Essays & Opinion

The role of the creative and our place in culture

'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35'
‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35’

Creatives of all forms remain in a constant, symbiotic tango with human nature and culture. All of human thought remains distinctly entwined with that strange, living thing we call culture. Literature, art, music, photography – these strands of culture both reflect who we are, in our values, our hopes, fears, ideals, and shapes who we become by influencing us and immersing us in what becomes an agreed upon notion of how we define ourselves. Culture mythologises certain values, while negating others – shaping our perceptions of the world, and in turn leading us to create – through writing and art, etc – our own culture.

This is rather succinctly summed up by E.B White, co-author of the must-have book for all aspiring writers ‘The Elements of Style’. In considering the responsibility of the writer, White asserts: “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

In nuce, then, what we have is a constant dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature. A notion captured by physicist Dave Bohm in a 1977 lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… what we believe determines what we take to be true.”

The role of the creative

Within these constructed realities, then, creatives find themselves in a curious position of being at once channellers of a culture they did not create, and simultaneously being creators of that same culture. For writers and creatives, then, such a position comes with much responsibility. As White notes:

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down […] The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.”

“A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

The creative custodian

Creatives, then, can see themselves as custodians, or secretaries, or interpreters, of culture. There is an ideal at the heart of this notion: that the role of the creative is to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why.

Yet, in a digital world of easy blogging and clickbait headlines, there must surely be a concern that the responsibility creatives have for maintaining standards and baked-in accountability has fallen away, replaced by journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. The easy, instant gratification of Tumblr and other mediums also perhaps denigrate the creative integrity of photography and art – as writer and photographer Mike Dodson opines in an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook: “The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer.”

There is an implicit accountability instilled within the heart of the creative that must, therefore, be recognized. A kind of truth standard that should be adopted before putting pen to paper, paintbrush to easel, finger to iPhone camera and Instagram upload. Ultimately, of course, the choice is ours as to which standards and expectations we adopt in creating whatever art we use to define ourselves. But it should be remembered that these choices will, fundamentally, “inform and shape life.”


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