So let’s talk about creativity. Usually when we think about creativity, we think of an individual attribute; something that some people are just born with more of than others. Sort of like IQ.
But we know from numerous sociological and psychological studies that IQ itself, is in fact highly malleable. You can change someone’s IQ score dramatically depending on the context within which they take the IQ test. So I wondered, is creativity like that? Is creativity really something that depends on the context that it’s in? We know that certain places at certain times have had this outpouring of creativity. You can think about Renaissance Florence, you can think about Paris in the years just before and after World War I, you can think about Silicon Valley in the 70s and 80s.
What I wondered was, is there something about the social structure of these places that fosters that creativity? Is there something about what’s going on there that makes that happen? Because I’m a sociologist, I started thinking about the social networks, the real ties between real people in those communities that might make that happen. And because I do social network analysis, I thought, “Hey, let’s do some social network analysis of that, and see what happens.” But it would be impossible to get all the social network data for some place like Paris in the 20s; all the different social ties between all the different people who were there. It would just be impossible to get the data.
So what I did was I went to a smaller case study, Rarotonga, which is the main island of The Cook Islands. The Cook Islands are an independent country in Central Polynesia, just west of Tahiti and east of Tonga. The main island, Rarotonga, is about 32 kilometers around, has about 12,000 residents. But for my purposes, what made Rarotonga so interesting was that Rarotonga during the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was there, was the center of a real artistic explosion that was happening all across the South Pacific. Rarotonga had, for example, more art galleries per capita than Paris, London, New York, or even than smaller art-oriented places like Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In addition, the art that was being produced there was of all types; from the most traditional stone sculptures to drawings, paintings of all types, sculpture – more modern sculpture – mixed media, and installation art. So the question I had is; what is going on at Rarotonga that makes this place so vibrant in this way? And what I discovered living there for a year; interviewing artists, doing participant observation, doing a network analysis of the whole arts community there; what I discovered was interesting for three things: the first thing was the role of social networks in fostering art there, the second was the role of traditional Polynesian ideals of generosity in fostering art on Rarotonga, and the third was the role of women in doing that.
So let’s start with generosity. Generosity is the highest ideal of Polynesian society. It really is the value that drives that culture, so in the status hierarchy, the people who are at the top, are not the people who have the most, put the people who give the most. That is the real value.
So this is a quote from one of the artists I talked to that really exemplifies that. So given this culture, where generosity is so highly valued, let’s look at what I found with the social networks of the people who were there. I asked all of the artists on the island to tell me who they thought were the other best artists on the island, who they had esteem for. Using that data, I was able to do a social network analysis of the art world there.
Four groups emerged. These groups are based on the real social relationships that the artists had with each other, but also in the values that the different groups held. So let’s talk about these four groups. The Old Guard was a group of traditional, indigenous artists who’d been living and working on the island for years and years. The Stars were a slightly younger group of artists who were also traditional, indigenous Cook Islanders, but who’d been away to be educated, usually in New Zealand, and had come back to the island with new ideas about how art could be made.
The Acolytes were a group of very young artists just starting their careers who really looked up to the Stars as mentors. And the group that was most interesting to me were the Midwives. This was a group composed almost entirely of women, there was one man, but almost entirely women, who had a foot in both worlds: in the traditional world of the Old Guard, and in the new world of the Stars.
So these were women, for example, one of the Midwives was an indigenous Rarotongan woman who’d lived on the island for years, been practicing art there, but was married to a European man. One of the things I discovered in my interviews with the artists was there was an awful lot of hostility between the Stars and the Old Guard. These two groups really did not like each other. Each group saw the other as an attack on them, as something that made them question whether they themselves were the best artists on the island, and were doing it right, making art the right way.
So the Old Guard, for example, looked at the art the Stars were making, they said, “It’s wallpaper, anyone can do it, it’s nothing.” Sort of an “Emperor’s New Clothes” kind of thing going on. The Stars looked at the Old Guard and said, “These people have been on the island for years, selling out their cultural heritage in order to pander to the tourists.” And this is where the Midwives became really important.