I like Frank, but I don't know quite what to make of this piece about recognizing creativity. It might be described as post that fits into the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you genre. He protesteth too much. But it raises some interesting questions about how creativity gets recognized:
And what was the true object of this superstitious stuff? A final clue came from “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (1996), in which Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 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 hivemind 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.
Really??? The larger argument that Frank seems to be making is that his creative friends back in Chicago still laboring inn obscure penury are being done an injustice. They should be broadly recognized for their brilliance; they should, therefore, be "successful". They are not. It's not fair. It's the fault of the hivemind of established expertise. People who find success, like Jonah Lehrer, find it because they meet the expectations of the hivemind.
So when in the history of civilization was that ever not true? Sure, established expertise didn't recognize van Gogh, but then it did. It recognized Shakespeare, then it didn't, then it did. It never didn't recognize Michelangelo, Mozart, Beethoven. So I doubt Frank is arguing that the hivemind of established expertise never recognizes creative excellence or that broad popular acceptance is always mark of selling out. If that were true, then Beethoven would be to music what Dan Brown is to literature.
Broad recognition for creative work depends on two things: first, it has to be very good; second, it has to resonate with the zeitgeist, a non-pejorative term I prefer to 'hivemind'. Establishment experts are the tastemakers who are most attuned to the zeitgeist. Frank is complaining that he doesn't like the zeitgeist. Lots of people don't, me included. But then again, the zeitgeist has given Tom Frank ample recognition.
So is this particular post by Frank motivated by guilt about selling out to a zeitgeist he finds contemptible? Maybe. He's become a success widely recognized by the tastemakers of the cultural and political Left establishment. He even had a contrarian weekly op-ed column at the Wall Street Journal for a while. So clearly this post cannot be a complaint about his own creative efforts not being recognized. So what's the problem? Is he afraid that he's slowly forgetting where he came from and morphing into Jonah Lehrer?