Vygotsky on collective creativity & the power of imagination

This post discusses collective creativity, its interconnection with imagination and the potential both of these offer in relation to a pursuit towards empathy and understanding.

These concepts are not new. Maxine Greene, John Dewey and Elliot Eisner have all discussed them extensively. In this post I will focus upon an article written by the late social constructivist Lev Vygotsky titled ‘Imagination and Creativity in Childhood’ [1]. It is the first of four articles he wrote on imagination and creativity – a topic that he is rarely associated with. In the paper Vygotsky discusses the definition, complexity and origins of creativity and what this can teach us about ourselves and others. I have selected the article as it presents many interesting suggestions on creative imagination and offers a reflective viewpoint for how it could be applied to my own research. These concepts are complex with many nuances, debates and tangents that can be built on. My intention is to introduce and define some key concepts that will then be elaborated upon in future posts.

A Definition of Creativity

According to Vygotsky creativity encompasses ‘any human act that gives rise to something new… regardless of whether what is created is a physical object or some mental or emotional construct that lives within the person who created it and is known only to him [2].’ Drawing upon this definition, creativity is present both when major scientific discoveries and famous artworks are made and also ‘whenever a person imagines, combines, alters and creates something new, no matter how small a drop in the bucket this new thing appears compared to the works of geniuses [3].’ He elaborates on this as follows:

‘…imagination is the basis of any creative activity and is equally part of all cultural life, including artistic, scientific , and technical creativity. In this sense all that is the work of the human hand, the whole world of culture, is distinguished from the natural world because it is a product of human imagination and creativity based on imagination [4].’

Imagination is a tool used to construct new combinations that developed into an artwork, invention or scientific discovery. If we have this understanding of creativity, it is can be concluded that creativity is already fully developed in very young children. Creativity and imagination are also interdependent as imagination allows for the ability to recombine elements to produce creative acts. At the same time, the expression of these creative acts, for example a song or artwork or piece of literature, opens the possibility for an individual to imagine alternate realities of other people.

Collective Creativity

Creativity is frequently inaccuratly perceived as a gift of an elite few artists, architects, musicians and designers who individually produce artworks, operas and buildings which all non-creative people merely act as consumers of. Drawing on this notion, it is easy to associate creativity with famous artists and designers such as Georgia O’Keefe, Louise Bourgeois or Zaha Hadid. However this perception is also untrue. Applying Vygotsky’s definition, creativity exists when an individual recombines, transforms or merges preexisting elements, feelings and ideas to create a new expressive combination. This allows it to live deeply in the everyday lives of all people.

Extending upon this definition, collective creativity can be recognised as an understanding that the construction of any major artwork or invention, no matter how small or large, is the result of the shared labor of other people’s work and discoveries throughout history. Vygotsky articulates this as follows:

‘When we consider the phenomenon of collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity that frequently are insignificant in themselves, we readily understand what an enormous percentage of what has been created by humanity is a product of the anonymous collective creative work of unknown inventors [5].’

For example, take Gordon Bennett’s Triptych (1989) pictured below. The artist has drawn on a combination of pre-existing concepts and techniques such as the use of oil in canvas, the image of ‘Truganini’ Tasmania’s last Aborigine, Western art’s tradition of triptych panel painting, imagery of the vast Australian dessert, the inclusion of Renaissance symbols, spatial arrangement, perspectives and grids. Bennett has combined these factors, in addition to more that I have not identified, with his personal experience, feelings and emotions of growing up in Australia with both Indigenous and Scottish/English ancestry. The expression of the complex and unique recombination of these elements has been presented in the form of an oil painting. Whilst the final product may initially appear to have been done in isolation, according to Vygotsky it is actually the result of a collective, cumulative, transformative and interconnected process.

Gordon Bennett (1989). Triptych: Requiem, Of grandeur, Empire. Oil and photography on canvas. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery.

A second example of collective creativity can be seen in the Atelier van Licht, the Dutch children’s art/science creative laboratory. It is evident within both the creative development of the Atelier and in the qualities of space. The Atelier has and continues to be creativity developed by an interdisciplinary team consisting of an education specialist, a physicist, an industrial designer and an artist. It is therefore an excellent example of how individual’s collective creativity can be expanded and enhanced when utilised as part of a collaborative team environment (also see Linda Hill’s awesome TED Talk on collective creativity within corporate environments). Each member of the team brings their unique expertise, experience and creativity to the construction of projects, allowing for diverse and innovative creative ideas to be explored. The environment also draws upon discoveries made in early childhood education, physics (for example the reflection, refraction and absorption of light on different surfaces) as well as the development of similar projects such as Reggio Emilia’s ‘Ray of Light’ and the Exploratorium’s ‘Light Play’. The Atelier simultaneously exists as its own unique construction and site of collaborative knowledge building. Combined, the collective and collaborative nature of creativity within the space raises complex questions around authorship as it is impossible to credit the development and what is produced within the space to a sole individual.

Atelier van Licht at Stedelijk Museum 2013, Amsterdam. Image credit: Atelier van Licht

Creativity: Meaning, Freedom & Imagination

Vygotsky believed that the origin of creative imagination lies in children’s play. Play is not simply an infantile act where experiences are reproduced but a deeply creative one that brings together different experiences to reconstruct, appropriate and transform them to create new realities. A clear distinction is made between reproductive imagination, where an individual reproduces behaviour and ideas from previous experiences and combinatory imagination where an individual reproduces previous experiences in combination with new elements, feelings and thoughts. Both of these definitions of imagination can be linked to Vygotsky’s well-known concepts of scaffolding, social constructivism and the zone of proximal development. I will discuss this further in another post.

Like Dewey, Vygotsky advocated for the belief that a child’s creativity is directly connected to their lived and imagined experience and the feelings and emotions associated with this. Experiencing art contains a strong internal, as opposed to external, truth. This is due to  the connection the arts make with an individual’s internal world of emotions, feelings, concepts and thoughts. It is this internal logic that allow artworks to have an effect on individuals. The principles of personal meaning and freedom are key within this connection. Vygotsky believed that children cannot be forced to partake in creative activities; doing so must arise out of their own interests. Doing so allows for an individual to apply their creativity to a topic that is intrinsically meaningful to their emotions and encourages them to express the complexities of their ideas, feelings and ideas through creative acts.

Creativity is therefore an incredibly complex process dependent upon the diversity and richness of one’s experience. Such experience becomes the fuel that drives fantasy, imagination and therefore creative acts. Thus ‘the richer the experience, the richer the act of imagination’ [6]. We must broaden the experiences provided to children as the more they hear, taste, feel and experience, the more experience they accumulate and the more fuel they have to drive their creative capacity. The greater their creative thinking process, the stronger their ability is to solve unexpected problems in a world that is rapidly changing.

Imagination takes on a crucial role in human development by means of expanding a person’s understanding of the world through the ability to envision what they have not directly experienced themselves and conceptualise an idea or reality from alternative and multiple perspectives. This allows the possibility for an individual to connect and empathise with realities that they never knew existed. Bakhtin termed this realisation ‘heteroglossia’ [7] where a collective group of people become aware of the diversity and value of diverse perspectives in discourse.

Maxine Greene wrote extensively on the topic of social imagination, a term she defined as ‘the capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we live, in our schools’ [8]. In her books The Dialectic of Freedom and Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts and Social Change she explores the possibilities of how encounters with the arts can be used as a vessel for disintegrating misconceptions and judgments between people through imagining unfamiliar feelings and realities of others. Within this, the arts or artists do not necessarily provide solutions to the challenges of multiculturalism. Rather, as Greene articulates, ‘he nudges, he renders us uneasy, he makes us (if we are lucky) see what we would not have seen without him. He moves us to imagine, to look beyond [9].’ An individual’s ability to develop their imaginative capacity requires them to be more than a passive onlooker of art -they need to be willing to critically engage, reflect and imagine with the arts. Such critical engagement is enhanced by social interaction with others where concepts, ideas and beliefs can be explored, expressed and integrated into new collective forms through the creative process. To be continued!


  1. Vygotsky, L (1930/1968). ‘Imagination and Creativity in Childhood.’ Journal of Russian and East European Psychology. 42 (1). pp.7-97
  2. Ibid, p.7
  3. Ibid, p.10-11
  4. Ibid, p.5
  5. Ibid, p.15
  6. Ibid, p.16
  7. Bahkin, M (1981). The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, University of Texas Press.
  8. Greene, M (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts and Social Change, Jossey-Bass. p.5
  9. Greene, M (2000). ‘Imagining futures: The public school and possibility.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32 (2), p. 267-280


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