A Journal of Contemporary Arts 


  Joseph S. Salemi








Many decades ago, there was a TV commercial sponsored by Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice. It had the usual animated cartoons and a jingle, the dominant lyric being this: Start with Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice, then GO CREATIVE! This stupid commercial was emblematic of a much deeper problem. Its suggestion was that all you had to do was take the damned juice, and do whatever you wanted with it, and the result would be great. What does this have to do with poetry? Let me explain.

Mainstream modern education is so degraded and lie-ridden that it would be pointless to critique it in great detail, as well as exhausting. Today its faults are not merely wrong-headed, but actually malignant and criminal. But since our readership here at the EPOnline is concerned with poetry specifically and the arts in general, I’d like to touch upon on one absurdity in contemporary educational theory that has caused untold damage both to poetic practice and to the appreciation of the arts as a whole.

By this I mean the unconscious exaltation of creativity over actual poetic technique and accomplishment. This exaltation is not merely widespread—it is for all practical purposes completely dominant and hegemonic in the classroom. Teachers are constantly telling students to GO CREATIVE!

Human creativity is a wonderful thing, to be sure. It replicates the act of God, the Creator, by producing beauty and coherence out of chaos or nothingness. But today the word “creativity” has been hijacked, as has happened with many common terms that have been infected with a parasitical and politically poisonous new meaning. I don’t think I need explain to our readers what the words “inclusion,” “diversity,” “equity,” and “fairness” really mean today, when used by our enemies.

Wherever poetry is taught to beginners, or where finished poems are analyzed in discussion, a completely false idea hovers in the atmosphere like an invisible airborne disease. And that is the notion that creativity lies at the heart of poetic composition, and that poems must be judged by the degree of “genuine creativity” that they display. This is a glaring absurdity, but it has gained traction everywhere, and trying to question or deny it will only generate astonishment at first, followed by abuse. This always happens when a word is appropriated for a political purpose.

People will scream How can you denigrate creativity?!? How can you attack the throbbing heart and pulse of artistic endeavor?!? How can you be so cold and unsympathetic?!?

Well, I can denigrate and attack it, because it has derailed poetry (and many of the other arts) just as surely as a skewed railroad tie will throw a locomotive off the tracks. We are choking on gaseous clouds of creativity, when what we really need is craftsmanship. I’m cold and unsympathetic because I am fed up with destructive fantasies.

“Creativity” today is actually just a catchword, a dog-whistle, a virtue-signaling call-sign. People don’t really know what it is, and they don’t bother to think about it. All they know is that it is good, and should be encouraged. If pressed, most people will define creativity as some sort of subjective motivation that wells up inside a person, stimulating him to “do something,” or “to “express himself,” or “to unleash his enthusiasm.” What they seem to be talking about is a kind of internal movement of the will to make an external mark via some medium of self-expression. But it never seems to have any connection to the quality or value of that external mark. Just be creative, and all will be well. Exactly what the Ocean Spray sponsors wanted you to think.

Certainly every free human activity requires motivation, and a self-starting psychological goad. But that is never enough when art is being produced. A desire to be rich will prompt me to get out of bed and work and manage my investments. An urge to be married will make me woo and win a woman. Yet I cannot depend on the mere driving force of creativity to produce an excellent poem or other artwork—certainly not if I am devoted to working in a long-standing aesthetic tradition that stretches back centuries in my culture. To do that I must be instructed, or instruct myself. I must take on the task of acquiring craft. Only then does my enthusiasm matter.

The problem with “creativity” (as the term is used today) is two-fold. First, not everybody has the innate capacity to produce works of art; and second, the mere desire to do something has never guaranteed that you will be able to do it. I’m amazed at how many young people today are completely oblivious of these elemental facts. Consider this example. When I talk to students, asking them what they plan on doing in life, several of them have told me that they want to wear business clothes, carry a leather briefcase, and work for a big company. But when I ask “Doing what?” they answer “Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Whatever.”

Whatever? Are these students for real? Do they actually think that the simple desire to wear business clothes and carry a briefcase is enough to get ahead in life?

But if you think that “creativity” will make you a good poet or artist you are thinking exactly like those deluded students. You have failed to recognize that understanding the details of your art—its history, its conventions, its genres and styles, its past masters—is an absolute and necessary precondition for achievement. Oh sure—you can claim that your “creativity” pushes you into new and original directions, and therefore you don’t need anything else beside it. But if that’s your attitude, you will never be different from any of the other little wankers who infest countless workshops and chatrooms to show off their amateurish productions.

There’s another problem with the fixation on creativity, and that is the paralysis it induces in critical assessment. If an artistic product comes from someone’s creative endeavor, and if such endeavor is assumed to be natural and active in all human beings, then any negative judgment on the product lacks justification. How can I say that something is bad or poorly done if it is covered with the protective coating of creativity? It would be like objecting to someone’s eye color, or digestive process. In short, if creativity is natural, and artistic products emerge from it, then all artistic products are immune from criticism.

Judgment of works of art is only possible if there are established standards of achievement that exist external to any artist. If no such standards exist, anything can be called “art.” And the worship of creativity essentially dismisses standards and disallows judgment. It is no accident that criticism today in almost all fields has been gelded and cowed—an honestly negative review of anything is considered insulting, offensive, and even actionable, rather than simply the viewpoint of an unimpressed observer. John Simon and Armond White were two very acute drama and film reviewers, but because of their blunt honesty in appraising performances they were excoriated violently, as if they were murderers or rapists. Why should that be? Well, because it is now considered deeply unfair and offensive to denigrate anyone’s “creativity,” whether it is an actor’s bad performance or a director’s slovenly style.

Another factor comes into play here—this divinized notion of the sanctity of the creative process has now become inextricably tangled up with the idea of “feelings.” Creative expression is now identical with the expression of one’s emotions. And hurting anybody’s feeling is today considered a major crime. We have become a race of sentimentalists and feelgood therapists, desperate not to hurt anyone, but to show understanding and acceptance and nurturing good will.

As with almost everything today, there is a political dimension to the problem. The most valued position in modern society (in terms of hyped-up celebration and elite acceptance) is that of approved vulnerability. If you are one of these culturally certified “vulnerable,” then you are singled out as special and chosen, and must be treated with respect even if you do not objectively deserve it. Nobody may hurt your feelings. So quite naturally, many persons (like Elizabeth Warren or Rachel Dolezal) try as hard as they can to be in a socially certified victim group.

Well, this leaves everyone else in a quandary. If you are not in one of the approved vulnerable categories, how do you get unlimited respect and acceptance? Simple—you “express your creativity.” And since creativity has the built-in defense of being a perfectly natural and universal quality that everyone shares, then whatever your creativity produces has to be accepted as valuable and critique-proof. This bizarre attitude has now become so unconsciously second-nature to us that any analysis of a work of art that is not effulgent with enthusiastic praise is immediately considered viciously hostile and personally insulting to the artist. When one of Norman Mailer’s children received a disparaging review for a literary publication, Mailer showed up in a rage at the office of the offending journal and demanded that the critic write a retraction, or be fired. That’s how crazy things have become.

Artistic creativity is not natural to everyone, or else is present in everyone in widely varying degrees. Sometimes human creative impulse is active in non-aesthetic areas, where it is just as important. And everyone—even the best artist—has off days, and produces rotten work. We have to stop talking about “creativity” as if it were some divine force whose effusions are always precious. In fact, it’s probably better if we drop the word totally. Misuse has rendered it useless.

The impetus that produces great art is not wholly emotional, but also fueled by experience, learning, cultural habits, aesthetic style and opinion, personal disposition, historical context, and one’s social and individual circumstances. All of these things go into a unique mix that generates a work of art. But not every work of art is a success! The worship of “creativity” makes it impossible for us to recognize that plain fact. Maybe it’s useful when selling cranberry juice, but it serves no purpose in judging artistic achievement.


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Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.  His upcoming books, Gallery of Ethopaths, and a collection of critical essays, are forthcoming.