Legendary Anthropologist Margaret Mead on Work, Leisure, and Creativity
“If we make one criterion for defining the artist… the impulse to make something new… — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.”
By Maria Popova
The question of what creativity is and how it can be cultivated has occupied philosophers for millennia and psychologists for a century. But it is only in the last blink of our civilizational history, as industrialization and automation relieved much of the daily brunt of hard labor by which humanity survived for most of its existence, that we came to think of creativity not as a luxury of the privileged few but as an animating presence manifested in one way or another in every human life. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century that German philosopher Josef Pieper could make his elegant case for why leisure is the basis of culture and creativity, before the modern cult of workaholism swiftly pulverized this fragile understanding into dust.
Just as psychology’s most influential study of creativity was gathering momentum at Stanford, the great anthropologist Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) wrote a fascinating and immensely insightful piece titled “Work, Leisure, and Creativity” for the Winter 1960 issue of Daedalus — the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science, into which Mead was the second woman ever inducted. (The first, nearly a century earlier, was astronomer Maria Mitchell.)
Writing at the blazing dawn of consumer culture — what Adam Curtis would later call “the century of the self” — and a decade before she envisioned a post-consumerist world in her magnificent conversation with James Baldwin, Mead considers the cultural conditioning that to this day imperils our ability to distinguish between productivity and creativity:
I should like first to question the usefulness of the simple dichotomy of work and leisure, with work being those things which man has to do to earn his daily bread, and leisure everything he does with the time that is left over. For if we follow this way of looking at life, peculiar to our own narrow tradition, we are then faced with placing such activities as the worship of the gods, or the performance of a tragedy, in either one category or the other.
Drawing on her anthropological work, Mead notes that cultures like the Balinese have solved this problem with vocabulary, using one word — “a harsh short word” — for the kind of everyday work performed by low-caste people, and another — “an elegant word” — for something performed by high-caste people or for the gods. Half a century after H.P Lovecraft asserted that “amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism,” Mead adds:
An echo of this kind of classification can be found in the English word amateur with its implication that activities which can be performed freely by those whose livelihood comes from some other source, are lowered and tainted if done for gain.
So, we may start with the freedom to pray or carve, act or paint or sing, and end with its degradation or, as the Balinese do, emphasize not whether an activity is for pay or not, but rather who engages in it and under what circumstances.
Remarking on how this “interpenetration of art and life” has confounded visitors to Bali, Mead notes that most Western explanations have been entirely too simplistic and typically romanticized this model of culture as superior to the Western tyranny of the clock. But she points to a different nearby culture as a reminder that any technology is only as good or bad, as limiting or liberating, as the intentions behind its use:
On another South Sea island, Manus, I found in 1928 a people without clocks, without a calendar, with only the simply rhythm of a three-day market and the monthly rush of the fish over the reef, who nevertheless drove themselves from one unrecognized and unmarked year to the next, seeing feasts as harder work than days which had no feasting. To them the white man’s periodicity of hours to start work and hours to stop came as a blessed relief and the Christian Sabbath as a day of undreamed-of rest. They spoke with enthusiasm of the bells which punctuated the hard labor on European-owned plantations: “When the bell sounds at noon you can stop, and you don’t have to work again until the bell sounds to return to work.”
But the most unusual aspect of the Manus was that while they bought and sold artifacts from neighboring tribes, they didn’t participate in the arts themselves. Mead writes:
Each well-described culture provides evidence of the many ways in which activity can be categorized: as virtuous work and sinful play, as dull work when done alone and happy gaiety when the same activity (fishing or hunting or housebuilding) is done in a group, as work when for oneself, and delight when for the gods, or as, at most, pleasant and self-propelled when done for oneself but horrid when done at the behest of the state. There are as many kinds of classification as there have been civilizations, each having its significance for the place of the arts in the life of any particular human group.
Considering how the norms and perspectives of each era dictate the way these concepts are classified, Mead echoes Tchaikovsky’s lament about the difference between creative freedom and commissioned work, and writes:
One significant variable is a sense of freedom: what one does of his own free will must be separated from anything done under coercion, by the need to eat, or survive, or by the will of others. So … planting a garden for food would be work, but done for the pleasure of boasting about the size of one’s cabbages, it becomes leisurely activity.
Mead arrives at the central perplexity of what defines an activity as “creative” and challenges the common definitions, which fail to account for the fact that what is deemed creative often differs from what is merely productive in degree rather than kind and is invariably contingent upon context and circumstance. She examines how different cultures confer the status of artist upon those who make art, illustrating the arbitrary nature of these labels so often divorced from the actual nature of the creative activity and its ultimate effect upon its recipient:
If we take the set of criteria so often used, work to be creative must make something new and something made must not be made too often, or the words “repetitious” and “uncreative” will be introduced. Cooking the daily midday meal is repetitious, but preparing special foods for a feast is creative. This distinction is pleasantly blurred in the house of the rich gourmet; the food that is feat food for the common man becomes daily food for him. His cook then becomes a chef and an artist. The distance from cottage to castle has turned labor into an art.
Still the idea of something made new, and rarely, recurs throughout all the confusing dichotomies and continua of many civilizations. Among one people the slight decoration of every doorway may be a craft, widely practiced, possibly lucrative, slightly honored. But in the next tribe there may be only one man who has the skill and the will to paint a single bark panel with his version of the house decorations of his neighbors. He is not a craftsman; he is instead an artist, occasionally and painfully producing something new — new to him, and new to his fellow tribesmen who cluster around him. Or it is possible to introduce the same slight sense of distance and newness by a device such as that used by the Mundugumor of New Guinea, who had decreed that only a male child born with the umbilical cord around his neck might be an artist. As the tribe was small, and there was no provision that each male child so born be trained as an artist, in the end there would only be one or two men in a generation with the cultural right to paint a design on bark which might have been a common craft, practiced often and unrewarded, among a neighboring tribe.
A century after Baudelaire argued that all things beautiful have an element of strangeness and a decade after Humphrey Trevelyan’s sublime tribute to Goethe and the “divine discontent” necessary for being an artist, Mead writes:
I should like to propose that we look at this element of freshness, of newness, of strangeness, as a thread along which to place the activities of the consciously creative artist, the conscious patron and critic of the creative artist, and the common man — common in the sense that he has no specified part in creation or criticism. If we make one criterion for defining the artist (as distinct from the craftsman and the trained but routine performer of dance, drama, or music) the impulse to make something new, or to do something in a new way — a kind of divine discontent with all that has gone before, however good — then we can find such artists at every level of human culture, even when performing acts of great simplicity.
Complement with physicist David Bohm on the mechanism of creativity, Arthur Koestler’s pioneering “bisociation” theory of how it works, and Thoreau on the distinction between an artist, an artisan, and a genius, then revisit Mead on the fluidity of human sexuality, her gorgeous love letters, how to raise a family in an uncertain world, why women make better scientists, and her remarkably timely multi-part conversation with James Baldwin about identity and race, forgiveness and the difference between guilt and responsibility, and the future of democracy.
Published January 10, 2017