Photo illustration by Derek Brahney/New Studio
For a few days, a couple of weeks ago, a small but influential cornerof the media world was transfixed by the story of Caroline Calloway and her Creativity Workshop. Calloway is a 27-year-old with a large Instagram following, built by chronicling her time as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge (picturesque lolling on the banks of the River Cam) and her daily life as a gal-about-town in New York City. Early in January, she announced to her 830,000 followers that she would be holding a series of four-hour, $165 seminars in several American cities, a chance for fans to meet Calloway and imbibe some of her wisdom on “true creative fulfillment.” What followed was a fiasco: Early seminars failed to deliver promised amenities, and Calloway turned out to have sold tickets to some events without having located venues for them. A muckraking Twitter thread materialized, scorning Calloway as a “scammer”; she promptly canceled and then uncanceled the tour, all while zapping out flurries of alternately self-flagellating and self-justifying posts on Instagram Stories.
As scandals go, this was minor stuff — more opéra bouffe than outrage. (“This Instagram Influencer’s Failed Tour Will Satisfy Your Fyre Fest Nostalgia,” cracked a headline on New York magazine’s Intelligencer site.) But to many commentators, the episode was a revealing parable of the internet age: a glimpse of the chaos that lurks behind the immaculately curated feeds of our self-styled lifestyle gurus and the hollowness of their advice on, as Calloway put it in the event listing for her seminars, how to “stay connected to your creative self” and “carve out and stick to a creative schedule.”
Give Calloway credit for this: In branding herself an oracle of all things creative, she has her finger firmly on the pulse. In 2019, “creative” is a juggernaut, a ubiquitous word that touches on all kinds of contemporary aspirations and anxieties. Businesses employ creative directors to tackle problems with creative solutions. Politicians intone “creative” with the solemnity they once reserved for such terms as “freedom” and “family.” It is a bipartisan bromide: In his November 2016 victory speech, Donald Trump promised to “harness the creative talents of our people.” Two months later, in his farewell address, Barack Obama hailed “this generation coming up — unselfish, altruistic, creative.”
“Creative” is a fixture of the self-help industry, touted as a secret to success and a key to enlightenment on podcasts and websites and in books like “Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All.” And in recent years, creative has made a grammatical migration, crossing over from adjective to noun. A creative is a kind of worker, or rather many kinds of workers — a catchall that takes in web coders, graphic designers, copywriters, actors, painters, D.J.s, cocktail mixologists, Instagram influencers and all the rest of the culture-and-information-industry professionals that the sociologist Richard Florida famously called “the creative class.” Creative is not just an attribute. It is an identity.
“Creative” can be traced to the Latin creare, meaning to beget or to bring forth. In philosophical classical Latin, the verb was sometimes used in reference to the ultimate creative act, divine creation. The English adjective “creative” dates to the 17th century; it was likely during the Enlightenment that it gained wide use as a descriptor for human endeavors, often artistic or literary, that have qualities of originality and excellence. Today, in any case, we deploy the term far more promiscuously. A label once reserved for the grandest artistic undertakings and the most exalted creators, from God to da Vinci to the mother who birthed you, is now applied willy-nilly to such activities as scrapbooking and bicycle-frame building, to the person who pulled your morning latte or designed the logo for your calorie-counting app.
This democratization can feel absurd, but it strikes at a deep truth. Humans derive meaning and pleasure from making stuff. To engage in even the smallest acts of creation — molding a clay bowl in our hands or shaping an idea in our minds — is to perform a conjuring trick, to experience the mysterious and sublime power of bringing a new thing into existence.
There was a time, not long ago, when the pursuit of that kind of satisfaction was considered morally dubious. Historically, bourgeois society regarded artists as disreputable and deviant, eccentrics doomed to the social margins. Our 21st-century cult of the creative reflects a shift in this attitude. Today, many haute-bourgeois people cultivate personas as artists and bohemians — even when they are marketing executives. This change reflects a broader transformation of the economy: the information-technology revolution and the reorientation of cities from manufacturing hubs to centers of knowledge work and cultural production.
But there is an airy spiritual component, too: a belief that anyone can be an artist and, ideally, everyone should be. This is the principle behind much of the self-help “creativity” industry — the notion, promulgated in best-selling books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” that every person contains vast reservoirs of creative potential. To access your creativity, Gilbert maintains, is to self-actualize. This, she writes, is “the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”
It’s hard not to be skeptical of a sentence like that. In fact, the sickly odor of snake oil hovers over much of the “creative living” enterprise. It may be no accident that one of the most forceful formulations of this thesis arrived in Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” the 2012 pop-neuroscience book that was recalled by its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, after it was discovered to contain Bob Dylan quotes of Lehrer’s own invention. The prosyletizers for creative living proffer a slippery hard sell: You can tap into your creative side if you just learn how, preferably by buying this book or attending this workshop.
Of course, this egalitarian theory of creativity ignores everything we know about the apportionment of artistic gifts, the fact that some people are simply better at making things than others. It also elides the structural impediments — the lack of free time and ample resources and good education — that prohibit millions from pursuing an origami hobby, let alone finding a career in a creative field.
Faith in creativity can be especially robust among those blessed with talent. Consider Kanye West. There’s no doubting his creativity: He makes great records, designs strange shoes, summons outrages from thin air. He also maintains one of the world’s most arresting Twitter feeds, where he boasts about his sneaker enterprise (“the creative make the final decisions here”) and offers homilies to his peers: “As a creative your ideas are your strongest form of currency.” In October, he took to Twitter to renounce his high-profile flirtation with Trumpism: “I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative!!”
Many people would love to do the same. For millions, “creative” has talismanic allure. It holds the possibility of a more meaningful and exciting existence than what was available to previous generations. It points to a new kind of middle-class dream, one free from wearying manual labor or the white-collar drudgery of cubicles and spreadsheets. It promises a career, a life, that makes room for self-expression, imagination, even beauty.
But “creative” is often a red flag, a signpost marking an insidious trade-off. A “creative” job listing may lure you to pursue your destiny, freed from old social strictures — but also freed from traditional benefits and security. For the privilege of doing “creative” work, we are asked to accept conditions of financial anxiety and precariousness that in previous times were unthinkable to the gainfully employed. “Creative” puts lipstick — or, more precisely, a pair of Warby Parker eyeglasses and a sleeve tattoo — on a pig. It dresses up a ruptured social compact, the raw deal of the gig economy, as bohemian freedom.
The struggle to make ends meet while making good work has long defined the existence of those who choose to live as artists. Today, countless freelancing creatives are tasting that desperation, often while doing “creative” grunt work for big corporations. The repercussions ripple through the economy and through personal lives, and, yes, sometimes they pop up on the internet. Caroline Calloway has been cast as a villainous “scammer,” but the truth may be more complicated. Like so many young people — like, for that matter, so many middle-aged people and senior citizens — she is navigating a system that promises rewards it cannot deliver to people with entrepreneurial spirits and artistic inclinations. The message we are sending to creatives is clear: It may not do much for your bank account, but your work will enrich you emotionally. Besides, shouldn’t you be grateful to earn any money at all for doing something you love — something creative?
Jody Rosen is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “Two Wheels Good: The Bicycle on Planet Earth and Beyond.”