This post first appeared on the blog for Dr. Linda Garcia’s course “Networks and the Creative Process” at Georgetown University. We discussed the relationship between society and creativity in consideration of Weimar Germany.
In the first pages of Peter Gay’s book “Weimar Culture: Outsiders as Insiders” I was most struck by this descriptive phrase: “exiles… did their greatest work in enforced residence on alien soil.” The names of these exiles are not so foreign to us: Albert Einstein, Erich Fromm, and the sociologists of the Frankfurt School. This prompted me to think about what it means to be a social outsider, and how that often fuels creativity.
Last night, my office hosted a study abroad blog showcase. Students spent the semester in Italy and Turkey, wrote online about their experiences, and met to share them with others. It’s a common thing people say, that students “find themselves” while traveling. That is not a matter of what is there to find, but what is not there to validate. We don’t know much of our cultural identity until we are out of our context, and the creativity that results from that discomfort is often a beautiful statement of the common human condition, rather than the frustration of differences. One of my favorite Native American authors writes of being compelled by his identity as outsider:
“There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” – Junot Diaz
In this, we see a resilient quality to the creative spirit. It is something that desires to be heard in spite of (and often because of) restrictive cultural circumstances. This holds true outside of Germany between the Wars.
Gay goes on to explain that in this post-WWI boom in German creativity, “the excitement was… part exuberant creativity and experimentation… and part anxiety, fear, a rising sense of doom.” From this, I understood that the Weimar movement was largely about rebuilding not just Germany’s financial or political strength, but the richness of its identity. Yet, as Gay points out, “Imperial Germany was hostile to the modern movement.” In the push for power that later defined WWII, the zeitgeist of Weimar Culture died.
But we remember it. My professor, Linda Garcia, asks the critical question of how society might deteriorate creativity. She writes, “with the advent of a dispersed networked economy, the free market mechanisms that previously fostered innovation and creativity will now serve to constrain them.” But can a society really constrain its geniuses? Or can it only force work-arounds? The constraints that Garcia speaks of involve a more subtle, structural stifling of innovation. Perhaps that subtlety will give creative people room to adapt and learn “which attributes will be important for their success.”
Yet in the most extreme cases, where creativity is directly and violently targeted, we see its resilience. I think that resilience will prove true in the face of any type of resistance.
I can think of no better example of this than what Amitav Ghosh describes in one of my favorite books, “Dancing in Cambodia.” In the aftermath of the Pol-Pot regime’s years of mass killing, one of the first things that the new, fragile Cambodian government set out to do was to revive traditional Cambodian dance. And they succeeded.