By Dr Frederic Kiernan
The Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative (CAWRI) was established in 2019 by a group of senior researchers from seven of the University of Melbourne’s ten faculties to build capacity and foster inter- and cross-disciplinary research collaborations focusing on creativity and wellbeing. CAWRI’s broad agenda has been to rethink the role of creativity in improving wellbeing outcomes for Australians through productive research partnerships with industry and the community, and to rethink the ways these terms, and the links between them, are understood and applied in context.
Because of the range of disciplinary perspectives that CAWRI represents, methodological approaches used in CAWRI’s projects have varied substantially. Projects have examined, for example: the role of theatre in improving education about violence against women; the use of arts practices for the social wellbeing outcomes of older people; the efficacy of boxing and writing workshops in helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse and trauma move towards post-traumatic growth; the importance of creativity in supporting children’s wellbeing while in hospital; the artist’s own wellbeing literacy; and how intergenerational playgrounds can be designed to optimise placemaking and support the wellbeing of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Across the past three years, CAWRI funded 8 seed projects in 2019 and another 7 in 2020, and has also just announced a new round of projects, drawing together the work of earlier years under a more specific list of themes. These projects are led by University of Melbourne academic staff affiliated with CAWRI, most of them in partnership with external organisations. These connections have led to successes in further external grant funding including the Australian Research Council and Engage Victoria (Department of Families, Fairness and Housing) among others.
It is imperative to CAWRI’s success that its key terms are not taken for granted, and the way artistic practice fits into and sits alongside other methodologies in CAWRI’s research program warrants careful consideration. Creativity has often been defined as the production of relevant and effective novelty (Cropley, 2011), but this is partly because of the dominance of psychological and philosophical approaches in the field of creativity studies, which have tended to view creativity as a special kind of action distinct from routine or habitual action. More recently, however, sociologists have argued that creativity and routine/habit need not be seen as contradictory (Dalton, 2004). Indeed, routines and habits can actually provide a foundation for creative work, meaning that the ruptures and breakthroughs often associated with scientific creativity are sometimes less important (or less creative) than the establishment of a stable practice, gradually refined and perfected over time, by which incremental gains can be made on the journey towards new creative work deemed “creative” by specific critical communities. If an artist’s environment is stable enough for routines and habits to form, artistic practices can fall into this sociological category of creativity, which Janet Chan has called “institutionalised cultural practice” (Chan, 2016). When one’s environment is more tumultuous or unstable, creativity can take the form of “institutionalised cultural revolt”, which has three sub-categories: cultural edgework, which involves practices at the boundaries between fields and which renegotiate those boundaries; cultural transcendence, which involves practices that facilitate such deep reflection that we end up with new perspectives, even if we haven’t changed anything; and cultural transformation, where we actually grasp the materials of a field and manipulate them to generate change (Chan, 2016). The sociology of creativity thus gives plenty of room for appreciating the creativity inherent in the routine and habitual aspects of artistic practice, and in the work of simply doing one’s job well.
As Barb Bolt has suggested, the role of the artistic researcher is not to describe their artwork (e.g. sculpture, poem), nor to interpret it, but to recognise and map the ruptures and movements that are the work of art (e.g. the movements in concepts, affective and sensorial experiences, and methodologies), offering perspectives from both within and outside of the practice. The sociology of creativity can help to situate the domain-specific understandings and manifestations of creativity in artistic practices within a longer history of defining and theorising about creativity proper. And, by tracking those affective, sensorial, conceptual and practical shifts that are the work of art, new understandings can be generated of how wellbeing and creativity might be linked through artistic practice. Several of CAWRI’s projects, especially those drawing on dance, theatre, music, writing, printmaking, and other artistic forms, are providing fascinating new insights into this burgeoning field of creativity and wellbeing studies.
Chan, J. (2016). Creativity and Culture: A Sociological Perspective. In The Palgrave Handbook of Creativity and Culture Research (pp. 639–660). Palgrave Macmillan. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/978-1-137-46344-9_31
Cropley, A. (2011). Definitions of Creativity. In M. A. Runco & S. R. Pritzker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Creativity (2nd ed, pp. 358–368). Elsevier. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/unimelb/detail.action?docID=710676
Dalton, B. (2004). Creativity, Habit, and the Social Products of Creative Action: Revising Joas, Incorporating Bourdieu. Sociological Theory, 22(4), 603–622. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0735-2751.2004.00236.x
Frederic Kiernan is an early career Research Fellow at the Creativity and Wellbeing Hallmark Research Initiative at the University of Melbourne. His work examines the relationship between music, creativity, emotion and wellbeing, both presently and in the past. His PhD thesis (2019), titled ‘The Figure of Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) in the History of Emotions’ won the University of Melbourne’s Chancellor’s Prize for Excellence in the PhD Thesis (2020). He recently co-edited a special issue of the International Journal of Wellbeing on the theme of ‘creativity and wellbeing’ with Jane Davidson and Lindsay Oades.