Creativity hysteria
“Creativity has become a kind of performance pressure”

Andreas Reckwitz
Andreas Reckwitz | Photo (detail): private

Why does the aesthetic dimension play such a large role in our society today? interviewed the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz on creativity hysteria and false hopes about newness.

Mr Reckwitz, to be creative is at the top of today’s society’s canon of values. Why is that?

As a matter of fact, nothing determines our present culture so much as does creativity. Nowadays everyone wants to and should be creative. This is based on what I call the “creative apparatus”: an individual and social orientation to the creative, which is at once both a desire and a compulsion. Before, religion and politics were the traditional places where we could find meaning and satisfaction. In modern society, this function is more and more filled by the aesthetic-creative sphere.

In your book Die Erfindung der Kreativität (i.e.; The Invention of Creativity), you show how this development already began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – in the ideal of the artist.

Yes, it began with the artistic movements of sturm and drang and Romanticism. They gave birth to the ideal of being creatively active, of producing the new out of oneself, whether in works, things or the self. At first, this was only a counter-culture to bourgeois society, and it remained so into the 1960s and 1970s. But then the ideal spread and became the social mainstream.

Art as a place of longing

Why has this ideal of creativity found so great an echo in our society?

Originally, it entered society because classical modernity had such a vehemently rationalistic orientation. The sensuous and the affective got the short end of the stick. In the chilling sea of the systems of modernity, art was a tropical archipelago, a place of longing for the middle class. By contrast with increasingly rationalised everyday life, art was a sphere of compensation where you could let your sensuous perception and emotions run free. Gradually, this process of aestheticisation also “heated up” other sectors of society, effectively charged them with affects, whether in politics, business, the media, the private sphere or urban planning. Today, accordingly, the aesthetic is no longer restricted to the area of art. It is everywhere now more and more a matter of producing sensuous-emotional events for their own sake. And they must always be something new.

So creativity and an innovative novelty are directly related. Who determines what is “new” and what “old”?

The “new” doesn’t exist objectively; it must first be determined – in opposition to the “old”. The new is determined in an interplay between the creator and the public. Modern society is above all a public society, whether in the media, business or art. This too began at the end of the eighteenth century when the new figure of the modern artist arose as an individual who wants to realise himself in his works. At the same time there also arose an aesthetic public that is greedy to seek and find this “newness”, to compare it with other works: Is this really new? Is it new in an interesting way?

But not any “new” is “new”. What we think of as “new” has changed considerably in the course of modernity.

Yes, characteristic of today’s creative-aesthetic orientation is that it’s not about simply manufacturing new technical products, but rather above all creating a new aesthetic stimulus that generates emotions.

“The point is to balance the whole”

In your book you criticise the exclusive focus on the new. What’s so bad about the new?

The question should rather be: “What’s so good about the new? We take it for granted that the new is better than the old; that’s the progressivist pressure of modernity. Naturally, a radically reactionary, anti-modern attitude isn’t the solution. The point is to balance the whole. We should ask ourselves: Do we want the new at any price? In what context is the new really progress? Does aesthetically stimulating newness keep the promise it makes? Or are the events and products that surround us really rather a matter of an “empty newness”, of an excess of the only apparently new, which we soon forget.

The economist Richard Florida has described how since the 1980s our society has more and more turned into a “creative society”, which he sees as an economic opportunity for new growth and social development. Do you share his hopes?

I’d like to introduce a certain reflectiveness about the current creativity hysteria. Because this is a very ambivalent process. The social orientation to creativity isn’t something about which we should be only glad. Florida of course argues not on the basis of people, but rather evaluates the situation as an economist and in accord with its economic benefit. He says it’s essential to the economic development of individual cities and regions that they attract creative people and makes themselves into “creative cities” – even that there’s fundamentally no alternative to this. This is the way in which the orientation to creativity has recently become an economic hope. But what interests me much more is the originally individual and cultural hope that was attached to a creative life and the question whether this isn’t a false hope.


The weariness of the self

A false hope that can become a problem for individuals ...

Yes, creativity has become a kind of performance pressure, which always implies a comparison or competition with others and can cause psychological stress. It’s then about “self-realisation”, about originality: in the constant search for your own special self, you want to create yourself anew. This has become a social expectation. And this imperative applies not only to professional life, but to the whole person. In this sense the failure of the project of self-realisation becomes tantamount to the total

failure of the whole person. Certain psychological symptoms, the so-called “inadequacy disorders”, are essentially “self-realisation disorders”, as Alain Ehrenberg has very aptly described them in The Weariness of the Self. Burnout and depression often arise from feelings of inadequacy and from excessive demands – made, above all, seemingly by our own expectations of ourselves.

Has capitalism here adapted itself since the 1970s and 980s and found in the ideas of creativity and self-realisation simply new instruments of repression, as Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have argued in “The New Spirit of Capitalism”?

I would begin by disagreeing with Boltanski and Chiapello: this process is not simply a product of capitalism; it isn’t only “wicked capitalism” that has penetrated into the aesthetic sphere and conquered it. In many respects it is the reverse case: the economy has been aestheticised. The close interrelation of aestheticisation and economy is the core of the creativity apparatus and constitutes contemporary society. Above all the aestheticisation of the economy delivers the motivational “fuel”. At bottom, for the majority of society there is a motivational deficit with respect to the economy. The question is: Where do we get the motivation to take part in the capitalistic organisation of the economic market? Since the 1970s, aestheticisation has been the solution to this problem. We could say that homo aestheticus has become homo oeconomicus’s best friend.

Andreas Reckwitz is Professor of Cultural Sociology at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. His major interests are general sociology, sociological theory and cultural sociology. Among his most important publications are “Die Transformation der Kulturtheorien – Zur Entwicklung eines Theorieprogramms” (i.e., The Transformation of Cultural Theories – On the Development of a Theoretical Programme) (2000) and “Das hybride Subjekt. Eine Theorie der Subjektkulturen von der bürgerlichen Moderne zur Postmoderne” (i.e., The Hybrid Subject. A theory of subject cultures from bourgeois modernity to post-modernity) (2006). His most recent publication is “Die Erfindung der Kreativität. Zum Prozess gesellschaftlicher Ästhetisierung“ (i.e., The Invention of Creativity. On the Process of Social Aestheticisation) (2012).