Picture and quote of Alf Rehn: Real Creativity

September 2022 | Interview

Alf Rehn: Redefining Creativity (Part 1)

From the famous German artist Joseph Beuys comes the sentence „Every human being is (…) an artist.“ What do you think about this quote?

I remember hearing this way back, and how I wanted to be kind and understand what Beuys was trying to say. Yet I started to think that the statement points to not just one but two very problematic notions we have about creativity. On the one hand, it plays up the notion that creativity is something that’s at heart quite simple, a naïve kind of genius we’re all born with and just happen to have forgotten. It is related the notion that all children are very creative, which just isn’t true. Children can be imaginative, yes, and play in a free and open manner, but these same children also want to watch the same episode of Peppa Pig over and over again and are happy to eat chicken nuggets for their every meal. Actual creativity, including the kind used by artists, is something we have to develop – through reflection, through learning more about the world, through trying things out. A lot of people aren’t engaging with this, and are thus not artists, at least not yet.

On the other, related hand, I find it infuriating that people still think that art is this easy practice that anyone can take up. People look at some modern artworks and go “Oh, anyone could have done that!”. No, no they couldn’t. That piece is the result of someone who worked very hard to find their own voice, their way of expressing themselves. They slaved away in their studio, learning about new techniques, new materials. Then, after trying out a few thousand things that didn’t work, they come across something that makes the statement they wanted to make. So a Cy Twombly piece can look a little like a very big child got overexcited with box of crayons, but it is also something much, much more. It is an expression, and a unique one.

So I don’t know, Joseph Beuys. I know that you know that it was a statement you made to provoke, but I think it’s a dangerous one. It belittles art, and you belittle creativity just to look like this cool guy who is all-loving and doesn’t care. Not a lot of people would have had the energy to do all the research behind and the tenacity to realize the idea of “Fat Chair” (1964-1985), so you are in effect denigrating your own work in order to make a cheap quip best suited to be spread on Facebook as a meme, mis-referenced to Picasso. That’s what I think of the quote.

In your books, you plead for more uncomfortable creativity with rough edges beyond feel-good workshops, creativity techniques and management trends. Why?

When I was rather young, but old enough to know better, I did some creativity consulting. It was easy work for someone with a bit of improvisation skills and a decent enough memory, and paid well. I remember, however, that I always felt the work to be a bit… creepy. I could get a room full of people to feel creative, I could lead them through exercises where they felt… something, but I started to realize just how fake it all was. I was good at it, too. I could do the usual thing that creativity consultants do – make people claim they loved creativity, trip them up and showing just how traditional they were (I often used risqué material for this as well – extra bonus), and then leading them on a bit of a journey of discovery. During this latter part, I could manipulate people so that they felt both validated and that they could think freer than before, without addressing that this is quite easy to do in a workshop, but a lot harder to realize in everyday life.

Real creativity happens in the real world, not in a workshop where people get to play dress up or do funny little exercises. Share on X


So I started thinking about the numerous ways in which we play-act creativity, do these little cheap tricks in safe spaces, and how this might be the problem. Real creativity happens in the real world, not in a workshop where people get to play dress up or do funny little exercises. The issue is that although such settings are great at making people feel good and play around with creativity, it also teaches them that this is what creativity is. When they then come back to the real world, where there’s questions and budgets and work to be done, they can start believing that just because it isn’t the same cozy atmosphere, it is anti-creativity. No! It’s just the real world, and in the real world creativity isn’t a game, it is hard work.

In fact, I realized that the problem ran deeper. All the examples that I noticed others in the general field of creativity and innovation were using came off as far too cutesy, too focused on being liked and never offending anyone. I realized that much of what was written and done on creativity was in effect unable to deal with real creativity, the kind that break boundaries. When Picasso emerged, he was detested by the art world, and laughed at. The Velvet Underground didn’t start out selling all that well, but as Brian Eno pointed out “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band!”. This was the kind of creativity that interested me, the kind that was, in the words of Marx (Karl, not Groucho): “red in tooth and claw”.

So I started to look at things other creativity researchers didn’t. The forbidden, the taboo, the unseemly. Like Marx said (Groucho, not Karl) “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.”. So I talked to and studied people normal creativity researchers never would – torturers, factory workers, pimps, people just trying to survive. Turns out that their stories of creativity are far more interesting than those of “the usual suspects”. This is why I still champion real creativity, the kind that doesn’t always fit in, the kind that makes people a little uncomfortable. If you want to be comfortable, buy a sofa. If you want to get creative, go to an art exhibition and let yourself be challenged. Listen to music you don’t like, and try out foods that seem weird. Push yourself, and let go of the fairytale that all creativity comes wrapped nicely with a bow on top, presented by oh-so-beautiful people who look just the part.

Why are we so obsessed with defining exactly what creativity, innovation, etc. is?

Well, we humans are on the one hand storytelling animals, and in every story it is important to know what is what and who is who. Sure, we have stories with unreliable narrators and stories with anti-heroes and such, but overall we like to have structure to our stories. To this comes the even more general desire to have control over… well, everything. We want to have clarity and structure, order and control. We can’t help ourselves. We may say we like ambiguity and shades of grey, but in the end there is just so much of that we can take.

As we all know that creativity and innovation are critically important parts of contemporary success in the business world, it follows that we wish to be able to have clarity about the same. We are desperate for clarification regarding what is required of us and what we can do to appease these strange new gods, and when people like me say that there is no such simple illumination to be had, people bristle – and I understand that they do. How can it be that something is so important and so vague at the same time?!?

When we talk about creativity, we talk about things that haven’t yet been seen. Share on X


Yet this is the way of the world. When we talk about creativity, we talk about things that haven’t yet been seen. When we talk about innovation, we talk about what will create value in the future. Neither of these can be handled with historical data, neither can be discussed as certainties. So even though many would wish that this could be dealt with with precision and in the here and now, this doesn’t take away from the fact that we simply cannot know what will work and what will be impactful.

There was a time when the Sex Pistols were just another one of the hundreds of London garage bands. They got onto TV and became infamous, but that did not make them huge. They had to keep offending people, keep grinding, keep being different. I appreciate that, the sheer amount of work that went into being “effortlessly offensive”. We cannot say that being creative is to follow the path of the Sex Pistols, but at the same time we can see just how dependent they were on an existing notion of what it meant to be a creative.

These days, I am very, very cautious whenever some magazine or other declares that someone is “creative” or something is an “innovation”. I try to remind myself that this only means that they fit into the existing frameworks well enough to be awarded such epithets. I prefer looking at things where people can’t really figure out what it is yet, at art that confuses, at at creators that break boundaries. Weird Al Yankovich is a brilliant example. He does parodies, was always seen as a bit of a joke, yet here we are, decades later, and he is still creating. That, to me, is far more interesting than the fact that everyone obsesses over Steve Jobs.

Where do you think the belief comes from that creativity can be made available to everyone at all times using certain techniques?

One of the things that separates humans from animals, as far as we know, is that humans have the capacity to dream. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, neither chimpanzees nor octopi believe that there might be a some kind of transcendent, wholly new future where all wrongs will be righted. Humans are the hopeful animal, the apes who dared dream of something better, something greater. In line with this, we are exceptionally good at thinking that if we just wait, and do the right things, the world will re-arrange itself in a way so that our problems are nigh-magically solved.

Creativity and innovation are the promises that keep promising. We love the idea that they could be tamed by having this simple technique that can generate endless amounts of change and dynamism, but we also need to face up to the fact that this just isn’t true. Creativity will always require hard work, because creativity is hard. There’s no lack of ideas, but original, worked-up ideas are still a rarity. This is because no simple method can ever consistently produce something as rare as the contrarian yet workable idea. There are too many barriers – breaking with what is, yet keeping things possible to realize, whilst not alienating people, yet creating the right kind of controversy – for any “cheap trick” to do so.

Our love and desire for creativity stem from a deep and dark place in all of us, the one that wishes for the impossible. Share on X


Yet the very notion of such a horn of plenty is too attractive to let go of. We are like the old, ugly, lustful man who is convinced that there will be a young beautiful maiden who will fall for him, and although we know that this is a silly fantasy, we don’t want to abandon it. So to your question, where does the belief come from? It comes from desire, our wish that the impossible might be made possible, the notion that maybe this time around, the basic laws of the universe might be overthrown.

Our love and desire for creativity stem from a deep and dark place in all of us, the one that wishes for the impossible – the negation of age, that our very selves could be made into something different, that magic would be real. We desire, because we humans are a desirous lot. Yet, like the lecher salivating after a young woman he never can have, we need to understand the reality of our situation, and make far humbler moves.

Thank you very much for the first part of our inspiring interview, Alf!


About Alf Rehn:

Alf Rehn is professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Denmark. In addition to this he is active as an author, global keynote speaker, and a strategic advisor. His latest books include “Innovation for the Fatigued” (2019) and the edited “Debating Innovation” (forthcoming 2022).

Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram: @alfrehn
ADD | Algorithms, Data & Democracy





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