The work of the 21st century creative

I am an artist. Using my imagination and my creativity to earn a living is my lifelong love and fascination. Now some of you may be thinking ‘so how’s that working for you?’   I can almost see the starving artist stereotype appearing like the white elephant in the room between us right now.

It’s one thing, if you are Kanye West or J. K. Rowling saying you use your creativity to support yourself. But what about the creative commoners amongst us? What about the working portion – the core- of the creative class?

Who are we you ask?

We are disciplined and educated. We are twice as likely to have a college degree than anyone else in the labor force and typically have to hold down several jobs to earn a living. Our ideas take us in every direction imaginable, but we are unrecognized for the impact we make across the different sectors in society we cross into. We are community leaders, organizers, activists, and catalysts for change, as well as creators of images, films, books, poems, songs, and dances, but research acknowledges a lack of substantive data to back up these claims.  We are passionate about the things we create because they illuminate who we are to the world and to ourselves.

I  have had a lifelong love affair with the clarinet.  Playing the clarinet has taught me the meaning of devotion, the discipline of practice, and showed me how to share my vulnerabilities not only with myself but my colleagues, teachers and audience. This alone has taught me the power of empathy for another human being. The clarinet has challenged me to learn how to stand naked from the stage and trust I will be accepted for who I am.  It has helped me learn how to erase my fears of failure as the conductor counts and beats every moment of time in front of you as you wait for your entrance hoping to land unscathed. Every second counts.

It’s a constant battle, as a classically trained musician, to rise above the mundane task of technical perfection to achieve something greater than yourself.  I have used these skills to build businesses in the creative sector to support my interests and life since the age of 17 and I just turned 50.

Growing up, I was routinely asked by my family, friends and new acquaintances ‘why would I choose a profession where it was likely that I would starve?’ I always found this question rather jarring.  It was a question I never thought to ask.

I grew up in a family that placed a high value on education, the arts and culture and were a living example of the marriage between art and business. I grew up surrounded by intelligent, hard working self-employed people who believed their interests- their passions and ideas- could take them far in this world if they set their mind to figure out how to make them work. I never thought of my pursuit of the arts as something that would cause me to starve. How could it when it was feeding my heart and soul?

I remember quite distinctively at one particular holiday party my uncle Marvin coming up to me and asking me why wasn’t I devoting my life to something more important like become a lawyer or doctor. Something truly that could change the world, he said.   I remember well what I told him. I said ‘Uncle Marvin, I am developing my creativity, on purpose, because it’s teaching me about myself.  I have struggled with understanding the meaning of life for most of my life and honestly I can’t find any better pursuit to invest into right now.  Playing the clarinet is helping me realize who I am and what I am really here for.’

I have always thought of artists as individuals that were capable of finding creative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. Artist fuel change naturally. We do it by moving the hearts and minds of humanity- which has the potential to change systems, act as an accelerant to spread solutions that can work, and can persuade entire societies to take new leaps.  Whereas businesses typically measure performance in profit and return, I have always thought about success of the artist in terms of the impact they can have on society.

In 2002 Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise of The Creative Class. In it he explained that creativity is the most valuable quality of our times, “the decisive source of competitive advantage.”  According to him, creative people will become society’s “dominant class” in the 21st century. All great news for a creative person like me who has spent my entire life just thankful to be able to create a living in the creative sector as most of my friends, as a group, have struggled to survive.

In his book, Florida told us that companies that wished to harness their power would need to follow us artists wherever we went. Cities and states would soon be obliged to reconfigure themselves as havens for people of nonconformist tastes, who would then generate civic coolness via art zones, music scenes, and truckloads of authenticity. Florida even invented a “Bohemian Index,” which, he claimed, revealed a strong correlation between the presence of artists and economic growth.

Creativity is big business these days.  The literature on the subject is vast. I did a quick Google search and 8,460,00 entries appeared on the subject alone. The authors of books on creativity included management gurus, teaching us how to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of the power of networks and togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis. Books that say that through careful study and hard science — by sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine — we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

A 2010 IBM pole concluded that creativity was the number one competency more CEO’s in Fortune 100 needed to solve their problems and innovate faster. A 2011 Martin Prosperity Institute study revealed that entrepreneurship levels may be connected to a region’s underlying creativity. And books like Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From have contributed to the likes of  “Innovation Jams” at companies like Google and IBM where employees are given free time to brainstorm collectively and experiment with the things that are of interest to them. You can now train your brain to be an idea-generating machine through scientific brain games offered by companies like Luminosity. And creativity consultants are popping up everywhere as cities, around the world, now indeed are focusing on how they can spend billions reworking neighborhoods into arts-friendly districts where rule-bending whimsicality is a thing to be celebrated.

But I have yet to see any statistics that shows that the majority of those fortune 100 executives have taken up a musical instrument, or are sending their employees in droves to attend art class. And those brain training games have been made by businessmen and neuro-scientists not designed by the artists of the creative class. And the creative consultants working in cities are largely urban planners and community developers and researchers. Artists are not routinely being engaged as part of an interdisciplinary team of advisors to cities, big business and governments around the world either.

The business of creativity, it appears, is too important to be left in our hands.

So why is it that the rhetoric of creativity has never been more popular than now, and why is it that the creative class continues to struggle instead of rise?

A study in 2003, Investing in Creativity, reported that 96% of the population values art, but only 27% value artists- and sadly not much has changed.  And with all of our cultivated creative gifts, why are we being left behind?

Florida’s assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued couldn’t be farther from the truth. According to the Torrance Test of Creativity, accurately predicting children’s creativity as adults, creativity has been in decline since 1999. My friends are the musicians, writers, designers and intellectuals that Florida places squarely in the creative class and, when considering us as a group, we are not thriving and flowering financially- nor are we, as a class, rising.  The primary structures to support us, as we know, have all but crumbled.

And then I read an article recently in Salon that Thomas Frank wrote and it all made sense to me.  His idea was indeed that creativity was the attribute of a class — a class Florida identified not only with intellectuals and artists, but also with a broad swath of the professional-managerial stratum.

For all our reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society does not seem truly to be interested in new ideas unless they reinforced favorite theories or can be monetized in some obvious way.   Take Burning Man for example. Each year, artists come together to imagine our world in a new way.  What can we learn from the spontaneous, lacking in capitalistic output of the truly collaborative inspiring work of these artists?  Where is it that individual creativity truly comes from and what is the real takeaways-, which are different for each of us?

As long as I can remember, the arts have been perceived by most I know as visceral in nature–at best a sort of soft asset that can be hung on their wall but has no place on their profit and loss statement or balance sheet and certainly the artist has had no role in their board room. Relegated to lobby foyers, museum like executive art collections, the work of the marketing department, shared experiences when courting a new client and a source of entertainment for the staff to enjoy at the annual holiday party, the average working individual currently recognizes only a fraction of the value the arts have to offer, in my opinion.

Thanks to innovative thought leaders like Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink and Richard Florida, this mindset, in recent years, has begun to shift. Corporate and institutional giants like Starbucks, IBM, General Electric, Citibank, McDonnell Douglas, Pfizer, Johnson’s Wax, Kohler, The World Bank, and others like them, are recognizing the connectivity the creative arts hold as conductor for organizational transformative change and innovation. After all, the visceral nature of the arts provides a unique barrier breaker -a unifier- regardless of race, religion, gender, age, status or income. The powerful impact of art- not by focusing first on the monetization of it- transcends all.

Thomas Frank’s example of the body of knowledge about creativity in the marketplace says it best. Take, for example, the 2012 bestselling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by the now ex-wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose résumé includes a Rhodes scholarship, a tour of duty at The New Yorker and two previous books about neuroscience and decision-making.  (No artistic resume here.)

Anecdote after heroic anecdote unfolded, many of them beginning with some variation on Lehrer’s very first phrase: “Procter and Gamble had a problem.” What followed, as creative minds did their nonlinear thing, were epiphanies and solutions. You can read about the invention of the Swifter; how Bob Dylan achieved his great breakthrough and wrote that one song of his that they still play on the radio from time to time; how a company called 3M  invented the Post-it note; how the cellist Yo-Yo Ma is an out of the box thinker, and about the glories of Pixar.

Haven’t we all heard these things before?

As Frank points out, spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swifter is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and 3M’s creative innovation can be traced all the way back to “In Search of Excellence” (1982), one of the most influential business books of all time.

As the literature on the industry of creativity continues to churn out, I can’t help but wonder, are those who urge us to “think different,” doing so themselves?   Is the only value of the creative class one that isn’t very creative at all, but narrowly defined as one that only contributes to the inspiration of business executives, if even then?  Is the role of the artist to be the window dressing, the backdrop or provide substance? The supposed rise of the creative class seems to have so little to do with the downward-spiraling lives of actual creative workers. Perhaps that’s because it was never really about us in the first place. I can think of no books that try to work the equation the other way around — holding up the invention of air conditioning or Velcro as a model for a jazz trumpeter trying to work out his solo.

Why is this?

Because our prosperity depends on it says the economists.

Is this the ultimate lesson? Is this the new box that creativity is to live?  Have we simply updated the concept of the starving artist to the rhetoric of the day?

I think the answer to this question lies in the history artists have had with patronage.

The growth and development of our sector has always been tied to patronage instead of capitalism.  While patronage is commonly still associated with artists, it extended into academia and the sciences in the day.

The patron served a fundamental function in the development of art in early modern Europe. In addition to being an active consumer of art, he was its initiator, often dictating form and content. Art patronage functioned as proof of wealth, status, and power and could also serve purposes of propaganda and entertainment.  Conversely, influential contacts were essential to an artist’s well being. Working under an increasingly prominent noble made one an increasingly credible thinker, or a respectable craftsman.

The social standing of the patron also benefited from the arrangement. Sponsoring several clients indicated substantial wealth and an interest in the community. Especially accomplished clients brought to their patrons added prestige. Ironically, patrons tended to distance themselves publicly from their clients as much as possible, so as not to give the appearance of relying on them for their status.

The end of academic patronage, at least in the sciences, can be loosely dated to 1682. In that year, King Louis XIV of France founded the Academies des Sciences, which brought to Western science a new reliance on experimentation. The credibility of research became dependent on the success of experiments rather than on the notability of a scientist’s patron.  And this newfound credibility that produced productive research that lead to solving world problems- and growing capitalism- was the gateway to prosperity for the sciences, unlike for the artists’ creativity.

While experimentation has always been a large part of the development of an artist’s self-expression, laboratories to study artists for the purpose of social discoveries and world progress never was initiated.

If we truly value creative individualism, that can only flow from the act of self-expression to nurture the dormant innovative abilities of entire world, than we have to include the artist- the creative class- as we are, for the value we hold, into all aspects of our world economy.

Experiments have found fewer than thirty percent of us are willing to assert our own ideas when they run counter to the majority view. This is not, clearly, the artist mentality. We freely express ourselves. This minority of people who judge issues for ourselves and assert our judgments are among the most successful and well-adjusted members of society.

In fact, we select our leaders – in all areas of life, in industry, fashion, politics and science – from this group of people precisely because they resist being easily persuaded and because the try to draw out what is best from the sum of the conflicting views that others present to them.

Leaders who stand out from the rest as strong individualists may tend to isolate themselves from the opinions, interests and tastes of others even to the point sometimes of being ineffective at organizing support for their lives. Many strong individualists have been forced to the margins of political or scientific life as cranks or misfits, only to re-emerge as major figures when circumstances permit.

Sir Winston Churchill, Britain’s great leader in World War II, was for years considered too eccentric, too unpredictable and too belligerent for high office by key figures among those controlling political power in Britain, and did not become Prime Minister until a charismatic leader was needed.

Charles Darwin, the first major contributor to modern theories of biological evolution, was considered a failure in early life. His reluctance to seek a conventionally successful life in the Church or in medicine, as his family would have wished, was partly due to his being absorbed in unconventional ideas, which he kept mostly to himself. He only published them when he was middle-aged, and friends and circumstances finally persuaded him that he could no longer delay.

Without such exceptional individualism, it is probable that the human race would make little progress. And my concern is that unless we finally place the artist in his and her worthy place, seated at the table with the business men, the politicians, the scientists and our world leaders, our most important gifts cannot be utilized purposefully to demonstrate the true value of creative leadership. Creative shorthand and cliff notes of the salient most prominent points is not the recipe for developing truly authentic human qualities that uniquely can help us innovate and find solutions to societies most pressing problems.  Uniqueness doesn’t come in a managerial 10-tape box set and it cannot be programmed or delivered in shorthand.  It must learn to flow through us from within.  This is the work of the 21st century creative.



 1014467_10202833947183293_5964056692173013765_nAbout Lisa Canning

“Vowels are to words what creativity is to the world~ basic and necessary.”

What motivates you to explore your creativity?  Email me and tell me:

For daily inspiration and creative education join me on Facebook:

Need a magic creativity wand? Let’s start with the clarinet and see what it inspires you to dream and do.

Lisa Canning is the founder of Lisa’s Clarinet Shop, IAEOU, the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship (IAE) and Entrepreneur the Arts. And now Learning Flies too.


The work of the 21st century creative

Don't have an account?
sign up

reset password

Back to
log in

sign up

Back to
log in
Choose A Format