Culture looking to express its right value

The value of culture is an issue many cultural organisations are trying to define within their own modus operandi. Contemplating what value might be has set off a wide range of reactions and opinions on the relevance of culture.

The local relevance of culture has necessitated cultural organisations to look to the future and predict the needs of their stakeholders to better face challenges in the future and shape how they promote culture and its values.

A study recently published by McKinzey&Co (2013) on “How to Make a City Great” (McKinzey Cities Special Initiative) highlights that by 2030 60% of the world’s population will be living in urban centres. This statistic puts pressure on cultural institutions operating in urban contexts to redefine their purpose and mission. Notions of the values of culture have been central to this discussion.

Values seem to be linked primarily to three major aspects how culture may impact its surroundings. These values are: Cultural (artistic nature) of the programming of a cultural organization; Social related to the extent in which a cultural organisation involves, impacts and caters to communities and society at large; and finally economic considering the extent to which culture has a spillover effect on the economy at large and the work of the cultural organisations. In some cases this last value is also used as a basis for innovation within and outside culture as a domain.

(N.B. there are also other values relevant to consider beyond the above-mentioned taxonomy).

The challenge currently facing many cultural organisations has been to counteract the global economic crisis and the overall lack of funding for culture. This has practically meant finding new legitimacy for culture. Many organisations have therefore taken to talking of content from the point of view of value. Moreover, many organisations have had to practically articulate values by identifying and motivating systematic programming choices.

There has been a lot of criticism within the cultural domain, as to which values are key and urgent. We have seen that many organisations due to funding streams have resorted to social value though developing participative programming within their contents. Others have chosen cultural and artistic values (what many will argue is the true mission of cultural organisations generally) focusing on the artistic quality of the programming, which in some cases has meant dwindling numbers in visitors.

I have been intrigued by this discussion and the choices that cultural organisations pursue. It seems in many cases to be a matter reevaluating the core business and identity of a cultural organisation. Therefore my question, how are values optimised; and how could different values reinforce each other, not only for economic value purposes, but to amplify artistic merits and impact in society. There have been some great examples: think about Toneelgroep Amsterdam and their Roman Tragedies production (an interactive play where the audience is placed on the stage interacts with the plot and actors of the play); or the Opera Company of Philadelphia that performed several pieces outside a traditional setting, in the Reading Terminal Market in Philly (a campaign that came to be known as “Random Act of Culture” to create awareness among city dwellers of the value of culture).

Why did these succeed? And why do many others fail?

Creativity and its origins

I do not agree with some mainstream claim that creativity happens within the interaction of the individual and society (Csikszentmihalyi). Rather, I believe given one’s mental capabilities and one’s command of the field that creativity takes place within an individual’s mental framework. Hence, it is the individual who gives creativity an expression. Subsequently, it is the social context that allows for a manifestation of said creativity through recognition and legitimacy. In other words, society objectifies creativity and classifies it within the general taxonomy. It is, of course, a matter of social understanding and development of the field and domain that determines the social reaction to the creativity expressed. At a specific point in time, it is also the ability of the individual that enables the production of the appropriate amount of creativity. The varying degrees of these two categories – subjective intent and objective circumstance – help measure the ‘genius-ness’ of a person’s ability to bring out creativity which then in turn is put to a greater social service. Put simply, I would compare creativity to a revelation of ideas, taking place in an individual’s mental matrix, which is articulated in a fashion that is also temporally appropriate. The level of this revelation, with its immediate objective originality and relevance, which might not be immediately socially recognized, as well as its timing serves to define the taxonomy of the creativity produced.

To support this view, I would also have to disagree with the many statements regarding the external recognition of creativity. Instead, I would argue that external recognition is necessary for subjective creative phenomena to be validated and recognized. Furthermore, I would argue that most individual manifestations maybe creative but also are not original. I would emphasize that an individual emotional articulation to a certain extent is creative in itself, akin to what Madden and Bloom would call Soft Creativity, yet it is clearly not unprecedented. In its place, I opt to link creativity to objective originality, which means that originality has the potential to inspire and become recognized in society and then it is deemed to be creative.
Creativity is a personal predilection based on inspiration, experience, and knowledge. Let me explain through a real example: in my discussion with Dr. Klamer regarding my PhD I was asked to provide an intellectual bio, stating themes and issues that inspire me. The logic of the exercise seemed to be that I should base my work and research on my inspirations and my relevant knowledge/experience. It follows that in order for my work to be profound and relevant, it needs to shed light on some issues and bring about certain novelties; thus entailing a great amount of creativity in tackling the issues related to my dissertation. This goes to say that if I were to produce something creative and meaningful in my research, I would also need to be inspired by the themes I would be researching. Subsequently, my ultimate goal would be to inspire others in my field and hopefully transform the domain of research.

Another example that merits attention is human speech. Given its originality and its manifestation in that period, when speech was first articulated by homosapiens in the evolutionary process, would this have also been seen as creative? I believe even speech today can be a creative expression of the individual, which in most cases is not original enough. Additionally, I do not always agree with Csikszentmihalyi’s arguments presented predominantly in given examples and analogies. For instance, Csikszentmihalyi links creativity to behaviour without explaining his assumptions and his motivations. The following quote in particular is emblematic in Csikszentmihalyi’s deficiency in clarification, he states “whereas some of the people who have had the greatest impact on history did not show any originality or brilliance in their behaviours, except for the accomplishments they left behind”.

In conclusion, I believe we are problematizing the creation and the process of materialization associated with creativity, before we have scientifically accepted an understanding and definition of creativity. For this reason providing a universal definition and account of creativity is at the minimum a daunting task, and at the maximum, perhaps an impossible one.