the destroyer > the vent > Yair Rubinstein


          Recently, a curious lexical transformation has taken place for a word I always assumed to be a simple adjective. That word––creative––no longer confined by its grammatical origins, has found itself turned into a noun. I’m sure we’ve all noticed the change. Stroll through the self-help section of any bookstore and you’ll probably spot it on titles from self-improvement counsellors, business gurus, and new age spiritual healers. I assume right now there’s a hotel conference room filled with people wearing suits and nametags, and all along the walls are whiteboards splashed with the word CREATIVE bolded and underlined.

          It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when creative morphed into a noun. Perhaps it dates back to the Mad Men-era advertising industry, when ‘creatives’ referred to teams of illustrators and copywriters tasked with drawing up ads for aftershave and frozen juice concentrate. More recently, writer and urban theorist Richard Florida has invoked it in his concept of the ‘creative class,’ a term he uses to categorize a new social strata of workers in the modern economy whose main productive contribution emanates from the imaginative use of their intellect and creative faculties. These workers range from artists and graphic designers, to engineers and computer scientists. For Florida, the future of the global economy and its urban centers will rely more heavily on these creative workers due to the massive unwinding of manufacturing jobs that began in the early 80’s. In this post-industrial landscape, the creative economy is paramount and cognitive labor reigns supreme. Therefore, in order to survive in this climate, cities must woo creatives by cultivating attractive spaces that are amenable to their shared tastes and habits––things like parks, bike paths, farmer’s markets, etc.

          Before unpacking the truckload of assumptions behind Florida’s creative class theory, I can’t help but notice many of his prescriptions for urban planning reaching near total fruition. In my neighborhood of Greenpoint Brooklyn (which along with Williamsburg is one of the main citadels of creative class evangelism), its traces are everywhere. From sparkling new condos, to luxurious bike lanes and artisanal craft fairs, every new construction seems expressly designed by city councils to attract the sociological chimera that is the creative class. This is not to say bike lanes and craft fairs are bad things, I enjoy them both. Instead, the broader issue points to the real motivations behind urban investment in these projects.

          While Richard Florida likes to wax poetic about a new class of creative workers who transcend socio-economic lines and are united only by their boundless imaginations and shared love for craft beer, this remains nothing but a fantasy. Ultimately, the courting of creatives is simply another instrument in the toolkit of gentrification, and Florida’s dream of a post-class capitalist utopia is just its new ideological iteration. The people he espouses to be creatives are nothing but the same old subset of bourgeoisie aspirants, migrating to urban areas in order to fulfill their career ambitions and climb the economic ladder. Perhaps they’ve acquired a mutual proclivity for locally grown squash, but that’s well beside the point.

          So if the creative class theory is merely a shibboleth that hides the deeper mechanisms of displacement and inequality, why does our collective investment and fetishization of the creative persist? To explain that, we must to go back to the lexical migration of creativity from adjective to noun, and understand its origin in the changes that have occurred in capitalism’s relation to culture.

          In the days before it was a noun, being creative was a constitutive act, one that was fleeting and temperamental. It was slippery and elusive. There was no way to harness its energy, or stock it up as a resource to be used later. Creativity was like quicksilver––amorphous and unknowable. In other words, it was purposeless. It’s this lack of instrumentality that made the creative spark so visceral and transformative. There was no method of anticipation. All you could do was succumb to its whims. Nowadays though, creativity is no longer simply the province of aimless unpredictability. Through the machinations of capital and its total commodification of culture, creativity has been brought back down to earth, instrumentalized by capital to repurpose the human imagination for its own ends.

          One sees examples of cultural commodification everywhere. Corporate patronage of music, film and performance is to be expected and encouraged. New ideas and innovations are swiftly patented and privatized as intellectual property. Old notions of ‘selling out’ are roundly considered quaint and naive. Paintings, sculptures and other works are instantly absorbed into the art market, which serves simply as a playground for wealthy financiers to pad their investment portfolios. In sum, the pervasive and all-consuming nature of market logic has reached an unprecedented peak, making the act of creation itself merely a repository of images and symbols to be used at capital’s discretion. It is here we see the symmetry between the commodification of culture and the nounification of creativity.

          The rise of creative as noun denotes a form of capture, bottling up what was once momentary and fleeting in nature. It represents a human imagination that is placid, inert and labile––and thus more readily accessible for commercial use. No longer implying action and movement, the nounification of creativity indicates a loss of kinetic force. Thus the codification of creative as a social order rather than an alchemical substance has major consequences in the capacity for human growth and progress. No better example can be found than in the professionalization and managerialism that has overtaken artistic communities. Cities like New York, San Francisco and Austin, once containing bohemian enclaves that provided fertile ground for aesthetic exploration, are now merely image factories for capital’s ever expanding and sophisticated campaign for cultural dominance. It is no coincidence that this shift from bohemian values to creative class professionalism has coincided with a downturn in innovation, and a related rise in conservatism, risk-aversion and an overall sense of malaise in once-thriving art communities. When human curiosity is evacuated of all politics, tension and desire, it should come as no surprise to see the vitality and urgency of artistic creation go into decline.

          In a strange irony, human creativity has never been as valorized and celebrated as it is today. Writers like Richard Florida, Malcolm Gladwell and others extol the virtues of artistic genius and ingenuity at every turn. Books proclaiming to reveal the secret to harnessing your inner creative potential continue to be published at a rapid clip. Rarely has a word evinced such sanctity and worthlessness at the same time. So how do we turn things around and drive the cult of creatives back into the dark pit from whence they came? Let’s start with a simple slogan––CREATIVITY IS NOT A NOUN DAMMIT!