Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Keynote Address



Let me tell you about a flash of creative insight that I had last year.

It started with a problem I had. Books I read and people I knew had been warning me that the nation and maybe mankind itself had wandered into a sort of creativity doldrums. Economic growth was slackening. The Internet revolution was less awesome than we had anticipated, and the forward march of innovation, once a cultural constant, had slowed to a crawl. One of the few fields in which we generated lots of novelties—financial engineering—had come back to bite us. And in other departments, we actually seemed to be going backward. You could no longer take a supersonic airliner across the Atlantic, for example, and sending astronauts to the moon had become either fiscally insupportable or just passé.

And yet I also knew that there had been, over these same years, fantastic growth in our creativity-promoting sector. There were TED talks on how to be a creative person. There were “Innovation Jams” at which IBM employees brainstormed collectively over a global hookup, and “Thinking Out of the Box” desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club. If you listened to certain people, creativity was the story of our time, from the halls of MIT to the incubators of Silicon Valley.

The literature on the subject was vast. Its authors included management gurus, forever exhorting us to slay the conventional; urban theorists, with their celebrations of zesty togetherness; pop psychologists, giving the world step-by-step instructions on how to unleash the inner Miles Davis. Most prominent, perhaps, were the science writers, with their endless tales of creative success and their dissection of the brains that made it all possible.

So I picked up one of these books and tried to figure it all out. I procured a copy of Imagine: How Creativity Works, the 2012 bestseller by the ex-wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose résumé includes a Rhodes scholarship, a tour of duty at The New Yorker, and two previous books about neuroscience and decision-making. (There was also a scandal concerning some made-up quotes in Imagine, but I was determined to tiptoe around that.) Settling into a hot bath—well known for its power to trigger outside-the-box thoughts—I opened my mind to the young master.

Anecdote after heroic anecdote unfolded, as creative minds did their nonlinear thing, and came to epiphanies and found solutions. I read about the invention of the Swiffer. I learned how Bob Dylan achieved his great breakthrough and wrote that one song of his that they still play on the radio from time to time. I found out that there was a company called 3M that invented masking tape, the Post-it note, and other useful items. I read about the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and about the glories of Pixar.

And that’s when it hit me: I had heard these things before. Each story seemed to develop in an entirely predictable fashion. I suspected that in the Dylan section, Lehrer would talk about “Like a Rolling Stone,” and that’s exactly what happened. When it came to the 3M section, I waited for Lehrer to dwell on the invention of the Post-it note—and there it was.

Had I developed the gift of foresight? No. I really had heard these stories before. Spend a few moments on Google and you will find that the tale of how Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer is a staple of marketing literature. Bob Dylan is endlessly cited in discussions of innovation, and you can read about the struggles surrounding the release of “Like a Rolling Stone” in textbooks like The Fundamentals of Marketing. As for 3M, the decades-long standing-O for the company’s creativity can be traced all the way back to In Search of Excellence, one of the most influential business books of all time. In fact, 3M’s accidental invention of the Post-it note is such a business-school chestnut that the ignorance of those who don’t know the tale is a joke in the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

These realizations took only a millisecond. What I also understood, sitting there in my bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book I read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes. If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, and of course the Beatles. If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism—that ultimate combination of rebellion and pastel peacefulness that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

Those who urge us to “think different,” in other words, almost never do so themselves. Year after year, new installments in this unchanging genre are produced and consumed. Creativity, they all tell us, is too important to be left to the creative. Our prosperity depends on it. And by dint of careful study and the hardest science—by, say, sliding a jazz pianist’s head into an MRI machine—we can crack the code of creativity and unleash its moneymaking power.

That is the opposite of critical appreciation, and yet that is always the lesson. That’s where the music, the theology, the physics, and the ethereal water lilies are meant to direct us. I have never seen a creativity book that tried to work the equation the other way around—instructing jazz musicians on how to solo by reminding them of the story of how Velcro was invented.

Why was this worth noticing? Well, for one thing, because we’re talking about the literature of creativity, for Pete’s sake. If there is a non-fiction genre from which you have a right to expect clever prose and uncanny insight, it should be this one. So why is it so utterly consumed by formula and repetition?

What I realized, in that flash of bathtub insight, was that this literature isn’t about creativity in the first place. While it reiterates a handful of well-known tales—the favorite pop stars, the favorite artists, the favorite branding successes—it routinely ignores other creative milestones that loom large in the history of human civilization. After all, some of the most consistent innovators of the modern era have also been among its biggest monsters. I thought back, in particular, to the diabolical creativity of Nazi Germany, which was the first country to use ballistic missiles, jet fighter planes, assault rifles, and countless other weapons. And yet nobody wanted to add Peenemünde, where the Germans developed the V-2 rocket during the 1940s, to the glorious list of creative hothouses that includes Periclean Athens, Renaissance Florence, Belle Époque Paris, and latter-day Austin, Texas. How much easier to tell us, one more time, how jazz bands work, how someone came up with the idea for the Slinky, or what shade of paint, when applied to the walls of your office, is most conducive to originality.


Let me tell you about another one of the ways our society uses creativity.

I grew up in Kansas City, and when I was a kid, my friends and I all had a pretty predictable way of criticizing our home town. What was wrong with Kansas City? We thought we knew. It was bland. It was orderly. It was predictable. We laughed at its harmless theater productions, its pretentious suburbs, its very private country clubs, its eternal taste for classic rock. We called it “Cupcake Land,” after a favorite essay from the 1980s. The city knew nothing of the strong ideas of our robust generation, we thought: it had virtually no music subculture; it was deaf to irony; it was at war with its own past.

That was the sort of criticism everybody made of their Midwestern home towns back then. Well, those home towns have certainly turned the tables on us today. Kansas City fairly quivers with vitality now. It is swarming with artists today; its traffic islands are bedecked with the colorful products of their studios. It boasts a spectacular new performing-arts center designed by one of those spectacular new celebrity architects. It even has an indie-rock festival to call its own. And all of these remarkable things were engineered by the very class of civic leaders my friends and I used to deride for their impotence and cluelessness. At that Kansas City indie-rock festival, for example, the mayor himself made a presentation two years ago year, as did numerous local professionals and business leaders.

The word people use to describe what is going on in KC is “vibrant.” Your home town is probably vibrant, too. Every city is either vibrant these days or is working on a plan to become vibrant soon. The reason is simple: “vibrant” is what everyone wants in a city. Its desirability is so universal and so utterly beyond question that even though we aren’t sure what the word means, we just know it must be cultivated. The vibrant, we believe, is what makes certain cities succeed. The absence of vibrancy, by contrast, is what allows the diseases of depopulation and blight to set in.

This sounded backwards to me when I first encountered it, like hearing someone reason that, since sidewalks get wet when it rains, we can encourage rainfall by wetting the sidewalks. But to others it is profoundly persuasive. The pursuit of the vibrant seems to be the universal job description of the nation’s city planners nowadays. It is also part of the Obama Administration’s economic recovery strategy for the nation. In the fall of 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts launched “ArtPlace,” a joint project it organized with the nation’s largest foundations and investment banks, and ArtPlace immediately began generating a cloud of glowing euphemisms around the central, hallowed cliché:

ArtPlace is investing in art and culture at the heart of a portfolio of integrated strategies that can drive vibrancy and diversity so powerful that it transforms communities.

Specifically, vibrancy transforms communities by making them more prosperous. ArtPlace says its goal is not merely to promote the arts but to “transform economic development in America,” a project that is straightforward and obvious if you accept the organization’s slogan: “Art creates vibrancy and increases economic opportunity.”

And that, presumably, is why every place you look is so damn vibrant these days. Consider Akron, Ohio, which was recently the subject of a conference bearing the thrilling name, “Greater Akron: This Is What Vibrant Looks Like.” Or Boise, Idaho, whose citizens, according to the city Department of Arts and History, are “fortunate to live in a vibrant community in which creativity flourishes in every season.” Or Cincinnati, which is the home of a nonprofit called “Go Vibrant” as well as the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, which hands out “Cultural Vibrancy” grants, guided by the knowledge that “Cultural Vibrancy is vital to a thriving community.”

Is Rockford, Illinois vibrant? Oh my god yes: according to a local news outlet its “Mayor’s Arts Award nominees make Rockford vibrant.” The Quad Cities? Check. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Need you even ask? Pittsburgh is a sort of Athens of the vibrant; a city where dance parties and rock concerts enjoy the vigorous boosting of an outfit called “Vibrant Pittsburgh”; a place that draws young people from across the nation in order to frolic in its “numerous hip and vibrant neighborhoods,” according to the blog maintained by a consortium of Pittsburgh business organizations.

But while everyone agrees that “vibrancy” is the ultimate desideratum of urban life, no one seems to be exactly sure what vibrancy is. In fact the Municipal Art Society of New York recently held a panel discussion of foundation people to talk about “Measuring Vibrancy” (it seems “the impact of arts and cultural investments on neighborhoods . . . is hard to quantify”), a gathering it might have been better to convene before those foundation people persuaded the cities of the nation to blow millions setting up gallery districts and street fairs.

Even ArtPlace, the big vibrancy project of the NEA and the foundations, is not entirely sure that vibrancy can be observed or quantified. That’s why the group is developing what it calls “Vibrancy Indicators”: “While we are not able to measure vibrancy directly,” their website admits, “we believe that the measures we are assembling, taken together, will provide useful insights into the nature and location of especially vibrant places within cities.”

What does “vibrant” mean? It’s actually fairly easy to figure out what the foundations mean by it. It’s our old friend “creativity,” on a larger scale. Vibrant is a quality you find in cities or neighborhoods where there is an arts or music “scene,” lots of restaurants and food markets of a certain highbrow type, Frank Gehry style architecture to memorialize the scene’s otherwise transient life, and an audience of prosperous people who are interested in all these things.

Indeed, art production is supposed to be linked, through the black box of “vibrancy,” to prosperity itself. This is something so simple that one proponent has illustrated it with a flow chart. [[Step one: “Artists move in”; step five: “Neighborhood develops ‘cool’ reputation”; step six: “Property values go up.”]] It is something so obvious that just about everyone concerned agrees on it. “Corporations see a vibrant cultural landscape as a magnet for talent,” explains an Atlantic Magazine story on the burgeoning vibrancy of Kansas City; “almost as vital for drawing good workers as more-traditional benefits like retirement plans and health insurance.” And so when the Cincinnati foundation known as “ArtsWave” informs the world that “The arts create vibrant neighborhoods and contribute to a thriving economy,” they are voicing a sentiment so commonplace in foundation-land that it is almost not worth remarking on.

How does art do these amazing things?, you might ask. Reasoning backwards from the ultimate object of all civic planning—attracting and retaining top talent, of course—the ArtPlace website pronounces thusly:

The ability to attract and retain talent depends, in part, on quality of place. And the best proxy for quality of place is vibrancy.

Others have spelled out the formula in more detail. We build prosperity by mobilizing art-people as vibrancy shock troops and counting on them to . . . well . . . gentrify formerly bedraggled parts of town. After that, other vibrancy multipliers kick in. The presence of hipsters is said to be inspirational to businesses; their doings make cities interesting and attractive to the class of professionals that everyone wants; their colorful japes help companies to hire quality employees, and so on. All a city really needs to prosper is group of art-school grads, some lofts for them to live in, and a couple thrift stores to supply them with the ironic clothes they crave. Then we just step back and watch them work their magic.

Achieving the vibrant is the goal of public art of today. It is Official. Our leaders think it will solve the problems of the big city. Our leaders believe it will help to pull us out of the Great Recession.

In this respect, we are counting on our artists for considerably more than we did during the country’s last experience with economic breakdown, but also—in other respects—considerably less. In the 1930s, the federal government launched a number of programs directly subsidizing artists. Painters got jobs making murals for the walls of post offices and public buildings; theater troupes put on plays; writers collected folklore; photographers combed the South documenting the lives of sharecroppers. But no one expected those artists to pull us out of the Depression by some mysterious process of entrepreneurship-kindling; government supported them mainly because they were unemployed. In the Thirties we protected artists from the market while today we expose them to it, imagining them as the stokers on the hurtling job-creation locomotive.

Both then and now we heard much about “scenes.” The public art of the 1930s was, famously, concerned with “the American scene,” via the style known as “regionalism.” Thomas Hart Benton painted Missouri scenes; John Steuart Curry painted Kansas scenes; and unemployed authors assembled tour guides to every state in the union. In today’s more vibrant version, though, the artist himself is the spectacle, the subject of the tour guide. His primary job is not really to produce art but to participate in a “scene”—in an act that is put on for well-heeled spectators. Indeed, this act is essential to the vibrant: In order to bring the economic effects that “the arts” are being counted upon to bring—attracting and retaining top talent for a city’s corporations, remember—the artist himself must be highly visible. He must run a gallery, patronize cool coffee shops and restaurants, or rehab run-down buildings.

Vibrancy is a sort of performance that artists or musicians are expected to put on, either directly or indirectly, for the corporate class. These are the ones we aim to reassure of our city’s vibrancy, so that they never choose to move their operations to some more vibrant burg. An artist who keeps to herself, who works in her room all day, who wears unremarkable clothes and goes without tattoos—by definition she brings almost nothing to this project, adds little to the economic chances of a given area. She inspires no one. She offers no lessons in creativity. She is not vibrant, not remunerative, not investment-grade.

On its surface, vibrancy theory reveres the artist, but in reality it doesn’t have much to say to those who would take artistic production seriously. The public art of the Thirties was often heavy-handed, close to propaganda even, but it was also intensely concerned with the lives of ordinary people. The vibrant, on the other hand, would separate the artist from such boring souls. The creative ones are to be segregated in a “scene” which it is their job to make “vibrant” and thus to pump up real-estate prices, inspire creative-class onlookers, attract and retain top talent. But what of the people no one is interested in attracting and retaining? Hundreds of millions of Americans go through their lives in places that aren’t vibrant, in areas that don’t have a “scene,” in jobs that aren’t rewarding, in industries that aren’t creative; and their experiences are, almost by definition, off limits for artistic contemplation.

Instead of all that, the aesthetic of the vibrant proposes a kind of tail-chasing reverence for creativity itself. Consider the trophy buildings that are, inevitably, the greatest expression of vibrancy theory—the Frank Gehry style buildings that every city council seems to believe it must build as a sort of welcome mat to the creative class. What is it about Gehry? He is the sort of archetypal genius of this age of creativity-worship. For the management gurus of the world, Gehry is, or was, a few years ago, a kind of living, breathing symbol of creativity and originality. It seems to make little difference for them exactly how Gehry’s work diverges from the boxlike corporate style of the postwar years, just that it does, that it is not some soulless glass and steel box, that it incorporates all sorts of wacky building materials and irregular angles.

And in those wacky materials and those irregular angles the gurus find an affirmation of their entire world view: Entrepreneurship instead of top-down bureaucracy, disruption instead of stability, the chaos of free markets instead of regulation, labor “flexibility” instead of job security. In Gehry’s high-profile box-breaking they see a heroic reflection of their own much-celebrated outside-the-box thinking.

A typical example can be found in the 2002 treatise on corporate creativity, New Ideas About New Ideas. In this new age, it insists, “innovation is the only way to a better time,” and innovation in turn can only come from people and organizations that are “hot, hip, and happening.” Since nowadays “the artist is more valued than the manager,” business leaders must become more like artists, must look to artists as models in both their personal and professional lives. Naturally Frank Gehry is one of the figures who stands above all others in such a system, thanks especially to his work for the brand-building Guggenheim chain of museums. Gehry’s sinuous shapes and his computer-assisted creative process are repeatedly praised as examples of the way business must be conducted in the new era we supposedly inhabit.

That is what makes him the preeminent architect of the ideological moment, his trademark computer-assisted curves representing the giddy religion of entrepreneurial “creativity” in the same way that the beaux-arts works of Stanford White radiated imperial grandeur, in the same way that the office blocks of Skidmore Owings Merrill symbolized efficiency. This is why Gehry-like curves and box-breaking protruberances now grace the offices of the hippest ad agencies and the hottest tech firms. And even, yes, a prestigious business school in Cleveland.


I want to conclude by recalling a different flash of insight I had once, back in the year 2002. This time I was relaxing in a different bathtub, on Chicago’s South Side, where the trains passed by in an all-day din of clanks and squeaks. While I soaked, I was reading yet another bestseller about creativity: Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class.

Creativity was now the most valuable quality of all, ran Florida’s argument, “the decisive source of competitive advantage.” This made creative people into society’s “dominant class”— and companies that wished to harness their power would need to follow them wherever they went. Therefore cities and states were obliged to reconfigure themselves as havens for people of nonconformist tastes, who would then generate civic coolness via art zones, music scenes, and truckloads of authenticity. This is the theory behind vibrancy, as we have seen. Richard Florida even invented a “Bohemian Index,” which, he claimed, revealed a strong correlation between the presence of artists and economic growth.

Every element of Florida’s argument infuriated me at the time. Was he suggesting planned bohemias? Built by governments? To attract businesses? It all rubbed me the wrong way back in those innocent days. As it happened, in those days I spent nearly all my time with the kinds of people who fit Richard Florida’s definition of the creative class: writers, musicians, and intellectuals. And Florida seemed to be suggesting that such people were valuable mainly for their contribution to a countercultural pantomime that lured or inspired business executives.

What really annoyed me, however, was Florida’s assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued. I had been hearing this all my life, since my childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. I had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence. And yet my creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. My generation of PhDs wound up as low-paid adjuncts, terrified to cross their superiors. As for my artist friends, well, the institutions that made their lives possible—chiefly newspapers, magazines, and record labels— were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as I knew it was not flowering at all. It was dying.

When I considered my creative friends as individuals, the literature of creativity began to seem even worse. Even then I was old enough to know that, for all its reverential talk about the rebel and the box breaker, society had no interest in new ideas at all unless they reinforced favorite theories or could be monetized in some obvious way. The method of every triumphant intellectual movement had been to quash dissent and cordon off truly inventive voices. This was simply how debate was conducted. Authors rejoiced at the discrediting of their rivals. Academic professions excluded those who didn’t toe the party line. Leftist cliques excommunicated one another. Liberals ignored any suggestion that didn’t encourage or vindicate their great move to the center. And conservatives seemed to be at war with the very idea of human intelligence.

Or so I thought back in 2002. Later on, after much trial and error, I would understand that there really was something deeply insightful about Richard Florida’s book. This was the idea that creativity was the attribute of a class—which class Florida identified not only with intellectuals and artists but also with a broad swath of the professional-managerial stratum. It would take years for me to realize this. And then, I finally got it all at once. The reason these many optimistic books seemed to have so little to do with the downward-spiraling lives of actual creative workers is that they weren’t really about those people in the first place.

No. The literature of creativity was something completely different. Everything I had noticed so far was a clue: the clichés, the repeated examples, the failure to appreciate what was actually happening to creative people in the present time. This was not science, despite the technological gloss applied by writers like Jonah Lehrer. It was a literature of superstition, in which everything always worked out and the good guys always triumphed and the right inventions always came along in the nick of time. In Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2010), the creative epiphany itself becomes a kind of heroic character, helping out clueless humanity wherever necessary:

“Good ideas may not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.”

And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from a book about creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in which he acknowledges that, far from being an act of individual inspiration, what we call creativity is simply an expression of professional consensus. Using Vincent van Gogh as an example, the author declares that the artist’s “creativity came into being when a sufficient number of art experts felt that his paintings had something important to contribute to the domain of art.”

Innovation, that is, exists only when the correctly credentialed hive mind agrees that it does. And “without such a response,” the author continues, “van Gogh would have remained what he was, a disturbed man who painted strange canvases.” What determines “creativity,” in other words, is the very faction it’s supposedly rebelling against: established expertise.

Consider, then, the narrative chain that makes up this genre of literature. It is the story of brilliant people, often in the arts or humanities, who are studied by other brilliant people, often in the sciences, finance, or marketing. The readership is then made up of us—members of the professional-managerial class—each of whom harbors a powerful suspicion that he or she is pretty damn brilliant as well. What I eventually realized was that the real subject of this literature was the professional-managerial audience itself, whose members hear clear, sweet reason when they listen to NPR and think they’re in the presence of something profound when they watch some billionaire give a TED talk. And what this complacent literature purrs into their ears is that creativity is their property, their competitive advantage, their class virtue. Creativity is what they bring to the national economic effort, these books reassure them—and it’s also the benevolent doctrine under which they rightly rule the world.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for He is a former columnist for Harpers and the Wall Street Journal, and founder/editor of The Baffler. He is the author of many books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). Frank is a historian of culture and ideas, and analyzes trends in American electoral politics and propaganda, advertising, popular culture, mainstream journalism and economics.