When Creativity is Invisible: The CASE for Shadow Creativity

When does creativity not look like creativity? Perhaps, sometimes, because we do not recognize it. Recently, Kaufman and Glăveanu suggested we may need a new concept to describe the space between “Wow, this is creative!” and “Nope, that’s not creative at all.” They’ve called it “Shadow Creativity.”

Most definitions of creativity focus on two dimensions: novelty and appropriateness. For something to be considered creative, it must be new and original. It also must be appropriate to some goal. Random novelty, like the infamous primates pounding on keyboards without intention, is not considered creativity. Kaufman and Glăveanu take this idea one step further. Imagine a graph in which the axis at the bottom represents appropriateness, and the vertical axis represents novelty.  At the top right, where something is both novel and appropriate, creativity can be obvious. At the bottom left, when something is neither novel nor appropriate, there is nothing, or at least nothing of interest. Highly novel but not at all appropriate can result in gibberish—my cats walking across the keyboard, for example, while appropriate but not at all novel, they labeled rote. But of particular interest to Kaufman and Glăveanu is the large space in the middle of the chart, the space they propose for Shadow Creativity.

Shadow creativity represents overlooked forms of creative expression, that is, potentially creative outcomes that are not recognized or encouraged. They postulate a CASE model of variables that can cause creativity to remain in the shadows: lack of Capital, Awareness, Spark, or Exceptionality. 

Lack of capital could include lack of language, tools, or timing that allow an individual to be recognized in their field, as Csikszentmihalyi described in his model of creativity. Lack of awareness focuses on individuals’ own understanding of their efforts as creative. I’ve seen this lack of creative metacognition in many of my graduate students, many of whom are inclined to enter creativity studies by describing themselves as uncreative. There are many reasons for this, but they include lack of recognition of creativity outside the arts or outside the world-changing contributions of “Big C” contributors.

Considering how creativity could exist without spark may seem initially contradictory, as spark can be defined as the original idea that drives a creative work. And yet, many people’s creative work can be necessary to bring forth a large creative vision. Consider the astonishing stage-world created in the Broadway version of The Lion King. The initial vision came from the immense creativity of director Julie Taymor, but she could not have brought it to life alone. Countless individuals took her visions of animal costumes and figured out how to build them, how to keep them operational, and how to wear and operate them to bring animals to life. To consider only the director’s creativity would be to miss essential—perhaps shadow—creativity. Finally, creativity can remain in the shadows because of lack of exceptionality, efforts that may be too beginning or familiar to register as creative. And yet, major creative efforts often have simple beginnings, and everyday activities often have need of creative efforts. My latest dinner made from what’s-in-the-refrigerator might not receive the recognition of the chefs on Chopped, but the processes may be similar—particularly on challenging refrigerator days!

The notion of shadow creativity is new enough that I haven’t thought through all the implications it might have for schools, but it makes sense that much of the creativity we see in schools is likely to be of the shadow variety. After all, we are working with young people whose creativity is still developing, in an environment not always welcoming to creative efforts. Kaufman and Glăveanu have lists of ways the missing CASE elements may be addressed, but here are perhaps some junior ways to start.

Capital: Help students develop the vocabulary necessary to ask creative questions across domains. For example, teach the methods of your discipline, not just the content. Help them understand how creative professionals share information.

Awareness: Teach students about creativity at many levels and across disciplines. Teach the lives and examples of creators across domains, but also recognize creative efforts in the classroom—or perhaps talk about your own creativity in solving an everyday dilemma. Seeing your awareness of your creativity may help students recognize their own.

Spark: Recognize and point out the individual creativity that makes for successful group or class projects. When discussing important creators, point out the importance of the creative individuals supporting them.

Exceptionality: Talk about creativity as something that happens every day. Older students may be taught about levels of creativity and the problem of only recognizing creativity of the “Big C” variety.

I suspect this is just the beginning. I also suspect that if students learned from childhood that creativity comes in varied disciplines, levels, and scales, less of it would end up in the shadows. What do you think?

Kaufman, J. C. & Glăveanu, V. P. (2022). Making the CASE for shadow creativity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 16(1), 44-57. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000313

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