Why creativity is not a thing but a relationship

Why creativity is not a thing but a relationship

By Dr Vlad Glaveanu

The age-old question of where creativity (or creation more generally) comes from and what it is has become something of a modern obsession. Pick up any newspaper, read any job application, any company’s mission statement or (if you fancy) any post on dating websites and there it is! Creativity is wanted, desired, required, shown, cultivated, etc.etc. But what IS IT actually? Nobody can tell.

And this is because, just like many other abstract notions that we often use in daily life, the scientific definition becomes almost irrelevant. We operate with more or less overlapping ‘implicit’ definitions of creativity and, even for one and the same person, its meaning can change from one context to the next. In a sense this is creativity turning onto itself, constant re-creation and liberation from the constraints of science and its systems of classification.

Creativity is a trait. Creativity is an ability. Creativity is an aptitude. Creativity is an attitude. Creativity is in the person. Creativity is in the object. Creativity is a social construction… What else?

For me creativity is all and none of the above. And not because it takes the appearance of a beast with a thousand heads (although some artists claim being consumed by such a monstrosity). Creativity seems to me to actually be a relationship. The connections that bring together person and object, creator and audience, aptitudes and creative work, social construction and the materiality of a ‘real’, tangible object. The space ‘in-between’ person, object, others and wider environment. This is the layer of creativity.

Being a relationship, creativity escapes precise definition. It is a relational term: not in the person, not in the object, not in the audiences. It constitutes the bonds between these three instances of a wider network.

And this is why creativity tests – the common arms and legs of creativity research – cannot take us very far. They embed creativity in the object as if it would exist within the 10, 20, 30 answers a person gives. Then they ‘transport’ it from object to person and say something about the person taking the test. This ‘verdict’ is based on a comparison between that person’s performance and standards coming out of testing hundreds, sometimes thousands of other people.

So? Is it there where creativity begins and ends? On a piece of paper?

Understood as a relationship, creativity is both in the action of the creator and that of the perceiver. Evaluating a ‘creative’ object is always a reconstruction of that object. An act of giving it meaning. And just as meaning is created in the relationship between people, so is creativity: the ‘engine’ behind the construction of ‘new’ meanings.

Where does this leave creativity and marketing? Well, according to the above, creativity is not in the firm, the consumer, the service, or the brand. It is in the ways in which all these ‘actors’ (and more!) relate to each other. That is why (re)searching creativity has to begin with a study of relationships. Including your own relationship, as a researcher, with this intricate network and its thousands of (smiley) heads.


Useful links:

MSc in Marketing & Creativity
Creative London Summer Course