Creativity and the city: Thinking through the steps


Different cultures and contexts, different creativities



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Different cultures and contexts, different creativities

Creativity means different things in different cultures. For instance, within certain cultures good imitation is deemed to be the apex of creativity. The imagination is then steered to producing with perfection. And again perfection is also a relative term. To the Japanese eye the lack of symmetry is what creates perfection. For the West symmetry is associated with harmony and has a high value. In Western culture, by contrast there is also an obsession with the new. As global culture is swept up with a similar obsession so the Western perception of creativity tends to dominate especially given the over-riding capitalist economy itself is driven by the need for continuous innovation. The challenge is to create a working definition of creativity that both addresses tradition and the future as well as a quality of nurturing the existing and pushes the boundaries into the new.
What, most importantly, is Korean creativity? What is the same as in other Asian places or in Europe or the Americas? What is specific and unique about it, what is different? The answer should be beyond the trivial, such as our cuisine, clothes or heritage is different. Does Korean creativity work on different principles and are these then visible in the urban landscape?
Creativity is context driven. What was creative in a period long past is not creative now, although it may still be necessary, such as the public health advances in the 19th century. What is creative in Britain may not be creative for Korea and in turn what is deemed creative in Korea may appear normal in Britain.

Individual creativity and urban creativity

We understand what creativity can mean in individuals, for example the capacity to think across boundaries, roam across disciplines, ideas and concepts, to grasp the essence of an issue and to connect the seemingly unconnected; or equally creativity in teams or organizations, which is the capacity to draw out individuals’ diverse talents, open out the barriers between individuals, to reduce obstacles and procedures to allow many people to contribute and to meld potential into a cohesive whole. But to think through and implement a ‘creative city’ agenda is of a different order of magnitude as it involves co-joining the interests and power of different groups who may be diametrically opposed and whose goals may contradict each other. It involves certain qualities, such as: the capacity to bring interest groups around the table within a commonly agreed agenda; to learn to work in partnership between different sectors that share mutual respect; the ability to generate civic creativity whereby the public sector learns to be more entrepreneurial and the private sector to be more socially responsible in pursuing joint aims; the willingness to share power with a goal of having greater influence over an enlarged whole.

Creativity and the past


So if the overall culture of a city is key in establishing creative potential. What about cultural heritage? What about the arts or cultural institutions? The triggers for creativity can be contradictory. For example heritage can inspire because of past achievements, it can give energy because deep thought has gone into its creation, it can save time because much has already been thought through, it can trigger the desire to emulate, it can give insight and generate pride, because it has withstood the test of time – it is still there. But equally heritage and tradition can put a weight on peoples’ shoulders, it can constrain and contain, it can overwhelm, it can force the mind to go along familiar patterns and furrows of thinking and so make people less open and less flexible. Which side of the coin over-rides the situation depends on circumstance.
If the new generation perceives its role as only safeguarding the past for which it has had no input it might mean heritage and tradition is drowning a vibrant emerging identity. Heritage works best when we perceive ourselves to be part of its continual creation. This is why museums of galleries are often more successful that encourage the audience to ask new questions and do more than just let the viewer admire. Instead they engage their audiences in an act of co-creation and co-interpretation of the past. Contrast the failure of those who just present things as a given immutable canon. When heritage and its interpretation is allowed to ossify the past and the present begin to disconnect.

Culture inevitably involves a past as a place’s culture is the residue and what is left and deemed to be important after the ebb and flow of argument, fashion and negotiation about what is valuable has passed. Culture when acknowledged, and this might also mean the ability to reject it, gives strength in moving forward. It becomes a backbone that can create the resilience that makes change and transformation easier. Confidence is key for creativity. When cultures feel threatened or weak or that another culture is superimposing themselves upon it they go into their shell. Culture then becomes a defensive shield not open to change, imagination and creativity.

Cultural institutions, anchoring and creativity

Museums, galleries and libraries can give confidence and most of them are in cities often giving the city its identity. Indeed when you people to identify a city it is often a cultural facility or icon they refer to.


At their best they tell us who we are, where we have come from and where we might be going. In so doing they show us the routes that reconnect us to our roots. They do this through storytelling; a story that fits us, our community, our city, our country, our cultures and even our worlds into a bigger human and natural history showing us connections, bridges and threads that can enrich our understanding. Museums and galleries confront us with some things that are familiar and comforting and at other times they challenge us to look afresh to see the world in a new way or to experience things that require imagination to grasp. A local history exhibition is an example of one, a contemporary art show of another and an Aztec exhibition is an instance of the latter.
Some museums too allow us to contribute our personal stories in an act of co-creation. By triggering imagination museums entice us to explore so providing opportunities for testing out, for chance encounter, for discovery and also inventing things afresh. At their core museums and galleries are involved in an exchange of ideas where we as the visitor come to grips with displays. In effect we converse either with ourselves or more publicly about what our culture or those of others is so we think about what we value and what our values are. The recent Madame de Pompadour – Images of Mistress exhibition at the National Gallery in London is an example as is the Bodyworks exhibition which uses human body parts presented in a non-museum space.

By placing us, the visitor, at the crossroads of what has gone before with what could be and what others have thought museums, libraries and galleries become platforms for dialogue, discourse and debate revealing the multi-layered textures that make up any society. In these processes of creating, questioning and anchoring identity, of imagining and re-imagining and of discovery the object or artefact, ideally real, is the catalyst.

In fact the cultural institutions communicate with every fibre of their being – their artefacts, their setting and the way it projects to the outside world. What it feels like and looks like sends out innumerable messages and its values are especially etched into its physical fabric as well as its programming. Thus our older museums often speak more to a former age; an age of deference where the expert told the inexpert what to know and how to know it and where you – the humble citizen – were to be elevated by the museum experience. And the physical elevations themselves spoke in a more grandiose style, often going back to a classical age with their Corinthian columns, reflecting a different kind of confidence and attitude. Yet good contemporary design has often helped museums to combine old structure to new ways of engaging an audience. Today we attempt to live in a more transparent and democratic age. Consequently more buildings reflect a greater lightness of touch in the materials they use – glass, light-weight steel or tented structures, or in the way audiences are invited in. Again the best of the old and the new can communicate iconically so that we grasp the totality of what a cultural institution is about in an instant.
When we take an eagle eye view we see there is a special ‘museumness’ about museums or librariness about libraries, they are:


  • A place of anchorage, which is why so often in a world that speeds ahead of us we see museums as refuges or places of reflection

  • A place of connection so enabling understanding of our pasts and possible futures

  • A place of possibility by letting us scour the resources of the past and memories to stimulate us to twist them to the contemporary condition
  • A place of inspiration to remind us of the visions, ideals and aspirations we have made for ourselves and continue to make


  • A place of learning …as when these things come together we know more about ourselves, our surroundings, what things work or don’t work and how things could be made better



The arts and the creativity of cities


Most of the literature on creativity concerns the arts and science. The question is whether there is anything special about the category of arts called singing, acting, writing, dancing, performing music or drawing especially in relation to the development of the city.

Engagement with these particular arts is a combination of stretching oneself and focusing, to feel the senses, to express emotion, essential to it is mastering the craft through technical skill on top of which is layered interpretation. Discipline and patience are required until the result might look artless. The arts use different thought processes, such as being more precise or striving for perfection, there is a single mindedness attached to it. Most importantly it involves acts of imagining and turning an idea around into a reality that sums up something meaningful to the listener or viewer. The result can be: to broaden horizons, to convey meaning, with immediacy and or depth, to symbolize complex ideas and emotions, to see the previously unseen, to learn, to uplift, to encapsulate previously scattered thoughts, to anchor or by contrast to stun, to shock by depicting terrible images for social, moral, or thought-provoking reasons, to criticize or to create joy, to entertain, to be beautiful and it can even soothe the soul and promote popular morale. And more boradly it is a way of passing ideas and concepts on to later generations in a (somewhat) universal language.

The arts use the imaginary realm to a degree that other disciplines do not such as sports or most of science. Turning the imaginary into reality is an act of creation so the arts more than most activities are concerned with creativity, indeed it is one of the few areas where it is legitimized.

The best of our past arts ends up in museums and so the arts contribute to creating destinations, visitor attractions and help foster a city’s image as well as generating an economic impact, as do the best of the contemporary arts which are found in galleries, theatres, performance venues or bookshops.
Importantly a lively city needs old arts and new arts. Counterposing the two creates dialogue, argument, at times even conflict and the negotiation as to what is significant is the process of making a dynamic culture. A static urban culture just focuses on what has been achieved in the past. This has happened to many beautiful places such as Florence where its beauty has become a prison.
The arts help cities in a variety of ways. First with their aesthetic focus they draw attention to quality, and beauty. Unfortunately this is expressed in a limited way typically a piece of public sculpture in front of an ugly or ordinary building. Yet in principle they challenge us to ask: Is this beautiful? This should affect how urban design and architecture evolve. Second the arts challenge us to ask questions about ourselves as a city. This should lead us to ask: ‘What kind of city do we want to be and how should we get there?’ Arts programmes can challenge city leaders by undertaking uncomfortable projects that force leaders to debate and take a stand. For example an arts project about or with migrants might make us look at our prejudices. Arts projects can empower people who have previously not expressed their views, so artists working with communities can in effect help consult people. For example a community play devised with a local group can tell us much more than a typical political process. Finally arts projects can simply create enjoyment.




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