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Context and Creativity:  Beyond Social Determinism and the Isolated Genius:  A Rejoinder to Carl Hale

Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser

The Big Idea

Get ready for a dust-up!  The authors of this paper published a lengthy literature review and discussion on the social dimensions of creativity in an earlier paper we previously summarised for the Player Development Project.  Its title was “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth:  Toward a Contextual View of Creativity.”  Their primary intent in that paper was to argue that the idea of the lone genius theory of creativity needs revisiting.  It wasn’t long before Carl Hale took issue with the Montuori and Purser paper—in fact, rather miraculously it was published in the very same issue of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.  In this rejoinder to Hale’s critical comments, Montuori and Purser criticise the criticiser for fundamentally misrepresenting the basic argument of their paper.

Takeaways

  • In this corner: Montuori and Purser
  • In the other corner: Carl Hale
  • Or: the social dimensions of human creativity vs. the lone genius
  • The original Montuori and Purser paper developed an argument that social interactions are an underdeveloped sociohistorical fundament of human creativity.
  • They also argue that the popular myth of the lone genius as the exclusive source of creativity is problematic.
  • In this current paper (Context and Creativity), Montuori and Purser are responding to Hale’s criticism of Montuori and Purser’s criticism of the weakness of the lone genius myth to explain the context of creativity (which they say is social and historical).
  • In this rejoinder, Montuori and Purser simply explain that Hale has misrepresented their position, catching Hale creating a straw man of sorts to knock down.
  • Hale’s version of Montuori and Purser’s position was that they disrespect or downplay the role of the creative individual. But in a closer reading, it turns out that Montuori and Purser do nothing of the sort.  All they do is point to the primacy of social interaction as a significant force in creativity of all sorts.
  • Even more though, Montuori and Purser also re-tell their concern about the popularity of the lone genius myth that it creates a negative role for the so-called genius as being somehow deviant or bizarre.
  • In the end, Montuori and Purser claim to refute Hale’s criticisms as contrived and missing altogether beside their primary point.
  • And they reiterate their call for a more flexible and expansive model of the creative act as socially dependent, nurtured, and appreciated.

The Rejoinder

Montuori and Purser first elect to revisit their original paper so as to help the reader judge to what extent there has been misrepresentation of their argument in Hale’s criticisms of it.

The lone genius myth

Do social interactions of the creative person hinder or foster creative people?  Montuori and Purser argued in their original paper that, using the field of music as an example, there are any number of instances of productive relationships between good musicians.  This does not deny that the lone musician isn’t making a significant contribution to the genre.  But the creative collaboration becomes not only about the social relationship between musicians, but in turn that the relationship can help the individual musician become a better musician.

What makes this position difficult to sustain, they continue to explain, is the near universality of a contrary belief about creativeness:  that creativity exclusively belongs to the lone individual, to the gifted genius, to the divinely inspired.  While there certainly are such human beings, and that they most certainly can make remarkably creative jumps, for the most part these individuals are still connected to a community—whether by way of the legacy of others before them, or by public support, competition, reviewers and critics, and even by winning prizes and awards.  It is from interactions like these that creativity is nurtured even when the creative individual is ostensibly thought to be a lone genius—or maybe even forced to pretend to be one.

Montuori and Purser argued that the popularity of the lone genius myth is actually a negative influence, especially when it comes to solving social problems, to pioneering innovative technology, or to advancing research and development.  In most organisational systems, the most creative and capable researchers or entertainers or athletes are most always team players. 

Now, the dust-up misrepresentation

The mistake Hale makes, Montuori and Purser believe, is to misrepresent what they have written about the creative process.  Hale mistakenly understood (or selectively read) that Montuori and Purser were disrespecting or downplaying the importance of the individual, or dismissing the role of solitude and isolation in creative acts.  But Montuori and Purser did or said nothing of the sort.  Instead they were primarily pointing out the vital role of social forces in creativity of any kind.

Hale rants on about Montuori and Purser’s refusal to accept the pivotal role of individual geniuses on the social milieu.  But Hale has missed the entire point of the position he rails against.  Montuori and Purser argue that a significant downside to the popularity of the lone genius myth is the social exclusion of the so-called loner.  A stereotypical result is the loner being taken for an antagonist to the masses by the masses whether the loner feels that way toward the masses or not.  When in fact, what Montuori and Purser do is argue for a contextual position where the entire idea of the creative process should not be reduced to nothing but the luck of a person’s gene pool or nothing but social forces.  It is interaction of individuals and relationships that produces the complexity of the creative process, they say.

And the dust settles

Montuori and Purser reiterate their position by pointing out the damage done when glorifying the individual as the lone genius myth does.  Here are some reasons:

  • That perpetuating the idea of the lone genius as a societal image of the creative person (as “live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse”) is potentially dangerous.
  • That such an image almost forces the creative person to play the role of the misunderstood, lonely, or bizarre individual.
  • That noncreative people should be moronic nuisances before the genius achieves fame, and alternatively both worshipping and jealous once fame arrives.
  • That as a feminist critique goes there is nothing creative about the lone genius myth itself because the myth itself is restrictive and distorted in nature.

Moving on

What is important in this fracas is that the study of creative individuals and the study of social creativity are not mutually exclusive.  What is at issue is how collective humanity can find ways to create a more interactive creative society and culture.  To do this requires the nurturing of creativity itself as exclusively neither entirely individual nor entirely social.  A plurality of thoughtful inquiries and questions is necessary in order to find truly life-giving creative contexts.