Valuing Creativity

I kept coming across the inclusion of ‘value’ in the definitions of creativity; a creative output would typically be described as ‘original’ and ‘of value’. As a composer I wondered what value could mean; to whom? A quick Google Scholar search led to the discovery of Weisberg’s 2015 paper that shares my query about the inclusion of value in creativity definitions. Weisberg notes the ‘inclusion of value in the definition of creative brings with it a set of logical and empirical difficulties that can interfere with the study of creativity’. Weisberg proposes a definition of creativity that ‘a product is creative if it is novel and if it was produced intentionally’. This is a definition I like.

Weisberg shares the development of creativity and value, including the importance of value being afforded by ‘gatekeepers’.

a work becomes creative—as does the person who produced it—only after it is positively evaluated by the field. Thus, musicians, critics, scholars, and the musical public played a role in Mozart’s becoming creative. Similarly, scientists and historians of science played a role in Einstein’s creativity; and artists, critics, art-historians, and the art-buying public played a role in the Impressionists’ becoming creative. In addition, that judgment of something being creative can come about after a person dies. There is, in the systems view, no reason why a person who has been noncreative during his or her lifetime cannot become creative after death, and vice versa, if the evaluation of the person’s work were to change significantly. 

Weisberg (2015)

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around… So outputs can lose the qualification of creativity as our gatekeeper sensibilities change over time. Problematic for achieving a shared definition of creativity if such a definition is subject to the whims of changing values. Weisberg shares the fate of Meissonier in his article, as an example of an artist who lost the creative label during his working life and now lies in relative obscurity. Weisberg shares Van Gogh as an example of an artist who achieved far greater creative value following his death. J. S. Bach comes to mind (and coincidently Weisberg goes on to mention him), as without Mozart and Mendelssohn programming works I wonder if he would have achieved the deified status he enjoys. Though Weisberg mentions Bach as ‘a more-complicated case… who today is esteemed as, if not the greatest composer of classical music, one of the two or three greatest’. He doesn’t really share why Bach is a more complicated case (unless the ‘complexity’ is that more ‘modern’ music was prized followed Bach’s death and ‘German nationalism’ prompted the ‘rediscovery’). I am still in awe that Bach’s music achieved such status by inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record.

Weisberg shared how Simonton (2012) considers patents, and the way patents are awarded as a model for how we might consider a creative output: 

To receive a patent, a proposal must possess three characteristics: It must be new, useful, and nonobvious. Because of the awkwardness of the last term, Simonton proposed that the label creative be applied to products that are new, useful, and surprising (see also Boden, 2004)


I really like nonobvious; this is something I’d consider when examining and working with teachers. It was the surprising work of students composing that would yield the label ‘imaginative’ for me. Students doing something I didn’t expect to happen; a surprise change in the music. But I recognise in reading Weinberg’s article that even that definition of imaginative (i.e. surprising) is a limiting definition in that something novel need not be a surprise. Or should it?

With the examples shared by Weisberg (of creativity going in and out of fashion, value) I’d have welcomed some examples where types of output have increased in creative value rather than ideas or people. The quotidian creativity seems hard to accept in this paper, and there is a focus on the professional creativity of notable individuals. I wonder what everyday creativity, such as the quilt making Becker mentions in Art Worlds, or photography, that has been elevated to the creative.

The ’ebb and flow of creativity’, as Weisberg describes it, ‘seems to go against our understanding of what creative means’. He goes on to write:

Being creative is based, at least in part, on something that a person does (i.e., one produces creative works), so how can one become creative after death, when, presumably, one is incapable of doing anything?


This makes the cases Weisberg shared earlier in the article more interesting.

Being creative involves producing creative works. Because van Gogh could not produce any works after he died, he could not become creative after he died. Again, the only way someone could become creative after death would be if a cache of original works was discovered after the person died. That is, in essence, what happened to van Gogh. However, van Gogh did not become creative after death. Van Gogh was creative when he was alive; we just did not know about it.


A judgment of novelty has a permanence that a judgment of value does not. As noted earlier, novelty is determined in relation to the database of works available at a given point in time. In other words, novelty, even as a subjective judgment, is based on an objective database—on a set of facts. Assuming that those making the judgment of novelty have a valid database, then that judgment should be reliable, as least to the degree that psychological judgments are reliable.


For Weisberg we can’t remove the label of creative, if we remove value from our definition of creativity. Weisberg priorities novelty and intentionality in the definition of creativity, where intentionality ‘enables us to exclude merely bizarre responses’. I am slightly troubled by his example of a schizophrenic; ‘a schizophrenic in episode who is presented with a problem is not able to deal with it intentionally, so those responses are precluded from consideration as creative output’. I imagine a case of a schizophrenic artist who might create work ‘in episode’; would this would not be considered creative because there were ‘not able to deal with it intentionally’? Bryan Charnley created work that explored the dosage of his medication, for example.

Weisberg’s discussion on the accidental artist (knocking the can of paint over) is also interesting; I wonder how the aleatoric works of Cage and others might weave into this definition. I imagine it would be agreed these aleatoric works had an intentionality about them. But I remain fascinated by this.

My most significant fascination with Weisberg’s paper is his ultimate fear:

‘If we define a creative product as one that is novel and produced intentionally, we never have to worry about whether the phenomena we are examining are the correct ones, and we never have to worry that others might dismiss our research as being built on an incorrect understanding of the basic phenomena involved’.


Becker, H.S., 2008. Art worlds: updated and expanded. University of California Press.

Weisberg, R.W., 2015. On the usefulness of “value” in the definition of creativity. Creativity research journal27(2), pp.111-124.

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