Monday, January 23, 2012

Welcome to the "Dark Side."

Scheming evil genius Brain (of Pinky & The Brain) spoofs Orson Welles' charismatic but deadly dishonest villain in The Third Man.*

 I asked for researchers to take a frank look at creativity and art a few months ago and it seems some "creativity researchers" have granted my wish. Please go read "The Dark Side of Creativity" by Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD over at Huffington Post.

These researchers found a correlation between creativity and dishonesty, so they designed a few more types of studies that would test the two in different ways and they continued to find the same correlation. I can point out what I think are some flaws in each of their studies but I thought they did a decent job of approaching the problem from a few different angles. Kaufman, reporting on the studies, names Bernie Madoff as an example of a creative and dishonest person. Commenter 'Bibulus' writes, "Newt Gingrich must be some sort of da Vinci," while commenter 'Pogo Bock' quips, "Well, that explains advertisin­g."

Jafar and Iago from Disney's Aladdin. Nearly everyone in the movie was wildly creative-- and dishonest. Except the sultan, a remarkably uncreative thinker who was actively trying to force his daughter into marriage and ignoring the seething masses of his starving subjects while living in a palace, who was portrayed by Disney as an honest man.

It was a relief to read something that doesn't glorify creativity. Usually it's portrayed as magical and fairy-like, an "inner child" of a liberated few, illustrated with multicolored hand-prints and "joyous" abstracted dancing figures. My guess is this happens because the Arts are always pandering for money. This imagery and narrative apparently appeals to the wealthy, so there you have it. Some people really don't get that the arts are worthwhile until you inundate them those sorts of commercials shown on National Public Television with the leaping multiracial children and bounding classical music. Apparently this is what we look like to those outside of the Art World.

But the commenters on HuffPo were not so pleased. Besides the two I quoted above (and with the exception of one or two high-strung religious wackos), most everyone was a writer, graphic designer, or some other creative type who was outraged that this sort of attack on creativity would be funded, studied and reported upon.

Heath Ledger as The Joker. I never really understood the character until Heath Ledger played him. In the cartoon and Jack Nicholson iterations he never did seem very funny, he just did humor-themed things, and he usually just tried to poison people over and over. His special villain-trait seemed to be creativity plus a clown fetish, basically. Heath Ledger's Joker's evocation of the chaotic nihilist nature of the Joke was ingenious.
Creativity, as I see it, is a neutral human trait, not an inherently positive one. You can apply creativity toward dishonesty or toward perfectly honest endeavors. You can also be a very inside-the-box thinker when it comes to both honesty and dishonesty.

This brings me to the definition of "dishonesty." Honesty, in terms of being a moral person, is mostly defined as acting in accordance with the common morals that one's society deems acceptable. But much of the dishonesty practiced by inside-the-box lock-step thinkers (or creative thinkers during uncreative moments) actually passes as "common sense," though not all common sense is dishonest. I believe credit card companies and collections agencies are dishonest, at least the more egregious ways they behave in recent years. Yet U.S. society more or less accepts that they are an ok part of an ok economic system. So one could put in an "honest" day's work as CEO of a credit card company that basically steals people's money.

This would be an example of uncreative dishonesty that would not stand out as dishonesty to many observers because it's not outside-the-box behavior. I think this lock-step uncreative mentality allows this society to get away with collectively telling some whoppers like, "racism and sexism were terrible, but they no longer exist today!" or "poor people just don't understand hard work or they'd be richer," or "abstinence education works" or "we're fighting for freedom-- money has nothing to do with it," or "it's ok to kill people in these circumstances," or everyone's adamant belief that their parents have never had sex, ever. A solid majority of people engage in at least some of these dishonest ideas and practices and do not stand out as particularly dishonest people because they're not creatively dishonest.

*You may have noticed I've illustrated this post using only fictional characters who are creative and dishonest. That's because they were all invented by artists. Even though creative types turned out in droves to whine in the comments about the study casting creativity in a bad light, clearly the "creative evildoer" is beloved by artists.

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