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Free Thinking : The world

From New Delhi, writer Rana Dasgupta

Are Cities Good For Creativity?

  • Rana Dasgupta
  • 7 Sep 06, 03:18 AM

I want to approach this question by thinking about a related, and in some ways opposite, one. "Are internment camps good for creativity?" In some respects, though not all, the internment camp can be seen as the opposite, the alter ego, of the city. We can think of Auschwitz and New York inhabiting opposite ends of the American moral-spatial spectrum in the second half of the twentieth century (which is partly why the events of 9/11 had such a profound resonance).

Yesterday my neighbour came to my door to show me the diary of one of his relatives, a Sikh fom Punjab who had fought in the British army in the second world war, and who was captured and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. The man was a talented artist and draughtsman, and had filled his notebook with drawings of camp scenes. Men sunbathing in front of barracks, playing hockey, putting on theatrical performances. He wrote accounts of the camp's economy (with "one English cigarette" as the basic unit of currency) and stuck in newspaper clippings of Mussolini's death etc. His fellow camp inmates, among them Eric Newby, wrote poems and comments in the book, and painted pictures of "Jit Singh, the Indian painter" at his canvass. These comments bore witness to a deep intimacy and appreciation between the American, British, Canadian, French - and Indian - men who found themselves together.

This diary put me in mind of the internment camp on the Isle of Man during the same period. Many German and Italian nationals resident in the UK were interned there in 1940, and a large proportion of these were central European Jews who had arrived in England to flee Nazism.

They lived in great fear, believing that Hitler might soon invade the UK and that this enclosure might be one of his first targets. But the camp was full of Jewish artists and intellectuals, and nothing could stop the inevitable. Within weeks of their internment, there were camp newspapers, weekly lectures on nuclear physics, and regular concerts.

Three members of the future Amadeus Quartet, all from Vienna, met in the camp. The quartet was founded in London immediately after the war, and endured until the death of violist Peter Schidlof in 1987. The Viennese composer Hans Gál was interned there, and wrote several works there. Perhaps readers know of other internees.

(See also the story of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, written in the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.)

In many respects these camps were similar to cities. They inherited the civic cultures of places like Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and they brought together people from different backgrounds, with different skills and interests. But in other ways they were quite different. The notion of time was completely different, for the onward rush of urban time was taken away, and what was left was time as a still pool. Death was more proximate than in the cities (from which it had been exiled), and this gave a gravity, an earnestness, to conversation.

Creativity is one of the qualities that most reassures us about our humanity. What do the outbursts of creativity in internment camps, and even death camps, mean for our thinking about cities? Do they display the fortitude of urban culture, which continues unabashed even in such terrible circumstances? Or do they remind us that creativity is somehow linked to those things that cities are most concerned to stamp out - death and inactivity - and that sometimes it may be in the most unlikely places that the most astonishing human creations arise?


  1. At 12:24 PM on 07 Sep 2006, Fitz wrote:

    NO cities don't improve creativity! -people do!

    Creativity is a human trait - YES? and is part of the psyche the soul the essence of humanity - it has nothing to do with cities.

    What is this obsession with cities anyway - cities are alien, concrete, stainless steel monstrocities - we can survive in them - just - but they dull the soul - stifle the spirit - we just learn to adapt but not to love.

    Anyone for my money who is creative in the city is creative inspite of the city as a protest to the city - as a challenge to the city.

    Cities of course can be very lonely places - oblivious to the real needs of humnans - their function is not to serve humanity but to serve services - there is a difference.

    Human nature is just that - natural - cities are just that unnatural.

    Human are creative - for sure - cities are appendages and destroyed more souls than nourished them!

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  2. At 01:10 PM on 07 Sep 2006, Fitz wrote:

    Let's get real here - how can one be creative when your world is becoming a nightmare. Rana has recently been to Australia, Melbourne for the a writers conference, but didn't obviously pick up the true nuance of 'city australia'!

    My newspaper in Western Australia has headings like " waking up to the great Australian nightmare"

    and tells us that Perth, WA has long been a suburban based city whose strength was that a family on modest income could buy a house and land at modest prices. No longer oh visitor to OZ!

    The house prices median level price now stand at a higher level than Sydney. And if this trend repeats next year Perth prices could be higher than Los Angeles, London. Dublin and San Francisco!

    I don't think many people are feeling particulary creative about city life in Perth at the moment.

    Creativity surely equates to some degree of comfort and not the pain that Rana talks about in 'concentration camps'

    Sure being creative there helps one to survive. But today we are talking about cities in well organised societies and countries not concentration camps.

    Cities in my view are only as creative, as people feel happy and comfortable - creativity can be borne form extreme pain but usually prefers comfort!

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  3. At 01:53 PM on 07 Sep 2006, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso,CPUR wrote:

    Creativity comes from the inside of a person.

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  4. At 10:35 PM on 07 Sep 2006, Carole wrote:

    Creativity comes from the soul.It may creep out unawares amidst the horror of war,or it may burst forth upon watching the first ray of the morning sun.

    Out of something so simple, there can be the greatest creation.And out of the most dreadful nightmare a love of life and a yearning for beauty can be born.

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  5. At 04:09 AM on 08 Sep 2006, Rana Dasgupta wrote:

    "Creativity comes from inside", "Creativity comes from the soul". What does this mean? What is this soul that spontaneously generates things in the world, without outside influence? If the soul's creations are so unaffected by the world, why was a Classical symphony never written in Indonesia, or in the middle ages? The fact is that creativity is not merely some internal force, but a dialogue with the world, and nearly all artists depend heavily on their setting - friendships, cafes, patronage networks etc - for their work. Where would Hogarth be without London, or Sartre without Paris? Where would countless 1920s Paris artists have been without the astonishing milieu they found themselves in, of stimulating ideas and creations? At a time, I believe, where many of these same cities are becoming less fertile in such respects, the question is entirely legitimate and necessary: Are cities good for creativity?

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  6. At 07:17 AM on 08 Sep 2006, fitz wrote:

    Perhaps the more essential question should be are all people meant to be creative? Is creativity an universal trait, that is always there just waiting for the right stimulation?

    Or is it a trait like blue eyes or exra sensory perception, just experienced by a few?

    If creativity is a trait found in some but not all then anywhere can be a source of creativity not just cities.

    And equally if a universal trait then also anywhere will do!

    And then again the well known tibetan nun meditated for 12 years alone 13 000 feet on a Himalayan mountain in a cave and according to her became extremely creative.

    Yes I would agree with the others it comes from within not from cities!

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  7. At 11:02 AM on 08 Sep 2006, Peter wrote:

    People can always create SOMETHING, even if they're in solitary confinement, in a dull cell. Your point, I think, Rana, is that you believe they'll create things more attuned to those around them if they're similarly at liberty.

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  8. At 12:08 PM on 08 Sep 2006, Roberto wrote:

    Surely there is a bit of truth in all of these opinions about creativity and the city, however, isn’t the issue much more articulated?
    Cities don’t necessarily generate creativity nor dampen it, and the same can be said of the countryside or any other environment.
    For a series of combined factors some cities attract a great number of creative people, these creative people end up meeting each other and exchange ideas, start doing things together and initiate a chain reaction. At the same time these people are exposed to a high concentration of life in all its manifestations and different cultures living side by side, all factors that undoubtedly contribute to enrich one’s vocabulary and expressive language.
    As social animals we also derive pleasure and enrichment from the meeting with other people, and although cities can be lonely places, the opportunity is always around the corner for the meeting that will change our life.
    Some of these cities offer an environment that, however harsh and difficult, seem to be conducive to creativity for many people, it would be otherwise unexplainable why places like Paris, New York and London have been the cradle for so much creative output over so many years.
    It is true that cities are demanding and often stressful, but this is at the same time a detrimental factor and a fuel for energy and initiative.
    Creativity is part of human nature, but external factors contribute to activate it.
    People whose main preoccupation is to find a way to survive another day are forced to use their creative abilities to that end, not to mention that in most cases they don’t have access to any source of ‘abstract’ inspiration, their creativity in some artistic or intellectual areas is stumped, but is that the only kind of creativity we are talking about? Aren’t many other aspects of human endeavour derived from that same capacity we have for elaborating ideas and solutions?
    Access to culture and a variety of sources of inspiration are vital to fire up an individual’s creativity that could otherwise remain hidden.
    I can only use my personal experience and that of many creative people I know.
    As an Italian and a nature lover I am often asked why I have spent half of my adult life in London rather than on the hills of Tuscany.
    Indeed I have spent just as much time in wild places, remote from cities, immersed in nature without the basic commodities of modern life such as electricity or cars.
    In those circumstances my creativity manifested itself in building a new wall or finding a way to keep the boars off the vegetable garden. I loved it and learned precious lessons from the experience, which proved invaluable even when living in a city. But then, after a year or so, I would come back to London, a place I equally love and hate, but a place where I have always had the best chances to develop ideas, projects, be these in music or film, theatre or visual arts, a place where I have met countless interesting human beings, from all parts of the world and from all walks of life.
    Has London contributed to my creativity? Yes, immensely, as it has with all those I know; not for a chance thousands of foreign artists live here.
    Has London asked me to pay a high price in exchange? Surely, sometime more than I could bear, but, after all, the day I have enough nothing prevents me from going away.
    Although many may feel trapped by whatever place or circumstance they are in, in most cases it is a personal choice and change is possible.
    As long as I am in London I will probably channel my creativity in making music or films, when I will be on top of a mountain it will turn to piling rocks or outsmarting an animal.
    At the end of the day if I think of the most creative achievement in my life that’s my son, and I could have done that anywhere under any circumstance.

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  9. At 12:30 PM on 08 Sep 2006, jason wrote:

    well, each city has sub cultures, and in such cultures, creative types can gang together, and enhance their creativity by bouncing ideas off each other

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  10. At 02:33 PM on 08 Sep 2006, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso,CPUR wrote:

    When I mean that Creativity comes from the Inside, I refer to the fact that people are born with creativity. The environment helps but the individual has to do the initial job.

    Maybe a Classical Symphony was never written in Indonesia but there was Classical Music from Indonesia in the form of the Music that was played before the Kings in Java.

    Hariprasad Chaurasia interpreted Classical Music from India and [with Ravi Sahnkar] brought Indian Music to the Public.

    Norodom Sihanouk [the former King of Cambodia] was able to write music even in the most trying times in his life. He was able to write the Song "Rose of Phnom Penh" which is one of the most beautiful pieces.

    Gonzalo Roig [Cuban Composer] wrote many of his pieces in the early 1910's in Cuba. One of his greatest songs was "Quiereme Mucho" ["Please Love Me"].

    These three people in different time frames and countries had the creativity in the heart and started from there.

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  11. At 02:35 PM on 08 Sep 2006, Prem Chandavarkar wrote:

    If you go by the early writings on urbanism it would appear that cities are good for creativity. See the collection of essays edited by Richard Sennett - "Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities" - particularly the writings of Georg Simmel and Robert Park. Both pick up on the point that cities are the most cosmopolitan form of settlement, particularly cities from the industrial revolution onwards which are based on high levels of labour mobility and occupation patterns that are determined by economic rather than hereditary critieria. This makes it more difficult to force individuals to conform to a pre-determined code of behaviour, which creates new opportunities. Simmel argued that this creates an opportunity for man to turn away from society and turn inwards and introspect. This creates a new breed of monk whose role is to provide the innovative and creative thinking that is then thrown back into the surrounding crowd and becomes the source of social and cultural creativity. Park saw in the city the breeding ground for the avant garde, and went so far as to say that the role of the city is "to foreground the moral range of deviant behaviour".

    In some ways the internment camp also creates a version of Simmel's monk, but due to different causes. If the city creates the conditions through non-conformance, the internment camps does so through enforced and prolonged waiting. There are many examples of this besides the one you mentioned, and two of the most famous come from the extreme circumstances of World War Two concentration camps - Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" and Jakow Trachtenberg's mathematical algorithms for speed calculations.

    While one could agree with Simmel and Park, their observations are contextual to a particular period of urbanism, and one could question whether the same conditions prevail in this era of cyber-connected globalisation. For example Jean Baudrillard identifies a type of person he calls the "schizo", whose psychological disturbance is not caused by distance and alienation (as would commonly be assumed) but by an overwhelming proximity to everything. Unable to distance himself, he has no sheltered space for reflection and is reduced to "pure screen - a switching centre for networks of influence". Or in this era of hyper branding, where brands are put forward as symbols of transcendence, everything gets dragged into the brand-sphere. History cannot exist, nostalgia is re-packaged and re-mixed and sold as retro. Protest music is not possible - a band like Nirvana has their imagery of rebellion branded and they sell millions of albums (the remark has been made that Kurt Cobain would not have killed himself if he had not sold so many records). Or architects such as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid, who at one stage in their careers deliberately positioned themselves as iconoclastic rebels; but are now seen as heroic figures whose services are sought by the mainstream establishment to construct iconic buildings that enable a city or company to globally brand itself.

    So if I respond intuitively to your question on whether cities are good for creativity, I would say that at one time 'definitely yes', but at this point in time I am not at all sure.

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  12. At 02:40 PM on 08 Sep 2006, esther wilson wrote:

    'At the end of the day if I think of the most creative achievement in my life that’s my son, and I could have done that anywhere under any circumstance.'

    Exactly. Why does death/funeral make us feel especially sexual? (it's not just me...I've spken to lots of people about that)

    You cannot divorce yourself from your enviornment. Of course it shapes creative endeavours.

    You only have to listen to Bjork sing to realise that she is coloured by some stark dramatic landscape.

    'In those circumstances my creativity manifested itself in building a new wall or finding a way to keep the boars off the vegetable garden.'

    Some of the most 'inventive' people I know have been forced to think 'creatively' in this city.

    They may not paint beautiful paintings or compose wonderful music but they have to 'survive' on a daily basis on wit, cunning and the ability to work an unfair system which seems pitted against them.

    Unpalatable I know, but true.

    Creativity is often used to 'heal'. Simply because we need to connect to our enviornment. We need to feel part of it and to be able to express our feelings on our relationship to it.

    If we are unable to do so we can become sick in some way.

    'If the soul's creations are so unaffected by the world, why was a Classical symphony never written in Indonesia, or in the middle ages?

    The fact is that creativity is not merely some internal force, but a dialogue with the world...'

    What a great point.

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  13. At 09:24 PM on 08 Sep 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    My answer to "Are cities good for creativity?" would be yes, but also, that it is not dependent on them. They serve more as a source of inspiration and like any source have unique flavours. I also feel that creativity is an emergent function of the brain and that we are all able. I always find it so very sad when I hear "Oh I can't sing" or "I'm useless at painting". In general they are describing only the fear of judgement and not of their capacity.

    Prolonged periods of isolation and introspection have been the choice of many a human throughout history, there is a reason for this.

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  14. At 01:20 AM on 11 Sep 2006, Claudia wrote:

    Inner and Outer Sides

    I could recommend a wonderful book by Elisabeth Grosz, which discusses various theoretical propositions that explore the relation of the inner world of individuals to the outer world (E.Grosz, Volatile Bodies, Indiana University Press 1994). For example psychoanalysis proposes a kind of inside-out process, whereby the inner self projects itself onto an outer environment. By contrast others such as Nietzsche and Foucault understand man as a socio-cultural product, mainly defined by its environment, its power structures and the various unique historical conditions. For me it is difficult to subscribe to either of these positions and I cannot think of the self as a kind of blank page to be written or inscribed.

    In her book Volatile Bodies Elisabeth Grosz makes an exciting proposition herself with the idea of the body as moebius strip. The moebius strip ( ) is an extraordinary shape, which has only one side, so to speak, and one edge, although it looks as if it had two sides! Because of its particular structure it is impossible to distinguish between an inside and outside, a below and above or an inner and outer. The moebius strip is therefore a very interesting alternative model for man, for the interaction between our physical, emotional and mental selves as well as the relation between inner and outer worlds.

    From medical histories we also know that a medically functioning eye does not automatically see the world in 3D but has to ‘learn’ to see. It appears also that we cannot think outside of language and it follows that much of our thinking is highly influenced by the language(s) we learn.

    I would prefer not to assume what is ‘outside’ and what is ‘inside’, what is given or perhaps innate or so called natural. If our seeing and our other perceptions as well as our thinking are so intertwined with the culture(s) we live in how can we make a judgement as to where exactly our creativity comes from?

    We are produced by our environment and our culture as much as we are producers of this culture. If we talk about The City we also have to talk about us who are the city. We ourselves are its complexity, its richness, its density and its alienation. In my view, if an internment camp can be a platform for creativity it means that it is composed of creative individuals and those that allow creativity to flourish. The same is true for cities of various descriptions.

    Western cities clearly favour a rational kind of individual who goes about his/her business in a regular fashion and does not disrupt the regular rhythm of the everyday. However, I agree with Roberto that despite the stresses and the harsh conditions of much city living its diversity is a source and guarantor of creative output.

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  15. At 02:42 AM on 11 Sep 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    I'm a bit further down the road thinking about this now. I see two main questions being asked here. Where does creativity come from? How does an environment impact on creativity? So anyway, after re-reading our comments I went off and considered a child for a while, more specifically learning to speak.

    It occurred to me that without creativity I would never have learnt to speak: Simple repetition will leave me sounding like a Parrot. So this made me think that creativity is functional; our advanced use of it, although necessary, is a side show. Creativity may actually be a property of interpretation and like the Mobius strip mentioned earlier, part of a recurrent structure necessary for stable states. Because I am always learning/experiencing (hopefully) I am also always interpreting and therefore using creativity/interpretation to resolve all the variables, so to speak.

    With this view in mind environment becomes nothing more than a potential source of creativity/interpretation. So environment gives birth to some Human interpretation of it, abstract or not. Anyway; sticking my neck way out, and not certain that I know what I'm talking about, I ended up with some thoughts. Descartes states "I think therefoe I am." Telling me, well... not much really. How about "I am the interpreter."

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  16. At 01:48 PM on 11 Sep 2006, Peter wrote:

    A very welcome post by Claudia. We don't know what is causing what, here. Those who think they can imitate another city's "success" should take note.

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  17. At 04:58 PM on 15 Sep 2006, Roberto wrote:

    Two very pertinent and interesting points are emerging from the messages above (Claudia and Richard): “language” and “interpretation”.
    The language(s) we speak determine in many and deep ways how we interpret the world around us, how we make it three-dimensional.
    While the big city can be alienating and push some over the edge, it is also a place where the variety of input and exchange allows to enrich one’s language, and consequently to increase one’s ability to produce different interpretations with fuller shades of meaning.

    As a child I used to be very concerned with the fact that the reality I was seeing could be different from the reality other people around me would see.

    That was my primitive way of questioning my individual interpretation of what I had around. But, are we all convinced that the world around us has a unique and unquestionable interpretation? Surely fundamentalists, of no matter what description, can be the only ones holding such monolithic belief.

    When we live in big city many argue we are in an unnatural environment, which is true in many ways, but hasn’t this environment also become ‘natural’ by virtue of our making it and living in it?

    The way we interpret the city can be individually different and depend in great measure on where we come from and what language/filter we use to look at it.

    In the eighties I was working for the United Nations in a training centre where people from Africa, Asia and South America were attending a variety of courses. I was running the audiovisual training, working mainly with teachers, lecturers and cultural operators who had to develop non verbal communication and teaching skills to be used back home to improve and expand education.

    The groups were mixed, the official languages we spoke were English, French and Spanish, most of the participants (including myself) were thus working in a language that wasn’t their mother tongue. They were all well educated people, working together and developing the same course work and projects.

    After a few months I began to notice that there were elements that were striking in their recurrence and definitely related to the culture the participants were coming from. These elements were far deeper and more radical than the obvious differences one would expect.
    In their choice of colours, perspective, lay-out, composition, tonality it was immediately evident if the author was from Latin America or the Middle East, from Southern Asia of Central Africa. This irrespective of whether the person was from a rural area of from a big city.
    The filter they would look through had a distinctive colour, the language they used to give their interpretation was as different as the languages they spoke, even when communicating with images and sound. It is an altogether different interpretation of reality that goes a long way in explaining the difficulty of global understanding.

    It seems as if our natural and genetically provided abilities can be shaped dramatically even in areas of perception that we wouldn’t normally consider as “learned”.

    One little episode that told me something useful: as part of one of the UN courses I took a group of students from various countries on a study visit to a number of educational institutions in Northern Italy.

    At the end of the trip, as we had some spare time and were near Venice, I decided to take them to visit the city for the week end.

    After a full day of trekking around and showing them all the sights I noticed a distinctive lack of enthusiasm, so I asked what was wrong and, after some hesitation, the group leader informed me that they couldn’t quite understand why I was wasting so much time showing them so many old things; in their countries, he added with pride, they would have pulled down all these old crumbling buildings to replace them with some nice modern and practical architecture.

    What for me was the New York of the past, the bridge between Europe and the Orient, had been instantly reduced to a pile of stinking, rotting impractical slums, and it served me right. We packed and I took them to Milan.

    There can be a great difference between individual perceptions of a place, and the city magnifies these different views, none of which is an absolute truth.

    I then think of people who use languages that are far more complex than our western ones, think of Japanese children who, by the age of ten, are expected to be able to use around 2000 of the 5000+ ideograms of their language.
    Quite apart from the sheer number, the fact that we are talking about combination of concepts rather than simple combination of graphic representations of sounds, makes me think that some areas of the brain must develop so much more when “exercised” in that way and I often wonder what kind of perception they may have of the same things I see. None of the Japanese people I have met could ever paint a picture of it for me, I will have to learn Japanese to have an idea.

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