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How notions of creativity have evolved to serve the goals of neoliberalism—and what we can do about it

Table of contents

The Creativity Complex
1.    How We All Became Creative
Creative Imperatives
The Individual and the Imagination
Creativity, Intelligence, and the Nation
Anti-Authoritarianism and Cold War Individualism
Romanticism’s Afterlife
2.    The Creative Society: Reagan and the California Crusade
Dogwhistle Tunes
Creativity’s Institutional Complex
3.    Creativity in the Classroom: Maker Education and Labor Precarity
A Minute on Maker Education
Who are Makers?
Makers in the Classroom
Making the Future
4.    Discarded Creativity: Libertarian Mythologizing and Steampunk Nostalgia
Punking Victoriana
Nostalgia and Yesterday’s Tomorrows
Libertarianism and the Theaters of Rugged Consumerism
Archeologists of the Present
5.    Creativity’s Monsters: Frankenstein at 200
Bridging “The Two Cultures”
Self-Fulfillment as Social Peril
Ethical Romanticism
6.    Creative Futures: The Pacific Century, the Creative Century
Creative China
America’s Creative Failure
The Pacific Century and Creative Democracy
From the Ruins: Reconstructing Creativity


“Creativity” is a word that excites and dazzles us. It promises brilliance and achievement, a shield against conformity, a channel for innovation across the arts, sciences, technology, and education, and a mechanism for economic revival and personal success. But it has not always evoked these ideas. The Creativity Complex traces the history of how creativity has come to mean the things it now does, and explores the ethical implications of how we use this term today for both the arts and for the social world more broadly. Richly researched, the book explores how creativity has been invoked in arenas as varied as Enlightenment debates over the nature of cognition, Victorian-era intelligence research, the Cold War technology race, contemporary K-12 education, and even modern electoral politics. Ultimately, The Creativity Complex asks how our ideas about creativity are bound up with those of self-fulfillment, responsibility, and the individual, and how these might seduce us into joining a worldview and even a set of social imperatives that we might otherwise find troubling.

Shannon Steen is Associate Professor of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies and American Studies at UC Berkeley.

“What has made creativity a ‘seductive idea’ for decades, if not centuries? The Creativity Complex demonstrates that the history of creativity is just as fascinating as its future. Steen’s writing does justice to the complexity of both creativity and its evolution and will be a key resource for anyone interested in art, tech, education, and the creativity of tomorrow.”

- Vlad Glaveanu, Dublin City University

“A wonderfully damning study of the ways discourses of creativity have supported neoliberal policy formations that have decimated many of the institutions in which art is taught and made. The aspiration to a creative life has been used against people, Steen argues. What would it mean to really honor it? Steen’s answers are indispensable.”

- Sarah Brouillette, Carleton University

“Provides a much-needed and unprecedented overview of how ‘creativity’ has been defined and deployed beyond the arts, revealing the cluster of institutions, ideologies, and practices that now center around the word. People in technology studies and across the arts have been waiting for a book that does what this one does. They will shove it into the hands of their colleagues, higher-ed administrators, economic or political theorists, and other people who have the power to shape what ‘creativity’ means and how it is institutionalized. Steen tracks the ‘creativity complex’ across industries, across centuries, and across continents.”

- Christopher Grobe, Amherst College

“An essential intervention. Steen argues that the idea of creativity sustains ideologies that justify the structural inequalities, economic injustice and environmental degradation that characterize contemporary capitalism in the USA. Deeply researched, persuasively argued and elegantly written, The Creativity Complex is a crucial contribution to critical scholarship on cultural production today.”

- Nicholas Ridout, Queen Mary, University of London

"The Creativity Complex: Art, Tech, and the Seduction of an Idea is a seminal and ground-breaking work of meticulous scholarship and of immense and particular value to readers with an interest in the social aspects of technology, ethics/morality, and performing arts history/criticism."
--Midwest Book Review

- Midwest Book Review

"Steen sees the need to redefine creativity as more than style: creativity should embrace social/communal practices rather than toxic individualistic works in which gig economies and marketplaces "reduce the arts to a symbolic role."


Read: Author Q&A | July 12, 2023