Throughout civilization the poor could not make creative contributions because of their struggle to survive and institutional barriers. With few exceptions, the rich have always devoted their lives to self pampering and idleness, leaving the middle groups as the core of society’s creative nucleus. From the European Renaissance in the 14th century until the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the core of the creative contributions from art to math and physics came from individuals in the middle class. This trend continued with the expansion of the middle class and its access to higher education after the American and French Revolutions.
Taking into account individual talent – creative potential - creativity is class based as a social phenomenon and a reflection of the individual’s relationship with the larger community. However, it is hardly the exclusive domain of the middle class, as some have contended. Considering that music, dance, art, etc. coming from the lower classes in all societies, and subsequently commercialized and becoming mainstream, the lower classes definitely make a contribution to mainstream culture. Nevertheless, I would agree with Montesquieu that the “commercial spirit” dictates taste and the arts, and would argue that the dominant culture and value system determined what counts as creativity.
The contemporary value system aside, creativity is of the essence for the human race to make progress but also to live a life where the individual’s creative potential is actualized. Besides the necessity of perpetuating the species, people apply creativity to understand and appreciate their environment and the cosmos, to manipulate their world and to transcend it through various endeavors. The restlessness of the human mind and its desire to find creative expression can be detected from the earliest nomads carving objects in caves, thus discovering a way to express themselves and communicate with posterity through pictography.
The Dionysian Cult and Creativity
The ancient Thracians created Dionysus and introduced him (8th century B.C.) to the people inhabiting Greece, some of the southern Balkan areas, and Asia Minor. An expression of the irrational proclivities in humans and of chaos in the world, Dionysus won worshippers who celebrated in festivals with music, dancing, tearing animals to pieces and eating them, drinking wine and drugs, and engaging in carnal pleasures of all sorts with the goal of liberating the mind of its burdens and of the routine mediocrities and allowing it to travel into the creative imagination. The Dionysian cult was introduced to Rome known as Liber (the free one) from the Greeks, and together with the equally celebrated Orphic cult (mystery religion), had a profound influence on literature, poetry, theater, and philosophy.
Ambiguity in human existence not present in the theology of monotheistic religions accounts for the unleashing of creativity. It must be stressed however, that there was in ancient Greece, as in all societies throughout history a very important link between creativity and life of leisure enjoyed by those with a certain level of material comfort. In other words, a poor peasant working the fields in Attica away from the Parthenon and Agora, no matter what talent nature endowed could not possibly cultivate it because of lack of opportunity. Most scholars today would agree that regardless of what the Dionysian cult offered, in the absence of leisure in a society, there cannot possibly be much cultural development. (see Culture, Leisure, and Creativity: Anthropological and Comparative Perspectives Garry Chick In Creativity and Leisure: An Intercultural and Cross-disciplinary Journal (CLICJ) Volume 1 Number 2 (2012)
The culture of an epoch profoundly influences individuals toward creative endeavors or toward nihilism, pessimism and mere survival. Despite the vast availability of technology today, it cannot be argued that people are more intelligent because of it. In some respects technology actually inhibits creativity, as the individual is not forced to think and create for her/him self, allowing the machine to carry out the process. Machines facilitate in the process of creativity, but it also creates a distance between the creator and the object to be created. This does not mean that creativity necessarily hinders creativity, but for the general user they are a substitute for the human brain.
Christendom in Medieval Europe prevented it from making much progress in comparison with the Eastern Christian world of Byzantium, the Arabs that flourished during the years that Europeans had sunk into darkness, as well as the Chinese, Indians, and Persians. Church and state, feudal lord and bishop wanted a docile, obedient population that never questioned the social order and his/her place in society, but merely lived for eternal bliss in the afterlife.
Even if one wanted to express creative endeavors within the dominant culture, the ideological, religious dogmatic conditions placed severe limitations because the world view was one based on the good and evil dichotomy, and creativity dealing with anything of this world, anything from medical science to astronomy ran counter to church authority’s views. Unlike the pagans who had a multidimensional view of human nature, good, evil, and a great deal more, Medieval Christians were held back by the simple dogmatic concept of absolutes rooted in the division of the world into good and evil, and that defined as the lords spiritual and lords temporal dictated. If the dominant culture has convinced the individual that God meant for him/her to be an obedient serf, blacksmith, tavern owner or undertaker, and to obey the church because the rewards for my docile life will be Paradise after death, then why bother with creativity in this life?
While I do not want to suggest that contemporary cash-value culture is anything like that of Medieval Europe, there is something seriously disturbing with the values of a society when Madonna, Oprah, and Jerry Seinfeld are deemed among the top creative people of the century, individuals whose contributions to creativity are limited to pop music, talk-TV for soccer moms, and one-liners in standup comedy. “Trendy creativity” ought to apply to music and kitchen cabinets; meritorious within their boundaries, but anything broader must be questioned.
Besides the cut and cry cases of creativity applied toward destruction, there are more ambiguous cases of creative projects where the process was itself destructive. This was certainly with the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China where people died for their construction that we rightly consider creative and grand. The same holds true for any large scale creative projects from ancient to modern times. Because the goal was the creative project and fatalities were only the consequences, even if the designers knew of the calculated risks, one can argue that there is no moral responsibility. On the other hand, torture devices as well as medications tested on humans knowing they would suffer or die does raise very unambiguous moral issues. If society values the creative project so much that it is willing to accept sacrifices in the process, then that is a reflection of society.
Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller were colleagues working on the Manhattan Project. Both very creative in their field, the former was the “father of the atomic bomb” and the latter the “father of the hydrogen bomb”. The value system and ethics of the individual would determine if the creative genius of these two people contributed to the edification of mankind, or simply added to its fear and terror of living with the prospect of thermonuclear war someday.
The genius of both in theoretical, nuclear, and molecular physics is widely recognized and undisputed by any criteria. Both men changed the world in the mid-20th century with their creative contributions. Only Oppenheimer paused to reflect on the nature of his creative contribution to the world. Quoting from the Hindu scriptures of the Bhagavad Gita, he said: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." The nuclear physicist was able to separate himself from his creative project and reevaluate what exactly was the contribution to humanity by the atom bomb.
By contrast, Teller believed in techno fixes to political and military problems, without taking into account the human cost, as though society were populated by robots. Teller remained unapologetic and became one of the arch defenders of the military industrial complex, the arms race, and military solutions to political problems. Betraying his colleague Oppenheimer during security hearings that were in essence a witch hunt against anyone questioning the wisdom of nuclear weapons and the race just unleashed was the least of Teller’s contributions to the early Cold War and the escalating arms race that Oppenheimer opposed. After the Red scare of 1954, the ostracized Oppenheimer devoted his time to lecturing and writing, while Teller became an even bigger influence in government, so much so that Kubrick’s motion picture Dr. Strangelove was inspired by Teller’s mad and destructive genius. The madness of Teller’s destructive genius found political support among warmonger politicians in Washington of both political parties, and in the 1980s Teller made a return to the scene.
Unrepentant about the use of thermonucclear weapons, Teller strongly believed that all of society’s problems merited technological solutions. This obsession extended to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that was extremely costly, destabilizing in the arms race, and reckless as far as the US rivals as well as allies were concerned. However, the neoconservative militarist culture of the 1980s regarded Teller as a genius whose creativity strengthened Pax Americana, though at a huge cost. The teller phenomenon reveals the obsession of people with human will manipulating the natural world through science and technology to secure a given result as part of social engineering. This is clearly a case of creativity but with the ultimate goal of harming rather than benefiting humanity, destroying rather than building.
The pursuit of wealth and power because of love for them can be strong motives for creativity, but if the end result is counter to the best interest of the people, then creativity is destructive. Ironically, the state that must protect its citizens from such destructive creativity is often the driving force behind it, as in the Edward Teller case. The convergence of Teller’s domination values and those of the state made Teller’s creative projects (hydrogen bomb) meritorious. However, the domain of business presents even greater dangers on a daily basis than Teller’s hydrogen bomb and SDI program. The question of scientific creativity and morality rooted in human welfare rather than destruction are inseparable. Contrary to the popular and political myth that science is neutral, nothing could be farther from the truth. While a groups of scientists may be very creative with biological warfare research, the ethics of their endeavors must always be above their enthusiasm for their creativity. The same ethical principles that pertain to science also hold true for business and economics.
The nature of economic/financial destruction is far more common in people’s lives than war. Economic and social inequality account for a daily dose of destruction on billions of people around the world and the very few people responsible for the plight of the many are deemed creative because they amass wealth. There are of course the creative geniuses bent on making money on the misery of the many through illegal means. For example, New York prosecutors recently charged an MIT Dean and his son of using a complex and innovative math model to scam defrauding investors of $500 million. This example is nothing in comparison to the hundreds of billions amassed by banks and corporations through legal means and the legally approved method of appropriation – stealing legally from the many to benefit the few.
Government policies, as well as businesses have the capacity to destroy the lives of people and have proved capable for as long as civilization has existed, something often carried out with as much human creative as can possibly imagine. When governments including bankrupt Greece paid millions to Goldman Sachs to covert, on paper of course, debt into surplus that can be considered creative accounting for the benefit of very few that eventually ruined a country. The nature of creativity extends to numerous products under hedge fund management that provide huge profits for very few but ruin national economies, as was the case in Argentina, among other debtor nations.
Can humans in contemporary civilized society make any discoveries outside the institutional confines that both reward and limit creativity, mostly geared for the consuption and benefit of elites in any case? Is it not true that most people identify discovery with a 'cash-value' mindset and not independently from it? If there is an incentive to discover a new video game, a new cancer drug, a 'creative' way of trading securities to maximize profits, etc., people will be operating within that framework. On the other hand, creativity is as infinite as the universe, but if they are overcome with fear of "absolute freedom", as Jean-Paul Sartre has argued, they will not realize their creative potential.