Standing on the Crowd´s Shoulders: The Social Origin of Creativity

Av Koen Janssen


We applaud Boudelaire for his Les Fleurs du Mal, we revere Marx for Das Kapital and we admire Picasso for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. All three are pieces of art in their own right and each of them arouse strong emotion of love or hate in many of us.

We exhaustively ponder the meaning of these works but when it comes to the origin of the works we almost always end up with unsatisfying statements of dates and places. Das Kapital originated from the mind of Marx in the 1860’s in London, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from the hand of Picasso in 1907, and the original Les Fleurs du Mal from the pen of Baudelaire during the 1840’s and 1850’s in Paris. This explanation does not suffice in a study of the origin of these works.

In the following article I will not refute that these masterpieces stem from the minds of these individuals, I will, however, assert that these minds are not the source of these works. They are the fertile ground in which the seed of creativity is planted. I will assert that creativity, that lays at the base of bringing something ‘new’ into being, is not solely an individual trait but is, for a large part, dependent on the collective personal relations the ‘creator’ keeps. Furthermore, I will show that ‘being creative’, or being viewed as creative or innovative, largely depends on one’s personal network for assessing something as valuable and distributing this view amongst others.

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Creativity in History
From the ancient Greeks to modern science; the concept of creativity has always been a source of interest throughout history. Antiquity had Plato, who did not believe creativity existed, rather he believed that art was a form of discovery. The only word the Greeks had for creation was poiein (to make) and poiesus (poetry) which only applied to that field. Christians long believed that creativity was not an individual asset but an expression of the divinity of god, even reducing poetry to a ‘craft’. This view remained unchallenged until the renaissance and the enlightenment thereafter. In this period creativity and the created started to be seen as an individual ability and the product of this ability. To this day we have not moved away from that view. There have been however, a wide range of theories all claiming something slightly different, starting with a five-step-model proposed by Graham Wallas in 1926 and diverged into the convergent-divergent theory, the creative cognition approach, the explicit-implicit interaction theory, conceptual blending approach, the honing theory and many other less prominent theories. However many views on creativity there are they all have one thing in common: they all focus on the individual and take the cognitive process that takes place within the individual as leading in their research. As a sociologist, I see a major gap in an approach of this sort. It tends to downplay the fact that man is, in essence, social. This article will therefore take another approach, it will ignore the individual cognitive process altogether and will try to find the source of creativity solely in the ‘social’.

The Social Creativity
Reframing creativity should be understood as moving away from attributing the ‘created’ completely to the ‘creator’. One should – perhaps first and foremost – take the collective personal ties (or social relations) the ‘creator’ entertains as the object of interest. However, I understand I cannot make this claim without explaining the paradigm it is grounded in.

The social networks paradigm, originating mainly from the work of Georg Simmel who believed that dyadic relationships (a relation between two people) did not grasp social behaviour as sufficient as the triadic relationship (a triangle of relations between three individuals), assumes that individual social behavior is orchestrated. Many theorists expanded on this work stating that not only the triad was of interest but also the relations people entertained outside the triad, the friends of friends. Sociologists like Mark Granovetter argued that we should distinguish between relations and Scott Feld urged us to look at activities as explanation for the way networks are arranged. This wide range of research has led to a matured paradigm of social action capable of explaining behaviour (like that of the creative) within the social world.

Actors tend to adjust their attitudes, opinions and beliefs to the observed behavior of other members of the social system in which they participate. The behavior of the immediate contacts of the individual are usually most salient to the individual but the more indirect influence of contacts of contacts (friends of friends) can play a role in setting the individual’s paradigm as well. Moreover, study has shown that two individuals who meet each other frequently and for longer times tend to start to look and think alike. Consider, if you can still remember, your first year of high school. You looked around and saw 30 insecure middle-school kids. However, after the first few months you start to see that the first social relations have formed and created ‘cliques’ in the class room. You start to spend your lunchbreak with the same few classmates talking about a shrinking range of subjects. And after that first year you see that clique in the back of the class mostly wearing black clothes, you have developed an interest in football you share only with those five guys you have lunch with and you cannot ‘hang’ with that group of girls without being draped in boy band merchandise. On the one hand, individuals that entertain close personal relations with one another gradually change their individual attitudes and beliefs to be the same or compatible and will tend to engage in activities that reinforce this shared paradigm and will abandon others that do not. On the other hand, people will choose to establish, maintain or end social relations based on their preference to interaction with people that are similar to them. The combined tendencies are called the ‘homophily principle’ and are key to the understanding of the social reframing of creativity as a more social concept.

Picasso’s Debt to Montparnasse
Not only adolescents are susceptible to this kind of social homophily, it plays a great role in artistic life as well. If we take Pablo Picasso as an example, we can see how the individual’s social relations rather than an individual cognitive process has led to the birth of cubism. In 1900 Picasso visited Paris for the first time where he met Guillaume Apollinaire through Max Jacob. He, in turn, took him to a salon in Montparnasse owned by Gertrude Stein ‒ a wealthy American art collector, who had an art gallery and salon at her house which became a meeting place for painters like Picasso and Matisse, poets like Apollinaire and writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Stein herself was not a mere art collector, she published a number of novels and poems representing the cubist tradition in literature.

Gertrude Stein proved to be an admirer (and collector) of his work from 1905 onward. Within this social environment, where the works of Cézanne were held in high regard (by the Stein family as well as the Fauvists led by Matisse), Picasso developed cubism, the first being Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. Especially Cézanne’s ‘mature period’ was a great inspiration for Picasso’s cubism. One may argue that the works of Cézanne were well known and Picasso did not need the Montparnasse ‘crowd’ to introduce him to it. This is true, but it is important to realize that the social ties Picasso had to people admiring Cézanne (which certainly not everybody did) had a positive influence on his attitude of Cézanne’s work, which would have been absent if not for the Montparnasse ‘crowd’. This positive attitude led him to draw upon this work. Moreover, his relation with Henri Matisse, especially the aspect of artistic rivalry for the favor of the collecting Stein-family, led him further away from neo-impressionistic influences and influenced in such a way that cubism developed into a style of its own in further paintings.

The conclusion is that the social environment Picasso found himself in (by chance) has led to cubism and I would go so far to say that cubism would not exist if not for the social ties Picasso developed from 1900 onward. Picasso, under the influence of his newly developed social ties, changed his attitudes, conceptions and beliefs to be closer to those of his peers. If Gertrude Stein, Henri Matisse and others he associated with around Montparnasse did not ‘love’ certain styles and artists, cubism would never have been the result of the cognitive process within the mind of Pablo Picasso. The homophily principle also works the other way round, ‘the makings of Americans’ by Gertrude Stein employs cubism in prose and Apollinaire (among others) did the same in poetry. This becomes especially apparent in Stein’s ‘portrait of Picasso’. Cubism is tries to depict multiple point of view of the same object on a two-dimensional canvas. Stein used repetition to get the same effect in poetry. This is best shown by a passage of Stein in which she explains ‘resemblance’ in poetry:

Exact resemblance. To exact resemblance the exact resemblance as exact as a resemblance, exactly as resembling, exactly resembling, exactly in resemblance exactly a resemblance, exactly and resemblance. For this is so. Because.

Due to their intensive interaction over a long period of time in Stein’s salon, the attitudes of these individuals changed into corresponding to one another. The activity of appraising paintings, poetry and prose in that salon in Paris further reinforced these shared attitudes towards the arts.

Social divinity
Assuming that the artistic geniuses of the world are in fact human and therefore engage in social behavior, one might argue that their collective social ties have influenced their attitudes, their beliefs and their opinions about the world they are trying to portray in their work. The way they see the world has led to the masterpieces we so avidly appreciate, but the way they see the world has been set by the grace of their social ties. Brilliance does not arise out of a bubble, it is build up from conversation, discussion and ventilation. In that sense, this paradigm is much closer to the Christian view of creativity; man does not have the ability to create, it is a mere expression of the divinity of God. The social networks paradigm follows the same logic: man is not able to create, it is a mere expression of the divinity of men.
Koen Janssen is a master student at the graduate school of social sciences in Amsterdam. He specializes in
network analyses and the influence of  network structure on social action.

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