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[Value and usefulness]


Value and usefulness

The principle of usefulness and value of the creative act or product for other people provides a criterion to distinguish them from merely spontaneous or bizarre behaviour or their results as those that can be found in children or mentally ill people. Originality per se is not enough; it should be also accepted by members of a society and produce a change in their thinking, feeling or way of life, which is positively evaluated. However, practical application of the usefulness principle is not always easy.

The problem is that usefulness may be understood in different ways. Thus, the value of religion, philosophy, art and other forms of spiritual activity has often been denied by "utilitarianists" claiming the primacy of material needs. For example, art or philosophy valued by the Romantics was generally rejected as something useless by the Philistines. Dostoyevsky parodying nihilist critic Pisarev coined a catchphrase that "any shoemaker is a hundred times more useful that Pushkin." He was echoed by Oscar Wilde' who noted ironically, "All art is quite useless". Tolstoy considered ballet as a dissolute act and described a wedding ceremony in a church as "walking around a small table and singing." In pre-industrial societies, innovation and creativity were treated as not only useless but even dangerous because they could destroy the habitual order. The opposition of senseless philosophising and poetic daydreaming to useful practical activity still permeates most layers of our culture. The perception of usefulness is also changeable through time, hence the phenomenon of unrecognized geniuses whose work is considered useless during their lifetime and obtain recognition only in following generations. The ephemerality of fame, so striking in fashion and popular culture, is a reverse side of the same phenomena.

This applies not only to arts, but to sciences as well. Is mathematics or theoretical physics is really useful for an ordinary person, beyond the practical need to count money or to switch on the light? What is the value of books for those who cannot read? The value and usefulness do not exist by themselves; they depend on Weltanschauung, that is, the range of needs and the scope of interests of both creators and the audience. The difference between individuals and social groups with regard to needs, interests and values makes a uniform concept of usefulness problematic.

There is no single criterion to establish value and usefulness of a creative work. Ochse (1990: 2) points out that experimental and social criteria of usefulness are different: "'Valuable' may refer to answers that gain high marks on creativity tests or to inventions that change the quality of human life." Researchers of creativity suggest that usefulness regarding creative products "is not meant in merely a pragmatic sense, for behavior or thought can be judged as useful on purely intellectual or aesthetic criteria" (Feist, 1999: 158).

For the assessment of creativity the technique of consensual assessment (Hennessey and Amabile, 1999) has been devised that relies on the independent subjective judgements of individuals familiar with the domain in which the products were made or which are recognized expert in the domain. However, this technique tends to produce uniform judgements when applied to everyday creativity or creativity in a stable field but fails in evaluating creative works at the 'cutting edge' of any domain or in the situation of the paradigm shift when it results in a broad diversity of opinions. The arguments between schools of critics or discrepancy between popular taste and connoisseurs' judgments provide other examples of the lack of unanimity in assessing the value of a creative work.

Value and usefulness. Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity Research / Compiled and edited by Eugene Gorny., 2007.
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