The word “creativity” is American and expresses American culture. If you’re ever in a position to hear this word, be assured, you are in the United States, or some form of it.
School in Winthrop, Washington
The United States is not a place. It’s a state of mind. Another word for that is creativity. Oh, and enjoy for a moment how the sign tells a whopper. That’s part of the creativity.
In American notions, creativity is the fulfillment of individual aspiration, through a process called “self-actualization.” Effectively, self-actualization is a modernist extension of 19th century Methodist theology, in which the faithful achieved God’s Grace by purifying themselves and devoting themselves to fitting into larger religious and state governance and educational structures.
B Reactor, Hanford Washington
The Bomb is the child of this machine.
This grace could be manifest and, in American social contexts, expected as a reward for devout behaviour (the school house above was a form of it, which is why the architecture has been imported from the American East rather than building on any North Western model), but it could always be taken away.
Marilyn Monroe, Still the Definition of American Grace
Before she was taken away.
This grace represented the inhabitation of the human body by God, and it was considered proven when American settlers rapidly inhabited (conquered, but Americans were largely protected from awareness of that by theology and ideology) the continent during the 19th century. It is this actualization of a self (a kind of surrogate inhabitation by God) to which creativity refers.
To Americans, there is another word which represents this force. It is called “Manifest Destiny.”
American Progress, John Gastis, 1872
Manifest Destiny — the term for the American belief that it was God’s Will that Americans settle the entire continent — had its roots in American ignorance and high birth rates. It was considered the destiny of American fathers to have the virility to father many children, as opposed to Native Americans, who were dying of disease and hence, in the ignorant thinking of the day, were not virile. It’s no accident that Columbia, a symbol of the United States, is floating so voluptuously above the settlers above. Sex was the goal. In this sense, self-actualization meant not only actualization of one’s freedom by settling in recently de-indiginenized land but the actualizing of one’s “self” (as distinct from person) in the holy marriage of a man and a woman. Only in that union, blessed by the institutions of church and state, could any body (not anybody, but any body) be complete and a full self (ie. fully merged with a self). A man alone was nothing and, by definition, godless.
That’s creativity. That it is taken up by Creative Writing Schools and is taught as a way of “expressing one’s identity” and is present in cultures across the earth today makes no difference. That’s what it is.
Creative Writing Workshop Source
That it has been adopted by the Eco-Art movement, as a way in which artists (in technological society, technicians of actualized selves) can guide society into new relationships with the earth makes no difference. That’s what it is. The relationships will be self-actualized and all very human-centric. A tree, after all, would not call an image like the one below art.
It’s also technologically centric, but that’s expectable. The image of a database (or a city) of things in a sculpted, religiously-directed landscape (art) below shows this bias well.
And it’s plain self indulgent. I don’t think an endangered whale shark would see any value in the environmentally friendly competition of creativity in California shown in the image below, for example. This isn’t the way to teach our young people to inhabit the planet. It’s the way to teach actualized selves to adapt their native, technological world to fitting, however clumsily, into a non-technological one.
That leaves a challenge: to find and nurture pathways that still include the earth…
Cat Tracks Quail on My Driveway After a Night’s Skiff of Snow
… without it having to pass through Manifest Destiny and self-actualization first, which sometimes looks like the man getting down and dirty with the tree above but mostly looks like the image below, because it is far more seductive:
If you think these aren’t products of American absorption of your identity, think again. I mean, you might be OK with that, you might not, but these machines, with their limited but hard-wired social codes are what they are. Do you really think it’s a good idea to be hard-wired to them?
A few days ago, I talked about creativity in France and how the term, as American as it is, was qualified there in ways that allowed some connections with the natural world and some limitation of human powers, without loss of human agency. Specifically, the French left the definition open to what American psychology considers a medieval notion: that creation is the province of God and humans who make things are physical representatives (or manifestations) of God’s will.
Jean Cocteau Hard At It As a Conduit
That’s not really all that different from the American point of view, but it’s different enough that it allows for fuller relationships between people and the earth.
French Citizens, After Going to the Mountains
OK, I jest, but not much. This small difference shows that self-actualization and creation are not unified concepts and that if they appear to be so someone is being less than direct with you and it might be a good idea to think about that deeply. The difference also allows for alternate identity models, which, in turn, allow for quite different outcomes.
Okanagan Red Tailed Hawk Taking Flight
Never talk about creation without talking about the earth. That’s just rude.
I will explore these notions soon. For now, let’s look at yet a different identity model: Creativity (or self-actualization) in Germany.
Germania, Rüdesheim am Rhein
Germany’s monument to the 1871 victory over France and the creation of the German nation.
Here’s a dictionary definition:
bezeichnet i.d.R. die Fähigkeit eines Individuums oder einer Gruppe, in phantasievoller und gestaltender Weise zu denken und zu handeln.
A rough and ready translation:
As a rule, creativity refers to the capacity of an individual or a group to think and act in manners rich with fantasy or materialization.
The gist of it is that creative thinking yokes imagination and the shaping of imagination into physical form, and that “creativity” is a social process by which products are produced. There’s more:
Zu den kreativitätsförderlichen Aspekten der Person gehören bspw. Personenmerkmale wie Offenheit für Erfahrung, Verantwortungsgefühl oder hohe allg. kognitive Fähigkeiten. Der Kreativitätsprozess wird meist als typische Abfolge von Problemidentifikation (Erkennen von Problemen), Vorbereitungsphase (notwendige Informationen werden gesammelt), Generierungsphase (mögliche Lösungen werden entwickelt) und Beurteilungsphase (Analyse der Lösungen) beschrieben… Kennzeichnend für kreative Produkte ist, dass sie gleichzeitig neu und angemessen, nützlich oder wertvoll für die Lösung eines Problem sind. SOURCE
The personal aspects of a person conducive to creativity include, for example, personal qualities like openness to discovery, feelings of responsibility, or generally high cognitive functioning. The creative process is most often described as the result of problem identification (the recognition of problems), a preparation phase (necessary information is gathered), generation phase (possible solutions are developed) and appraisal phase (analysis of the solutions.) Hallmarks of creative products are that they are simultaneously new and appropriate, useful or worthwhile for the solution of a problem.
Nothing at all about self-actualization! That difference from the American model is a sign that any definition of “creativity,” including the American one, fits the parameters of a particular culture, and should be read as such. The actual human capacity that leads to creation of products is expressing itself through cultural parameters, all of which have their own embedded contexts, such as this:
I’ve been waiting six years to use this picture. Happy day!
context has a context, like this:
Celtic Technology, Enthusiastically Developed by the Romans (and the Germans after them.)
Please don’t be confused by words. That has a context, like this:
Vineyard Shrine, With Christ and Flowers, Rüdesheim
These vineyards were heavily bombed by U.S. Airforce pilots who dropped their bomb loads here, twenty kilometres west of Frankfurt (and their target), to get the hell back to England. For over a thousand years before that, the vines were part of the devotional practice of local catholics: devotional practice with practical, earthly ends. Not that different from Methodism, but different enough.
And even that has a context:
Rudesheim and the Rhein, Looking Over Bingen to the Rheinpfalz
And that’s how far it goes, in the present, today: right back to the Rhein, the Ur-River, the “Run”, the river so ancient its name (like the equally celtic Rhone) means only River. That’s the context of a German creative team building an industrial product today:
Preparation of materials for processing by the experimental SFB_TR_166_Holthoff_Mikroskope at the University Hospital in Jena. Germany.
This activity differs from similarly-appearing American technological experimentation because it has a different context. In the German context, it does not represent individual actualization but team actualization, and this team is very old. This guy, for instance, is actualized in this process:
Celtic Skull, Siebenfelsen, Black Forest
In this context, the individual gains power from the team, not the other way around. That difference, even in a highly technological society, allows space for new conceptions of human-earth articulation not based in autonomous, fully-empowered and non-constrained selves expressing actualized genetic tendencies, like this:
Fishing for (torturing) Endangered White Sturgeon in the Shadow of the Plutonium Reactors, While the Grasslands of the Yakima Military Firing Range Burn to the West (Columbia River)
After a few hours of this, these guys will drag up one Caesium-irradiated fish and throw it back, so they can catch it again.
Germans are no saints, but they are heirs of an unbroken tradition in which technologies, even the technologies of the self, have contexts which include the earth in other ways than strict cellular biology. German factories exist in the ruins of medieval forests. American ones exist in the ruins of Native American forests and grasslands. There is room for curiosity and imagination and even creativity on both sides.
Next: Icelandic creativity and Indigenous creativity in the Pacific Northwest.