Virtuous Creativity

My professor seems to think so.

But first, a bit of catch up. Two big things…

  • I’ve reentered grad school for the third time. Perhaps I’ll graduate by the time I’m officially geriatric, although that’s not really the point.
  • I now cohost a podcast with a close friend, because I needed something to do during COVID lockdown and I’m a horrible bread baker.

Both of those life updates warrant longer posts for another time.

Back to creative virtuousness though. We’re currently reading Why Grow Up? Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age by Susan Neiman in my Summer semester course. To sum it up quite briefly, the book is about the value of growing up and maturing in a culture that is overwhelmingly obsessed with youth. Neiman is a “American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist” (thank you Wikipedia) and a Kant scholar, so she writes with a heavy philosophical bent. Each week we read a portion of the book—we’ll read a total of three this semester, this being our second—and are required to post at least two questions for the group and a very short essay in response to any of the questions posted, including ones brought forth by Dr. O.

This week I chose to answer this question, posed by prof: Is it a “travesty” to call people who work in advertising “creatives”? Here’s the sentence that inspired that question…

The advertising industry’s use of the term ‘creatives’ to designate people who spend their lives seeking new ways of seeping into our brains in order to convince us to buy things we don’t need is just the cherry on top of a travesty.

Neiman, S. (2016). Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts for an Infantile Age (Revised ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux., p. 175

My response follows:

As someone who worked in advertising for a few years in the early 2000s, I don’t feel that it’s a travesty to label people who work in that field as “creatives.” Are they using their creative skills for the betterment of society? That is an entirely different question.

I remember fantasizing about what it would be like to work in an ad agency, and in many ways, that fantasy was true. They worked hard and played harder. It was a vibrant and fun, but demanding culture. Ideas flowed, unconventional designs were entertained, and there was no shortage of extremely talented artists, creatives, and free thinkers roaming the halls. But make no mistake, our sole purpose was to make our clients look good by making their products (and yes, the emotions they sold) look appealing so that money could be made—another cog in the machine of capitalism.

My ambition had always been to work amid creative people. That job allowed me to do that, but something was missing—fulfillment in my work and the feeling of making a real difference in something that wasn’t a client’s pocketbook. This hit home when I walked into work one morning and found everyone gathered in the owner’s office staring agape at a small tv set as the Twin Towers fell. I sat on the floor with my coworkers and we cried together. We all went home early that day and my brain went into overdrive thinking about why I was working there and what I wanted my one precious life to be like.

I left the agency soon after 9/11 and started my career in the non-profit world, with a creative and much more fulfilling bent. Now the types of creatives I try to surround myself with are the ones doing work versus labor—the ones making art for art’s sake, playing dive bars for little to no pay out of sheer love of music, the weekend photographers, the authors with coffee shop offices, etc. I appreciate the lesson that my brief foray into advertising gave me. I still feel the ad agency folks are creative as hell, but their motivations don’t align with what I want my brand of creativity to be.

Dr. O replied with a thoughtful response, as he always does, that leaves room for additional contemplation. The juicy bits from his longer response: “Seems to me creativity is ultimately valuable in proportion to the extent it serves noble ends like the quest for meaning and virtue. It’s like valor in an ignoble cause, valorous but seriously tainted. The confederate dead, for instance, were personally valorous but collectively deluded. The causes we seek to serve matter… Do people ever go into advertising because they want to master the art and craft (and science?) of propagating accurate and honest information, to raise the intelligence and sensibilities of the broad public?”

I can’t answer his last question for everyone as I always hesitate to use the proverbial broad brush, but my gut was a simple “no.”

The point of this post is mainly to express how happy I am to have my brain stimulated, to simply be around folks who challenge me and get me out of the daily droning on and on that life can sometimes bring. I’m going to enthusiastically conquer this class and then move on to Feminist Theory next semester. Because, as Susan Neiman says,

Growing up is not a task that ever stops.

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