Is Creativity Indefinable?

from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD

Posted 6/1/09 | Updated 5/6/23

For every question we might tackle, another thousand pop up.

What is creativity? Is it possible to find creativity in different pockets and nooks of our culture? Think about Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that was able to defeat defending chess champion Gary Kasparov in the mid-1990s. Can a computer be creative?

Consider the advertising campaign for an Ecuadorian foot powder, Pulvapies, which hyped its product on the eve of election night by advising voters to vote for whomever they wanted but to make sure to vote for Pulvapies for good health — and then managed to get their foot powder elected mayor of a small town (Mikkelson & Mikkelson, 2006). Does that count as creativity, or is it notable only because of the outcome?

How about the toys and gadgets made by Archie McPhee, including a corndog-scented air freshener, an action figure of Marie Antoinette with an ejecting head, and Angry Scotsman chewing gum — do you have to find them amusing to consider them creative?

Consider the Web site www.jowlers.com, which features many photographs of people in the process of shaking their head rapidly back and forth (thereby creating the effect of distorted facial features), or www.sleeveface.com, which offers people posing with LP sleeves covering their faces to create a new image. Certainly, jowler and sleeveface photographs are different and unlike other photographs; are they creative?

Think of the Paul Simon song, "Mother and Child Reunion" — does it strike you as more or less creative when you find out that he got the title from a chicken and egg dish at a Chinese restaurant?

Maybe you can be a creative artistic consumer, interpreting movies or song lyrics in new ways. On the Web site Andy's Anachronisms (Taylor, 2003), a series of pop songs are interpreted as if they're about time travel. Most of these interpretations are not consistent with the typically assumed content of the song. "Once in a Lifetime," by the Talking Heads, is usually seen as a song about a mid-life crisis; Andy interprets lines such as, "And you may tell yourself — this is not my beautiful wife!" as referring to alternate universes created by time-traveling mistakes.

However you think of creativity — whether you think of creativity — it is all likely different from how your neighbor thinks of it. There are many different ways in which someone can be creative, and there are almost as many different ways that people try to measure creativity.

©2009 James C. Kaufman. All rights reserved.

Creativity 101

This series is based on "Defining Creativity" from Creativity 101 by James C. Kaufman, PhD. Excerpts reprinted with permission of Springer Publishing Company www.springerpub.com.

James C. Kaufman is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut. ...