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Creativity and Utility

jessicarizzo's picture

In their article, “The Creativity Crisis,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman briefly describe the activity of “paracosm” creation, a form of play most often observed in middle childhood. Those who, as nine and ten year olds, demonstrated a special affinity for fantasizing entire alternative worlds seem to be very well represented in high-profile clubs of future movers and shakers like MacArthur “genius” award recipients. But, the authors say, “From fourth grade on, creativity no longer occurs in a vacuum; researching and studying become an integral part of coming up with useful solutions.”

            The notion of utility is the piece of the education debate that I want to briefly take up here. In the ordinary life-world, where policy-making and thought-experimenting have to jostle for space, values like utility, efficiency, and practicality seem to me to be by far the most difficult of our false cultural idols to smash. This may be because they are content-less in a very particular way. Values like “freedom” that often get appealed to in politics can much more easily be exposed as empty because the concepts contain vivid, self-canceling, contradictory imagery. In the case of freedom, we see that if our valuing of the value is absolute, it tips over into its opposite, tyranny, as we give our leaders permission to do whatever it takes, including curtailing freedom in all sorts of gruesome ways, in order to bring freedom to all. Still, freedom endures as a rallying cry, despite the fact that no one who feels comfortable wielding the word as a weapon can possibly have thought their way through the implications to the “meaning” or any positive content of the value, of the word. 

            “Utility” is far slipperier, and more insidious, because even those who aren’t in the habit of uncritically accepting existing values feel compelled to take for granted or concede when it comes to utility. It hides under the radar because it’s more of a middle-man than something flashily specific and photogenic like “family” values. Culture wars don’t really get fought over utility. We all want the machine to work, even if we have minor differences of opinion about what we want the products of the machine to be. A machine that’s not good for everybody is at least a machine that’s good for some people, but what good can an inefficient machine possibly be?

            To use a local example, in December of 2009 when right-wing bile was rising in response to certain federal stimulus money allocation decisions, Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company came under attack. It was featured on a Fox News segment focusing on Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn’s “Stimulus Checkup” report, in which they identified one hundred examples of “silly or shortsighted” stimulus projects across the country. The theatre company, with its funny name and self-description as a “dance-clown theatre ensemble,” was an easy target. One can’t get much “sillier.” Philadelphia’s Cultural Alliance Chief Operating Officer appeared on Fox, looking like a deer in the headlights as he was grilled by a sneering anchor who questioned the decision to fund the arts, given the depth of the economic despair in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Even the head of the Cultural Alliance was able to be maneuvered into a position from which he could only justify the funding on the basis of job creation and giving the working people a little entertainment at the end of the day, so they could rest up and, presumably, get back to working extra hard tomorrow. There was no discussion of the intrinsic importance of art, a whimsical idea, a butterfly that quickly get smashed on the windshield of the economist’s car when we allow the terms of the discussion to be defined by the limits of the present social and political reality. But art-making, the grownup version of paracosm-creation is about creating anarchic spaces, parallel realities in which people can think, create, and live more fully than in the “real” world where everything is subject to a cost-benefit analysis. The paracosm play doesn’t “serve” the real world; it is the real world. 

            Art and education play analogous roles in society, and in the formation of individuals. Both can be, at best, occasions to encounter strategically placed points of resistance that will ask you to let any “truths” or “values” you’ve let ossify give a little, or maybe a lot. A good artist arranges and forces a confrontation with those points of resistance differently than a good teacher in a classroom does, naturally, but I see them encountering the same difficulties when asked to justify themselves, to testify to the “utility” of what it is they do. Artists and educators usually agree to have the debate on the terms of the people concerned about “practical” solutions, because the debate is also winnable on that terrain. But this is not merely secondary. Arguing that, for strictly economic reasons, it would behoove us to pay attention to education as a country might be the easiest, most non-threatening argument to make politically, but won’t it eventually repel most of the teachers with the potential to educate creative thinkers? Just as art will lose its raison d'être when the only art that can get funded is palliative entertainment for worker bees, education will become glorified babysitting until the child is strong enough to enter the workforce, at best, or, at worst, brainwashing. We can’t keep arguing that we need to focus on improving education for the sake of our G.D.P., which must stay ahead of China’s or the world will end, as Thomas Friedman of the Times likes to do. Young children missing the opportunities to get “hooked” on learning at the crucial early stages do not care about the G.D.P. More importantly, those teachers capable of cultivating passion rather than test-taking aptitude in their students will be discouraged, and finally disgusted enough to simply bail out and seek alternative spaces for creativity incubation when the classroom becomes a place where only specific kinds of results are expected to be generated. 

The ostensibly purer biological “survival” narrative is so close to the capitalistic one that it might be desirable to do away with words like “useful” altogether in discussing education. People like Friedman think that creativity is a virtue in a capitalist society because we need a stream of relentlessly inventive American entrepreneurs to come up with new things to sell and more imaginative ways to move numbers around so that we can stay “on top,” something we measure, of course, according to the one, true, only scale.  Money, utility, survival. It might be argued that this is one qualifying form of creativity. I want to suggest that creativity with any measurable utility quotient is not the kind of creativity we ought to be nurturing in educational environments.  At all.  Not that aren’t appropriate times and places to focus on the acquisition of practical cog skills. We just need to know that that’s what we’re doing, and know that true creativity is something different. So going back to biology, if according to current scientific understanding the world itself is a perpetually unfinished co-construction of our brains, ever in flux, if there is no empirical reality, then the mind most fit for survival is the mind best equipped to swim in the chaos, negotiating constantly shifting landscapes. This involves a different set of muscles than the one used to navigate on solid ground. The latter set of muscles ought then to atrophy, and these brains ought to die out, as per natural selection. As soon as we get into the language of utility we are talking about survival, and even if we grant that there are multiple ways to survive, we still think of survival as a contest in which the fittest win, so we think of ourselves as progressing. 

            But the shape of our reality is a circle, not a straight line that leads towards an end point. The adherent of the existing political-socio-economic order always has the answer, always knows to point straight ahead, towards the money. Creativity is valuable because the market demands novelty. What I see education being able to do at its most fully realized is something different, antithetical in fact. Educating creative thinkers means taking what was once seen as a single-trajectory path of progress towards an eighteenth-century era notion of Enlightenment and twisting it into the contemporary circle that more closely corresponds to Zen enlightenment.  There is still a place for creativity, but it is no longer awkwardly charged with playing the role of originality, novelty, new ideas, new variations on market-approved themes, new stuff to sell.  Creativity needn’t be associated with originality so much as with the restless, but not desire-agitated, attention that skips lightly from one thing to the next thing, motivated by the present, becoming nature of its impulse to understand, rather than the desire to acquire understanding as we can acquire any other commodity. And since we know that ultimately there is no such thing as a finished understanding, what we’re then educating for is a quality of attention or curiosity that makes it possible for you to self-propel and ride the loop, knowing that by doing so you aren’t going to “get anywhere” but back where you came from, again and again. As complicated as the machinery gets, the whole apparatus leads nowhere, produces nothing (as per the conservation laws). Creativity is a matter of reordering or restaging this circular movement. There is no accretion, only a more and more finely attuned consciousness of one’s own ultimate inutility. 









"Cash for Clowns?". (2009, December 30). Retrieved from Fox News:

Friedman, T. (2010, September 11). "We're Number 1(1)!". Retrieved from The New York Times:

Grytting, W. (2010, August 26). "Why teach in a system that rewards test scores rather than passion?". Retrieved from The Seattle Times:

Merryman, P. B. (2010, July 10). "The Creativity Crisis". Retrieved from Newsweek:


Paul Grobstein's picture

justifying creativity in its own right

I very much agree that "paracosm" and the intrinsic value of art and creativity (in whatever realms) get short shrift when "we allow the terms of the discussion to be defined by the limits of present social and political reality."  And that this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed in a number of arenas, education included.   At the same time, I'd a tad worried that there are aspects of how the problem is characterized here that will make it harder rather than easier for many people to recognize it, much less be inclined to contribute to solving it. And that there are perhaps aspects of the characterization that actually undervalue the significance of paracosms and creativity themselves.

"the whole apparatus leads nowhere, produces nothing ...There is no accretion, only a more and more finely tuned consciousness of one's own ultimate inutility" seems to me not only a little too bleak to appeal to most people but unnecessarily so even for the argument needing to be made.  Let me see if I can achieve a less bleak rephrasing without losing the essence of the argument as I see it.

Let's do start with "the world is a perpetually unfinished co-construction of our brains, ever in flux" and so requiring brains "equipped to swim in the chaos, negotiating constantly shifting landscapes."  From this I agree that "The paracosm play doesn't 'serve' the real world; it is the real world."  But I don't think it follows from that that "utility" should be discarded entirely as irrelevant to creativity nor that "There is no accretion."

The problem, I would suggest, isn't "utility" per se but rather utility measured by the terms of the "existing political-socio-economic order", utility thought of  in terms of "a contest in which the fittest win, so we think of ourselves as progressing," or, more generally, utility conceived with reference to any clearly defined fixed future objective towards which we imagine ourselves to be moving.   There is a more local sense of "utility" as what works better now that I think plays an important role in both paracosm creation and creativity generally.  And a much longer term sense of "utility" that I think does so as well: that which enhances future paracosm creation and creativity.

So, perhaps instead of saying "the whole apparatus leads nowhere, produces nothing ...There is no accretion, only a more and more finely tuned consciousness of one's own ultimate inutility" one might instead say "the whole process does not lead to any fixed future goal; it instead continually generates and explores alternative paracosms with a resulting enhanced awareness of one's own ability to play a causal role in bringing new macrocosms into existence"? 

Might that get one out of the bind of seeing creativity in terms of "cost-benefit" analyses and give both art and education reason to insist on the intrinsic value of creativity?