The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History

The Cult of Creativity: A Surprisingly Recent History
by Samuel W. Franklin

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2023
264 pp., illus. 8 b/w. Trade, $26.00; ePub, $25.99
ISBN: 978-0-226-65785-1; ISBN: 967-0-226-65799-8.

Reviewed by: 
Charles Forceville
September 2023

The word “creativity” has magic appeal. Don’t we all admire creative people? Don’t we all secretly want to be at least somewhat creative ourselves? Isn’t creativity one of our species’ most distinctive attributes? Having worked much on metaphor (e.g., Forceville 1996) and a bit on blending theory/conceptual integration theory (Forceville 2013), I plead guilty to a scholarly as well as a personal interest in the concept. That said, I have always been somewhat suspicious of the possibility to make non-trivial academic claims about it. After all, searching for patterns in what, by definition, pertains to the very breaking of patterns cannot but be a contradiction in terms. So it was with some reservations that I began reading The Cult of Creativity – although the book’s title should have been a clue that Franklin is not an unconditional promoter of the concept either. Indeed, to forestall possible misconceptions about its contents, he emphatically warns that

“this is not a book about how creativity works or how to be more creative. Nor is it a survey of how we’ve thought about art and invention and the like through the long sweep of history. Instead, it is a history of how and why in the United States after World War II something called creativity became a topic, an object of academic study and debate, an official personality trait, a goal of educational and economic policy, an ideal of personal transformation.” (pp. 6-7).

The author points out that the word “creativity” only began to be widely used in the second half of the 20th century, amalgamating and supplanting terms such as “ingenuity,” “inventiveness,” “originality,” and “imagination.” He meticulously traces creativity’s development until the 1970s, adding a chapter sketching how it fared since. The central claim of the book is that precisely because the concept of creativity is so vague and ill-defined, the word that supposedly captures it can be used (or: abused) for a wide variety of alluring traits. The incompatibility of these traits remains largely unexplored because different stakeholders each have their own interest to promote creativity as desirable, even necessary, to answer favorite philosophical questions or solve urgent practical problems. Are people born with a “creative faculty” or is creativity teachable – and if the latter, what would be a good method to do so? Can a person’s creativity be assessed via tests? Is there a correlation between intelligence and creativity? Is the archetypically creative person a non-conformist Bohemian or a curious, internally motivated worker? Is creativity an artistic quality, or can “housewives,” laborers, advertisers, engineers, and bankers also be creative? Should the term be reserved for free thinking, unfettered by expectations of usefulness, or can/must it also pertain to tangible, commercial success? Is creativity a general asset or is it bound to a certain discipline or pursuit? Does it necessarily pertain to great ideas, or is it also at the root of cleverly resolving minor difficulties …?

Dependent on the spirit of the times, Franklin shows, “creativity” has been linked to “divergent thinking” “brainstorming,” “self-actualization,” “encounter therapy,” unlocking and preserving children’s imagination in education, advertising’s brief to re-insert “meaning” in consumer products, “design thinking,” as well as been promoted as a prerequisite for freedom, morality, democracy, and civilization … But whatever was the spirit (or should we call it “hype”?) of the moment, one thing never changed. From the beginning, two groups had a vested interest in promoting creativity as a topic for sustained inquiry: psychologists – at first specifically army psychologists – who were eager to claim that their expertise enabled the identification and development of creative potential in organizations; and advertising gurus, “engaged in a war for the soul of advertising” (p. 17). Franklin demonstrates that the interests of these two groups, representing academia and industry, respectively, were always intertwined. What made creativity such a broadly attractive concept is that it united two aspects that were not really natural bedfellows. On the one hand the creativity-advocates flattered professionals (laborers, designers, scientists, engineers, bankers) that they were not just cogs in the wheels of their organizations but could only do their job well if they tapped into their creativity – so that they were a kind of “artists” after all. On the other hand, they promised commercial organizations that investing in training creativity would eventually lead to improving products and to finding new markets – and hence result in higher profits. For in the last resort,

“no matter how many times they insisted housewives could be creative, psychologists rarely if ever studied creativity among housewives. The operative sense of ‘creative’ that really mattered to most researchers and their funders had to do with productive labor outside the household, particularly highly educated ‘brain work’ that was at the time virtually off limits to everyone except for White men.” (p. 40)

In short, creativity as “a disciplined freedom, an intoxicating steadiness, a predictable gamble, an ephemeral solidity,” in George Prince’s characterization, “attempted to contain the paradoxes at the heart of postwar America” (p. 116). It was simply in nobody’s interest to scrutinize these paradoxes too closely, since different agents all had their own reasons to keep the myth intact.

Although, in line with the historical angle of the book, Franklin does not draw general conclusions about creativity; he appears to be inclined toward the idea that creativity is a domain-specific rather than a generic quality. That is, there seems to be little to link the creativity of the jazz pianist with that of the engineer or the child. But he does draw attention to some of the risks of unconditionally celebrating the cult of creativity. Among creativity pundits, for instance, only few point out that successes usually result from endless trying, failing, and trying better rather than from flashes of insight. Indeed, the cult downplays the fact that, for creativity to spawn discoveries-on-a-large scale, the proverbial 1% of inspiration requires resources (education, time, money) to follow this up by the proverbial 99% perspiration – and that these resources are unequally divided in terms of class, ethnicity, and gender. The cult of creativity, that is, has tended to ignore the role of socio-economic circumstances in describing the road to success. Another danger Franklin sees in singing the praise of creativity is that, due to industry’s focus on creativity as innovation, artistic creativity, too, may come to be seen as reducible to “novelty,” at the expense of, say, its communicative role and its function as a storehouse of traditional wisdom. Moreover, an exaggerated emphasis on the importance of creativity to help solve the evermore daunting problems confronting Planet Earth hides the fact that usually there already exists agreement about these solutions. What is lacking is the political courage to implement them. Furthermore, the creativity cult hides the fact that many self-employed members of the ‘creative class’ (actors, designers, filmmakers) hardly make a living because, after all, they are supposedly already well-rewarded by being in the privileged position to pursue their “passion” (see Deuze and Prenger 2019). Finally, Franklin warns that we should not forget how, during the heyday of COVID, the crucial work was done by people in supposedly non-creative professions: nurses, grocery store stockers, delivery drivers.

But despite the sobering conclusion that creativity has in the last resort proven to be so popular because it serves industry’s interests to cater to consumerism, Franklin admits to retaining a weak spot for the concept, confessing he has sometimes felt creative himself while writing his book. I side with him here and have not given up my interest in whatever general observations might be made about creativeness. In this respect, I would like to draw attention to the work by Albert Rothenberg, a psychiatrist who has devoted his career to pursuing precisely this project. For Flight from Wonder (2014), not cited by Franklin, the author interviewed 34 Nobel Prize-winning scientists to uncover any patterns in what fueled their creativity. Yes, socio-cultural and personality factors played a key role and, yes, the patience to doggedly pursue a bright idea in the face of repeated failure and to brave the indifference or even scorn of colleagues is a recurring trait. But apart from that Rothenberg formulates three related but distinct general principles. The first, labelled “sep-con,” is the ability to seamlessly connect two phenomena from different domains in a manner that nobody thought possible before and thereby create a new entity with properties that did not exist in either of the contributing separate domains. I note in passing that this is the mechanism that is also at the core of Fauconnier and Turner’s (2002) blending theory, which tries to account for the new, “emergent structure” (p. 42) that results from combining elements from two existing structures. The second principle Rothenberg calls the ”janusian” process, defined as “actively conceiving and using multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously” (2014: 28). The third principle, homospatiality, pertains to “actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to the articulation of new identities” (2014: 41). All three appear to be specifications of what Franklin encountered under the heading of “divergent thinking.”

Franklin’s well-researched book on the young history of the word “creativity” has simultaneously turned out to be a chronicle of the morals and values ruling post-war America – and implicitly many other Western countries. Its pleasant style and the many well-chosen quotations from the creativity literature, helped by the mildly critical tone, make for insightful and entertaining reading. The flow is not interrupted by in-text references, as these latter all appear in the notes. Admittedly, since there is no separate bibliography, finding back sources is not so easy, as the index does by no means include all cited authors’ names. But that is a minor quibble about a highly enjoyable book, which despite all buts and ifs upholds the importance of creativity: “It’s not that we’ve discovered hidden truths about something long misunderstood, but rather that we invented a concept that could embody the truth we wanted to see” (p. 196) – a felicitously phrased paradox indeed.


Mark Deuze, Mark, and Mirjam Prenger (2019). Making Media: Production, Practices, and Professions. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Forceville, Charles (1996). Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising. London: Routledge.

Forceville, Charles (2013). “Creative visual duality in comics balloons.” In: Tony Veale, Kurt Feyaerts, and Charles Forceville, eds, Creativity and the Agile Mind: A Multi-Disciplinary Exploration of a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter (pp. 253-273).

Rothenberg, Albert (2014). The Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.