Optimism and creativity

All that thinking about my own cynicism and how it affects me at college was happening over a little stream of thought that’s been babbling away for a few months about the position of optimism in creativity. When I went to see the V&A’s Modernism exhibition last year I was struck by how utopian so much of their efforts had been. It wasn’t just square buildings and metal chairs, but an effort to make the world a better place and, I assume, they believed they could. Although it seems more than a little over optimistic in retrospect, given that whole Holocaust/global war thing that happened afterwards, it still felt exciting and I still wanted to believe it could work.

Then recently I was watching a documentary about music in 1960s California, a rather blurry area of musical knowledge for me and it tied together lots of loose ends. Again I was struck by all that sunny optimism, coupled with all the creativity (oh, and drugs) going on in Laurel Canyon running up to Woodstock.

Unfortunately for me I can’t currently imagine being as hopeful and enthusiastic as both the Modernists and the hippies seemed to be, but I wondered if I’d be more creative if I was. Is there something that makes people more creative if they’re optimistic and hopeful? I’ve read about studies that suggest being optimistic makes people happier, so maybe it’s more about happiness? Except being happy and content doesn’t sound very creative, as all the bands who’ve done their best work while struggling at the bottom of the heap would probably testify. Or maybe it’s just being surrounded by lots of like-minded people and the optimism angle is a wild goose chase?

(By the way, I quite like the linking of these two very different groups of people and invite you to come up with titles for academic studies that link the two. ‘From Gropius to Geffen: Svengalis in Mid-20th Century Creative Industries’? I’m sure you can do better.)

Then last night I watched another music documentary, this time about music in 1970s New York, another time and place when an enormous amount was going on (although these programmes do give the impression nothing else was happening anywhere in the world). But could you say that everyone at CBGB’s was buzzing with utopian thoughts? Seems unlikely, and the show positioned it all as quite the opposite of the hopeful flower power kids across the continent: deprivation, crime, heroin and rock and roll. Aside from some of the more glam aspects — disco and drag queens — the scenes didn’t seem noticeably optimistic.

Maybe having something to fight against works just as well, or maybe you can only fight against something if you have some optimism, some hope that you can win, to keep you going?

I don’t have any answers about all this, and I’m sure lots has been written about creativity and what makes for a creative time and place. Obviously there are many aspects that affect creativity but I’ve been wondering particularly about the place of optimism vs pessimism. These are just the thoughts that have been swirling round in my head about this stuff and I’d welcome anything you can add.


  • Perhaps it's not so much about optimism versus pessimism, but more about belief. So it doesn't matter how happy you are, but if you believe that what you do / say / write is important in some way, then that engenders the necesssary creativity...

    I only visit your site from time to time, but I always find what you say interesting.

  • Thanks Leigh. Yes, I guess belief is a big factor in it. I'm not sure how you can know whether what you're believing in is worth the belief though -- there are plenty of people who believe passionately in what they do and yet most/all other people may think it's a complete waste of time.

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Tuesday 6 March 2007, 6:47pm

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6 Mar 2007 in Links