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Op Eds

Against Creation

By Matthew B. Kaiser

I’m sick of creative people.

Creativity is overrated. Don’t get me wrong: I love art, and I love artists. I married one. As blasphemous as this no doubts sounds, however, I have come to the conclusion that the knee-jerk equation of art and ideas with creation, and more generally, our society’s equation of anything good, valuable, or worthwhile with creation, degrades culture, demeans art, and devalues life. The problem with the concept of creativity is that it elevates production over revision, innovation over reform, novelty over preservation, and the making of something over the nurturing of something. We need creation, certainly, but we do not need an entire culture devoted to it. What we need is a culture devoted to care, to cultivation and protection, to tending to what we already have. That is what the word “culture” means.

Our society is addicted to creation. We are innovation junkies looking for our next fix. We have convinced ourselves that creation is intrinsically meaningful. We create for the sake of creating, as though the act of making something—money, ideas, babies, art, technology, love—were an end in itself, a self-evidently good thing. As any true artist will tell you, however, it is the grinding work of taking care of those created things, nurturing and cultivating them, that gives them value. To appreciate means to hold onto something. My advice (for what it’s worth) is to avoid the false charms of creation and the intellectual sugar high of creativity:the insatiable desire to make, make, make and to discover the next thing, which, let’s face it, will never be good enough. Devote your energies instead to something more substantial and artistic: taking care of the world we have, strengthening it, doting on it as if it were the last world we will ever have.

Make the world, yes, but make it last.

What is a culture devoted to endless creation, in the end, but a disposable culture in which nothing lasts, a wasteland? It is a world in which a continent-sized island of plastic sludge sloshes in the North Pacific. It is the photodegradation of our thoughtless past.

This week the Class of 2011 will stand in Harvard Yard for the last time as undergraduates. Senses will be sharpened. Trees will look more Harvardy to you, their knotted branches bittersweet. Old bricks will resonate with you in a way you never thought possible. We will crown you with laurels and then shove you (gently) into the future. We—by which I mean society—will call after you as the future whisks you away: Be creative! Be innovative! Be productive! Be fresh! Be new! Create wealth, create knowledge, create a better tomorrow! Make money, make babies, make ideas, make something of yourself, and most important of all, make your mother proud! (Just to be clear: We recommend that you wait ten years before making babies.) In short, the Class of 2011 will feel the weight of creation on their shoulders. But without culture (by which I mean an ethic of care, not a love of opera) the concept of creation will feel unbearable. It will eventually break your heart.

On the matter of creation and its drawbacks, the Victorians can provide us with guidance. They, too, lived in a world devoted to unrestricted creation: an era of unprecedented technological innovation, of rapid change, of growing populations, of unfed and unwanted children, and of the daily transformation of the old into the “new and improved.” Though they look old-fashioned to us now, they saw themselves as cutting-edge. Muttonchops were once considered hot. I won’t go so far as to say the Victorians were hip, but they were certainly interested in the next thing. They lived in a state of perpetual expectation. Their “productive” factories and “creative” smokestacks blackened the sky and thickened rivers. The Victorians built, manufactured, and invented a lot of things. We are one of their creations.

Even as so many of them unleashed their creative potential, others saw the heartbreaking consequences of a creation-addicted world. They imagined life-affirming alternatives to monstrous creativity. Some of their solutions were good, others bad. The important thing is that they tried. As a counter to the creative destruction of revolution, they proposed an alternative politics of reform. As a counter to God’s Creation, Darwin proposed a more subtle biology defined by adaptation, by gradual accommodation, by organismic responsiveness to the environment. Seeing the legions of homeless children around them, some reformers recognized that making babies is not an inherently noble act. Adopting needy children, taking care of the ones that already exist, or raising your own with special care: those acts are more miraculous, they realized, than “creation.” The endless birth of the new leads to the endless death of the old. New things are future old things. Birth is merely death. The trick is to make things last. Adaptation, adoption, cultivation, preservation, protection, reform, and revision: these are the secret ingredients of art, the source of culture.

As the Class of 2011 meets its future, and as the voices of creativity whisper in your ear, my advice is to take care.

Matthew B. Kaiser is Associate Professor of English and a specialist in Victorian literature and culture.

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Op EdsCommencement 2011