The Definition of Creativity is …Complicated

Courbet in his studio

Courbet in his studio

With the  level of press creativity gets these days, it would seem that we’d have a better handle on the definition. But still, there are many who differ on how the term should be used or to what it applies. Partly, this can be attributed to the long and twisted history of the term itself. Bear with me while I travel through time to elucidate the history of creativity. The following is paraphrased from a section in my book, A Curious Path: Creativity in an Age of Abundance.

Etymology related to creativity is extensive. The root of create and creativity are the Latin creates and creare. Both of these words convey a sense of making—not innovating. The transitive verb creo means to conjure up or be born. Creativity is also derived from the old French base kere, the Latin crescere and the Roman creber. Already, it’s a little confusing. From these comes the Roman goddess of the earth, Ceres. Another goddess, the Italian corn goddess Cereris, is linked as well to creativity. In this sense, creativity means to grow and has a strong connection with the earth. Other modern day terms derived from these origins are cereal, crescent and creature.[i]

So for the most of history, creativity has been tied to making, growing or putting together. Obviously, this is not how we view it today. Present day usage of creativity implies a more individualistic, unique or artistic connotation. How we understand the word is relatively new, and it was not seen much until several hundred years ago. You can see below how Herman Melville used it in Moby Dick back in 1841:

‘…There is some unsuffusing think beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all they eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it…’

Way back in the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC), creativity was linked to rationalism. This rationalistic belief of creativity categorizes it as conscious and deliberate.[ii] This corresponds to the notion of art at that time. The Greeks referred to art as techni (craft). Greek artists were not the type of aloof, expressive individuals we see artists as today. Instead, they were lower class laborers. To be an artist was to be a craftsman.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance (1400 AD – 1550 AD) that artists achieved recognition as individual geniuses. Before the Renaissance, creativity for artists meant the ability to imitate past masters. Essentially, they copied—again, not how we conceptualize creativity today. But during the Renaissance, individualism began to take form. From this, artists became more expressive and vocal. Leonardo da Vinci, himself, argued that genio (genius) was not only imitation, but should also incorporate originality. However, at this time painting studios were not personal retreats where artists found their muses. These were workshops filled with apprentices painting large portions of the artist’s work. The artists of this time served as masters to apprentices and finished the more difficult areas.[iii]


Wanderer above the sea of fog

Wanderer above the sea of fog

The notion of the modern painter—aloof and idealistic—took shape during the nineteenth century’s Romantic period. Artists during this time did look to their inner muse to draw inspiration. Thids adoption of the inner muse for inspiration, they took from the Ancient Greek conception that poets were agents of the gods and devoid of talent themselves. “The romantic artists and men of letters, in particular, revived the classical notion of divine mania or inspiration and established it as a divine mark of the extraordinary individual”.[iv] Rationalism therefore was dismissed, and men of letters argued that “creativity requires temporary escape from the conscious ego and a liberation of instinct and emotion.” Wordsworth even stated that is was “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”[v] To get a good view of what it may have felt like to be overwhelmed in such a way, Casper David Friedrich (above) paints a good visualization.  In this mode of thinking the artists contemplates nature as a mysterious beckoning force.

Oddly, it was technology that liberated artists from their studios and enabled them to work directly from nature—painting their immediate experiences. In 1841, an American portrait painter by the name of John G. Rand found a way to fabricate a tube from tin. Sealing it with a screw top, it was perfect for holding paint. Before there were tubes of paint, artists mixed pigments in their studios and stored the paint in pig bladders.[vi] As you can imagine, pig bladders are neither durable nor portable.  Taking them on site would be a messy affair.

Consequently, artists would make sketches in the field and return to their studios to paint final versions. With the ability to store paint in tubes, artists could carry a number of colors around with them and paint directly from nature instead of from the drawings created before. Additionally, this innovation set forth a whole new genre in painting, en plein air (in the open air). This is where we get the image of an artist standing (alone) with his easel in a field, rendering nature.

Innovations like paint tubes came about frequently during this time, which was the Industrial Revolution. Pretty much every domain was being innovated including agriculture and manufacturing. Before the Industrial Revolution, inventions were slow to come about. But this time of scientific inquiry created a new vision of the future and drove people to improve their surroundings.

In the 20th century, the notion of creative expression ping-ponged back and forth between romanticism and rationalism. Rationalism returned through Modernism and the conscious experimentation of form and materials. Modernist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé heralded the significance of consciously developing skill. Shortly thereafter, Abstract Expressionism brought a burst of romanticism through artists who created spontaneous expressions of pure emotion.[vii] The arts of this time were seen as free of planning or rational thought. Finally, the following isms that wrapped up the 20th century brought back the objective notions of creativity and creative production that remain today.

Whew, that’s quite a history.



[i] Piirto, Jane Ph.D. Understanding Those Who Create, 2nd Edition. Scottsdale: Gifted Psychology Pres, Inc., 1998

[ii] Sawyer, Keith. Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006 .

[iii] Ibi

[iv] Becker, George. “The Association of Creativity and Psychopathology: Its Cultural-Historical Origins.” Creativity Research Journal, 2000-2001, Vol. 13, No. 1: 45-53.

[v] Sawyer 2006

[vi] Hurt, Perry. “Never Underestimate the Power of a Paint Tube.” May 2013. (accessed October 29, 2013).

[vii] Sawyer 2006

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