomb might be lauded. Mom’s efforts often pass without comment.

No one gives “genius awards” to these inventors. Not even James Beard Awards for creative cookery. Their creativity goes unremarked and does not provide the subject matter for studies in the field (although culinary critics of course will treat similar experiments by well-known chefs with awe and reverence). Conventional thinking does not imagine that women who are not specially trained and educated can be creative, and some people still think that women are simply, perhaps genetically, incapable of the kind of unusual thinking that merits the word “creative.”

I think there is still more to consider about creativity than what I have written about in the last few days. In an email last week to Carter Gillies, I noted that people often talk about creative practice providing a sense of transcendence and connection with something greater. Theater, dance, song and visual arts all originated with religious and spiritual practice. It isn’t unreasonable to think that people continue to identify with some element of this.

In part, whether you feel a sense of that greater connection may define whether you view an activity is drudgery or having creative associations.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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