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In 1879 a Spanish landowner of scholarly tastes, Don Marcelino de Sautuola, visited a cave on his property that was known to have been the home of prehistoric people. He took with him his eleven-year-old daughter, Maria. While her father examined the floor and walls of the cave, Maria, perhaps a little bored, looked up at the roof – and made one of the great archaeological discoveries of her time. “Toros! Toros!” she cried. The roof of Altamira cave is covered with magnificent paintings, not of bulls as Maria thought, but of bison and many other animals who roamed Spain in the Ice Age.

Sautuola believed, correctly, that the Altamira paintings were as much as 18,000 to 15,000 years old. For the next twenty-odd years few agreed with him. The paintings were confidently declared to be modern fakes. That hunters, dressed in skins and equipped with tools made from flint or antlers, could have created paintings of such astonishing quality was a difficult concept to swallow. If humans of the Stone Age were so gifted, they were not merely physically like us – that was already known – they were us. They had joined the club.

For to be human is, perhaps more than anything else, to be creative. Many attempts have been made to find one single quality that marks us off from our animal cousins. One by one, they have all fallen before the advancing study of animal behaviour. Animals, it turns out, also use tools, live in complex hierarchical societies, decorate their homes and in some species even have what appear to be languages. Only creativity remains to us, and while it too may not be our exclusive property – do whales in any sense compose their songs? – we can be sure that no other animal has our obsession with re-arranging whatever we encounter. We are the animal that cannot leave things alone.

This drive to create is the common property of human beings. It does not produce only paintings and cathedrals, plays and poems, important though they are. It turns up everywhere. Children who find stones on a beach arrange them in patterns. Prisoners do elaborate scrimshaw work on bones and boards. Nomads, whose possessions must be portable, elevate carpets and saddlebags to a high art – or like the Inuit, make small sculptures to fit in the hand. When we “set a table” we instinctively create a pleasing pattern. And people at meetings doodle, an activity, which apart from being mildly creative itself, may well stimulate more original thinking than paying close attention to the debate ever could.

There are of course limits to what we can do. As theologians remind us, we cannot make something out of nothing. In our most startling new departures there is always something that has gone before. And what we think worth creating and how we do it is always shaped by the particular culture to which we belong. But if society in one sense sets limits it also creates enormous opportunities. Creativity is social as well as individual. Civilization itself, the art of living together in highly complex groups, is perhaps the most significant human creation, the one from which most others flow. And the core of civilization is the city, both the nursery of creativity and still the most potent symbol of what human beings can achieve.

Cities made possible the division of labour into many specialized trades, and this in turn brought an increase in both the range and the volume of production, so that for the first time wealth became a meaningful concept. By providing a wider range of occupations and the possibility of saving, cities also created wholly new opportunities for lucky or gifted individuals. Yet cities are much more than purely economic arrangements. By bringing all sorts and conditions of men together, they made the shock of the unfamiliar part of daily life, and thereby stimulated the growth of individual personality, self-consciousness and with them creativity, the forerunner of all social change. Writing came into existence with the first cities and made it possible to store, analyze and communicate the results of creativity far more widely in both time and space. And the state, the central authority needed in a large-scale society, used its power over thousands of individuals to create altogether new things on an unprecedented scale — useful things like canals, but also towering temples which reinforced social unity and identity by symbolizing the city to itself.

Of course there was a downside to cities. There always is. Creativity came with a price. Wealth brought social inequality and crime. Crowding people together meant pollution and disease. Specialization over a lifetime can and does deform mind, body or both. The state easily became the means by which the few exploited the many. Contact with other cities or peoples was as likely to provoke organized warfare as peaceful trade. All these things are still with us in one form or another. The dangers of city life, especially to the naïve or the friendless, are notorious. Nonetheless cities soon won a hold over the human mind they have never subsequently lost. They represent at once the achievements of the past and opportunity for the present. If the country stands for stability, the city embodies the hope of change. It is in cities that we create our future.

In recent years the connection between cities and creativity has been examined anew by Richard Florida, in his book The Rise of the Creative Class and its successors. Florida’s “creative class” is broadly defined. As well as the occupations traditionally thought of as “creative” – artists, performers, architects, writers, photographers and so forth – he includes scientists, engineers, computer software writers, academics, teachers, and the long-established professions such as medicine and the law. Collectively, they are now much more numerous than the traditional industrial working class, and rivalled only by the “service class” who provide everyone else with public and individual services, from the police and fire department to daycare and hairdressing.

The members of this creative class, Florida argues, prefer to live in cities that are diverse, tolerant, stimulating and well provided with a range of amenities from museums to jazz clubs and ski runs. As a result the American “creative class” is strongly concentrated in a relatively small number of metropolitan areas, some of them to be expected, some less so: San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta and Washington DC are examples. These cities rank highly in a number of indices Florida and his colleagues have created to measure tolerance, diversity and stimulation. Once concentrated, the creative class makes these cities centres of economic growth. Creative cities are rich as well as open and diverse, and they are becoming steadily richer. The implications are profound. From Max Weber to Daniel Bell, economic growth was believed to be correlated with what are sometimes called the Protestant virtues, although Protestants certainly have never had a monopoly of them: hard work, thrift, sobriety, decency and saving for a rainy day. Now it turns out to depend on having a thriving nightlife and a dozen different nationalities on the bus.

If the rise of the creative class and the economic growth it creates is important, it also has some troubling implications. It can certainly be argued that economic growth is important for our society because, by giving substance to the promise of a better life for all in future, it promotes social stability in the present. But there is no doubt at all that growth also has undesirable consequences. It creates environmental stress, not so much today by the productive process itself – computers are far more environmentally friendly than steel mills – as by the lifestyles increased wealth makes possible. Florida reports that his creative class value outdoor activities highly, but once in the great outdoors they really will find lots of other people like themselves. The news that the summit of Mount Everest is covered with litter speaks volumes. The open road exists today only in fantasy television ads for cars, which appear to have been filmed on another, thinly inhabited planet.

Further, economic growth can increase social inequality. The creative cities referenced by Florida are rich, but they also have the highest income inequality in the United States – something that will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen San Francisco house prices. These cities are socially polarized into the well-paid creative class and a growing, much less well-paid service class who do the things the creative people are too busy to do for themselves. It is an exaggeration, but a disturbing one, to say that they recall the Alphas, Betas and Gammas of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Of course in our world the dividing line is not absolute or socially mandated as it was in Huxley’s. The woman selling shoes today may well be doing it to put herself through university. In ten years’ time she will be a full-fledged member of the creative class. The out-of-work actor who is your waiter tonight may in fact get the big break which will allow him to eat in restaurants rather than work in them. And is a laboratory technician a member of the creative or of the service class?

Nonetheless, when every reservation has been made, the divide remains. It is hard to imagine it disappearing, if only because, unless we can invent robots able to put out fires or dry-clean clothes, it is hard to imagine a society in which everyone belongs to the creative class. Most disturbing of all is the possibility of the divide’s becoming deeply entrenched. Social background already gives more opportunities to the children of the educated and the comfortably off. Equality of opportunity thus is and probably always has been a goal rather than a fact, but it is a noble goal, and the belief that it exists in at least some degree is one of the ideas that hold American, and Canadian, society together. A trend which calls that belief in question therefore has far-reaching implications.

This polarization by class is accompanied by a deeper polarization by values. American politics for the last decade or more have been dominated, not by the traditional questions of social justice, but by “culture wars” over such issues as abortion, euthanasia and gay rights. These struggles in courts and legislatures are to a significant degree regionally based – very broadly, the centre against the coasts, the country against the cities. They are resistant to the brokerage politics that have historically propelled the American political system: building a military base in a given area may get a senator re-elected, but it will not change the voters’ opinions on abortion.

No one knows what the future holds on these issues, although there will be predictions enough and to spare. The cultural divide, however, will not go away, although it may well move to different battlegrounds. At bottom it is the current version of two tensions that are inherent in all complex societies. The first is the age-old and profoundly ambiguous relationship between city and country. City dwellers have tended to view their supposedly simple-minded and backward country cousins with contempt, an attitude that survives today in such words as redneck. They also, paradoxically, believe that life in the country is indeed in some sense simpler, more wholesome and authentically human than life among buildings, pavements and strangers.

Country people for their part have always regarded cities as a land of opportunity, and innumerable Dick Whittingtons have set out for London and the streets allegedly paved with gold. Those who stayed on the farm, however, have tended to think of cities as hotbeds of vice, places where the laws of God and man were held in contempt. The emergence of the “creative class” cities is unlikely to change their minds. Nor should this point of view be rejected out of hand as mindlessly reactionary. Creativity can and often does raise major social issues. It is often profoundly disruptive of the status quo. It is significant that the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, whatever their ideological basis, were united in controlling and when necessary liquidating the creative members of their populations. Morally speaking, creativity is no better than the use we make of it. The twentieth century was replete with examples of human creativity being put to the most inhuman uses imaginable by those same totalitarian states that eliminated all free thought and expression. Modern techniques of electronic surveillance can be used to make us safer, but they are also a potent weapon in the hands of dictatorships. We may invent many things, but we shall never invent a machine that makes our ethical decisions for us.

The second tension is that between the individual freedom that makes innovation, creativity and progress (however defined) possible, and the collective responsibilities that hold society together. The creative class are very much the product and the practitioners of the freedom of the individual, its members tending to have relatively loose ties or none at all to the traditional institutions of corporation, church, family or political party. Such a class can be an immensely dynamic element in society, but there is another side to the argument. It seems at least possible that the rise of the creative class is related to the growing indifference to politics, seen most obviously in falling voter turnout, which is especially apparent in the United States but can be found almost everywhere in the developed world. There is something disturbing in the spectacle of such a privileged group (the most privileged in history, according to the American writer David Brooks) benefiting from a political system but giving little back to it. In a sense these individuals can enjoy their freedom to design their own lives because they have inherited social capital from many generations who thought responsibilities to the group were as important as freedoms for the individual. There is, too, the disquieting thought that those who will not govern themselves will sooner or later find themselves being governed by others. Aristotle thought that extreme democracy would always end in tyranny. The traditional institutions the creative class have largely abandoned, however stifling, prejudiced or simply unfashionable they may be (and sometimes are), can also paradoxically be the best guarantees of liberty. Creativity is a priceless human attribute, but it is not able to sustain a healthy, stable society by itself. To repeat, it is no better than the use we make of it. Public life alone can make the decisions on what that use will be. Self-evidently, it will be those who participate in public life who take those decisions and create our common future.

Perhaps the foregoing has placed too much emphasis on the economic and social consequences of the rise of the creative class, far-reaching though these undoubtedly are. Perhaps the really important news is that so much more human creativity is becoming actual, rather than potential; that so many people are able to live more fulfilling lives. The painters of Altamira may have been hoping to increase the number of bison in the neighbourhood, but looking at their work it is hard to doubt that the sheer pleasure of creation took them far beyond whatever their ideas of magic required. For most of history, the immense drudgery needed to keep civilization going, together with an understandable fear of the risks involved by any new departures, kept creativity within narrow bounds. Modern, post-industrial society is rich enough, and self-confident enough, to accept the risks of creativity in return for its rewards. Where this will take us in the long run we cannot know: true creativity always contains an element of the unexpected. What is important is that we, alone among the animals, can shape our future, since to be human is not only to be creative but to have the public institutions and policies which can make creativity a force for the betterment of all.