The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New, by Andreas Reckwitz

In the aesthetic economy, all individuals and cities can be branded producers, Andrew Blake learns

June 1, 2017
Man walks past a vacant building
Source: Getty/Alamy

A couple of years ago, Sadiq Khan, who is now the mayor of London, launched a rescue plan for live music venues. Thanks to rising rents and demands for quiet from the inhabitants of new residential developments built close to existing venues, the city had lost 35 per cent of its smaller grass-roots performance spaces in the previous decade; the rescue plan aimed to prevent further conflict between developers, new residents and existing venues, and also to support the establishment of new facilities.

The concern over this loss of performance space was both cultural and economic. If there was nowhere for young musicians to perform, the flow of talent into the recording industry would be affected, with damaging consequences for that industry – a key cultural exporter – and for the image of London as a city able to attract the best in global talent to study, work and live because of the richness of its entertainment sector. To prosper, it is imperative that London remain a “creative city”, whatever the pressures for upmarket housing.

How did we get to this problem? Andreas Reckwitz offers an account of the establishment of what he calls a “creativity dispositive”, in and by which individuals, the businesses and organisations they work for and, yes, cities, are charged both with the continual production of innovation and with the conditions for its production.

A sequence of overlapping essays deals with the historical emergence of the creativity dispositive through developments in Romanticism and the early 20th-century avant-garde, with their insistence on the individual artistic genius. This was underlined by contrasting cultural clichés: the artistic life-in-poverty of la vie Bohème, the emphasis on creativity in the counterculture of the 1960s, and the 20th-century star system in film and popular music. But the postmodern turn towards a curatorial sensibility signals that all, in whatever line of work, are creative workers. A comparatively simple piece of cultural work such as a shared playlist becomes both a vital form of cultural innovation and an expression of the list-maker’s creativity.

Changing psychological theories of creativity supported this shift. While in the 19th century the artist was often pathologised, with “genius” seen as a form of insanity, we now assume that all have an urge to create in order to realise their potential, and any individual’s failure to be creative has become, in turn, an apparent psychological defect – indeed, so pervasive is this assumption, Reckwitz suggests, that its by-products might include the incidence of illnesses such as depression.

This historic transformation of the self, alongside the transformation of many Western cities from monolithic industrial centres into “creative cities” suffused with spaces for cultural interaction and innovative production, form the foundations of what Reckwitz calls the aesthetic economy. Design is the basis of this economy, and what he calls management by design can brand and rebrand cities and their inhabitants, alongside businesses, their employees and consumers alike, as members of an aesthetic community.

Maintaining this apparent ideal is, of course, difficult; the rescue plan for London music venues points to the problems faced by culturally attractive cities, and to address it Reckwitz suggests that we need to repoliticise our thinking about culture and creativity and how to plan for them.

Andrew Blake is visiting professor of cultural studies, University of Winchester.

The Invention of Creativity: Modern Society and the Culture of the New
By Andreas Reckwitz
Polity Press, 300pp, £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN 9780745697031 and 9780745697048
Published 28 April 2017

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