Creativity as Consensus

by Mark Wilson

In this excellent article called “Ted Talks Are Lying to You,” Thomas Frank describes the ways in which books that talk about how people can be creative as “superstition,” because there’s no formula for creativity. He ultimately concludes that ground-breaking ideas are only ground-breaking once everyone else agrees they are:

A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.” Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hivemind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

This makes sense. How many times do we say of authors, artists, and other “creative” types that they weren’t appreciated in their time? It seems like we say it a lot. And we probably say it a lot because creative people are not appreciated in their time because their creativity is too weird for the time in which they live. This happens with science all the time (cf. Galileo, Darwin), but because science is explicitly based on consensus and reproduceability, the process of going from crazy, out-there idea to accepted standard is transparent. Not so in art.

Or in industry. One need only look at the original iMac. USB? No floppy drive? Ethernet? “Give me a break!” Contemporary commentators thought Apple had gone to Crazytown. And yet those are all things we take for granted today. “Look how forward-thinking Steve was!” we say, many years later.