Does Seattle understand how to nurture its own creativity?

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

"Hammering Man" at the Seattle Art Museum.

By Knute Berger

Just how creative is Seattle?

We’re known as a city that has a burgeoning “creative class,” defined largely by people in the business research sector who innovate selling spoons and diapers at Amazon by day and hit the clubs by night.

Whether we’re a city brimming with creative artists is another question. You can measure the consumption of the arts to some extent, and our enthusiasm for certain art forms. We fancy ourselves a potential “city of literature” and are seeking the United Nations designation of the same.

On one list of “the most creative cities in America” we’re ranked seventh because we have lots of bookstores, art schools and “the fifth most Facebook Likes for arts and music.” Facebook likes? Does this include cat videos?

Forbes magazine ranks us at No. 8 based on such metrics as measuring the number of local artists and projects engaged with sites like Kickstarter, Bandcamp and ReverbNation.

Whether these indicators form an actual picture of the state of creativity here or are something more akin to a data selfie with little actual merit other than servicing the ego is open to debate. Presumably, time will tell. I returned from a recent trip to Milan where creativity is defined by things like the design and fashion industries and paintings like Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper  —a painting people will wait hours for in order to spend 15 minutes with it. And it’s worth it.

These seem like more substantive metrics than Indiegogo.

Seattle has been the scene of occasional artistic eruptions of national and international consequence. and I’m speaking of art here, as opposed to business or technological innovation. The Northwest Mystic artists of the 1940s and ’50s, the Northwest poets of the 1950s and ‘60s, rock music, especially grunge, of the ‘80s and ’90s come to mind. Hugh impact, well recognized, groundbreaking, influential. Seattle, before Amazon, before the “creative class,” before high-tech and the “innovation economy” was plenty creative. In fact, our most memorable contributions occurred largely outside of moneyed arenas, and often in defiance of commercialism. Remember the DIY movement?

Today creativity is often tied to audiences, technology and those who believe that a non-conformist lifestyle is enough to lift Seattle’s collective creative cred, and our egos along with it.

If necessity is the mother of invention, the current prosperity should be inspirational to artists in the sense of generating significant adversity. Seattle’s affordability crisis is actively shoving artists to the Seattle margins; rising costs have hurt major cultural institutions. Studio and rehearsal space is vanishing.

But real creativity, while cultivatable, seems less a product of patronage or adversity than of a kind of unstoppable force.

Crosscut archive image.Milan, again, offers an example in the form of Leonardo. A current exhibition there on the occasion of the world’s fair, Expo 2015, covers the wide sweep of da Vinci’s creative potency. It examines the context and impact of his influence, ranging from paintings and drawing to his studies of nature, to sculpture and inventions. Leonardo’s range is stunning. He not only made great art but he helped reshape the city with his design of canals, locks, pile drivers, siege engines, sawmills, water wheels, and reconceiving the city’s urban fabric.

He came to symbolize creativity itself — enough that one of his notebooks, the Codex Leicester, sold to Bill Gates for $30.8 million in the mid-1990s. Asked why he bought it, Fast Company magazine reported, Gates said, "It's an inspiration that one person — off on their own, with no feedback, without being told what was right or wrong — that he kept pushing himself, that he found knowledge itself to be the most beautiful thing."

While the exhibit is a tribute to Leonardo’s genius, it also runs somewhat counter to Gates’ riff. The show

Crosscut archive image.
The exhibition in Milan portrays da Vinci as an active collaborator. Credit: Knute Berger

includes the work of those who inspired Leonardo. It reminds that the genius did not work in a vacuum. He was influenced by classical writers, though he could not read Latin. If not for scholars translating ancient works into Italian, he would have been denied much knowledge and inspiration. He was not the only one of his time trying to perfect an understanding of anatomy and the natural world and apply it to art and invention. Others were exploring human flights and sketching self-propelled carts (the 15th century concept car) as da Vinci was.

He wasn’t alone. But Gates is right that he pushed himself and that his voracious love of knowledge set him apart, as did his ability to apply that knowledge in so many areas. Few can measure up, but even so, Leonardo benefitted from being surrounded by a rich environment to draw on. The Renaissance wasn’t a one-man show.

I think a good measurement of Seattle’s creativity is whether or not we have the amenities and institutions — great schools, robust libraries, first-rate museums, preserved and expanding cultural heritage, citywide free high speed Internet, affordable food and shelter — to nourish people along with creative appetites. Seattle has a long way to go on this wish list. But I think it makes a better metric of our creative potential than Facebook likes.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.