The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman recently wrote an article discussing the idea of being creative and how that has evolved from the Enlightenment Age through the Romantic Age to today. He pointed out a theory from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which he posits that the creative mind and the type of creativity it produces can be categorized into two sections.
People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates, as [James] Engell puts it, like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life.
Rothman’s essay goes on to say that today’s type of creativity, the kind our society deems as a respectable value, has taken Coleridge’s nobler imagination – the “human reflex of God’s creative energy” – and extended it into the age of capitalism. Today’s creatives are not content with exercising their imagination solely in their minds; their value lies in the output their imagination creates. In other words, the idea or the product is today’s kind of imagination.
I agree with Rothman that creative ideas are put on a pedestal in today’s age. We worship too much the maker and the artisans, which Rothman summarizes as “really just a fancy kind of productivity”. I would also say it’s a trend, one that has grown quicker due to social media and technology hyperdrive. Where I disagree is that this trend is a result of market-driven forces or that the value lies solely in the product the maker produces. I don’t even think it’s a “fancy kind of productivity” (Rothman’s use of fancy here is not the same as Coleridge’s use of fancy, I should clarify), it’s simply a different type of productivity. The maker is trendy in that it’s today’s flavor, a reaction against the Industrial Age couched in capitalism. The distaste comes from the hype surrounding it and the tendency for humans to take things to the extreme. At its core, the maker is essentially wrapping all three kinds of imagination together.
Visual essays do this very wrapping. The three kinds of imagination, are represented here: the fancy is the fact-based subject matter or topic, the reflex is the creator’s ability to bring the facts to life, and the product is the essay itself. It makes sense that visual essays are an emerging genre because they, too, are a reaction, a growth from existing interests, flavors, and trends in entertainment and education. It’s not enough to simply learn about a subject, we want to be delighted by it. It’s not enough to mull over it in our own minds, we want to share it with the world.
Hence, this blog! On a more selfish note, I think it’s about time that creatives get to make a living from their ideas. Fading away is the Romantic notion of the lone artist struggling in his studio. Today, we want to make our cake and sell it so we can use that money to buy other cakes.