“Creative people must be stopped.”
--recently sighted bumper sticker
THANK HEAVENS FOR BUMPER STICKERS. Call them visual pollution, call them corny or trite—a good back-of-the-car sentiment sometimes helps one to know what to think about things. I spotted the above sticker on the back of a green Ford Prism in Saint Paul on a crystalline Wednesday afternoon this summer, and in one quick moment of clarity, it helped me resolve a vexing internal argument. It was an argument that seemed counterintuitive to my art-centered belief system—and one I’d been mulling over for weeks.
“Creative people must be stopped”** is, to be sure, an awfully stringent sentiment, and one completely at odds with received wisdom in our culture today, but then—isn’t it true? Aren’t there really too many people in this country trying to do too many creative things—like the proverbial too many chefs attempting to make too much proverbial soup? Isn’t it the case that with all these creatives roaming around we simply don’t have enough people left over to ingest all the creative soup?
These thoughts had come into my head a few weeks before, because I found myself hating the sentiment of a song on the new album by Wilco, a band whose music I usually enjoy. Called “What Light,” the new song extols the listener to, if they feel compelled to, go ahead and paint a picture or sing a song, and “don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.” Such people, apparently, should simply sing what they “feel” and paint what they “see,” whether or not it’s any good at all or if anyone cares to see it. And if, as is inevitable when given so much creative freedom, these creators become “strung out like a kite” or kept “awake in the night,” then that’s okay too. For you see, apparently, there’s a light, “a white light,” inside each of us that makes all this creativity-related discontent and unhappiness inevitable.
I had also been wondering for a good span of months why I, a former practicing artist, a twenty-plus-year devotee of the arts, and an active arts writer, had become increasingly wary of interacting with artists. This was especially true of younger artists, who seemed particularly intent on seeking me out to convince me to write about their creative efforts. When I was unable to or when I wrote things they didn’t like, often they became angry.
My earliest memory of being annoyed by this occurred some time in the spring of 2003. I was visiting the Soo Visual Art Center to check out, as part of my regular freelance writing beat for City Pages, an exhibition for potential review. The show was nice enough, if I recall correctly, but not so compelling that it warranted my going to bat for it with the paper’s arts editor.
On my way out of the gallery, I chanced to visit the gift shop to examine the racks of various small art works, art editions, and sundry trinkets that were meant to supplement the space’s relatively modest income. After a few minutes of mindless browsing, I was approached by two people, each with the floppy hair, unfortunate clothes, and flushed cheeks of young artists on the make. They pointed out with proud smiles that I was holding one of their works.
“You’re artists, eh?” I said. They explained they had just moved to Minnesota to seek their fortunes after finishing college art degrees in Wisconsin. This was a story I’d heard many times before. Every year, as happens in many American cities, Minneapolis draws dozens and dozens of young artists from surrounding states—Iowa, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas, sometimes Nebraska—each hoping to make a creative mark on the largest cultural market within a 400-mile radius. Over the past ten years, several such hopefuls—like Jay Heikes, who came originally from New Jersey by way of the University of Michigan and who leveraged his 2001 arrival in Minneapolis to attract the interest of Walker Art Center curator Philippe Vergne (who included Heikes in the 2006 Whitney Biennial)—have actually achieved the success they aimed for. But Heikes was an exception to the rule.
But I get ahead of the story. The two young artists in Soo VAC assured me they had a plan for their success, which they ran through with great deliberation, as though their ardor would make the plan work. I can’t recall the details now, but I do remember two aspects. First, they said, they planned to sell small, inexpensive art multiples, like the one that I was holding—which I can’t for the life of me even begin to picture today—all over the Twin Cities and region. They were sure they could make enough money doing this to support their more ambitious work, even though every working artist in the Twin Cities—to a person—complained about the lack of a significant local buying audience for art of any kind, even for small multiples. (Local artists eventually learned that to survive you had to land a dealer in New York; only then would the locals—at the Walker and elsewhere—begin to notice you.) Additionally, the two young artists were excited about a show they had scheduled recently at a new underground-y gallery that had popped up in the tangle of old warehouses and light-industry spaces in the region just north of downtown called Northeast Minneapolis. “The only drawback,” explained one of them, a shadow coming across his otherwise beatific face, “is the gallery owner is going to charge us $800 for the show. It’s a great opportunity and I suppose it’s worth it, but man, I wonder where we’re going to find $800.”
I was getting impatient to leave, but I couldn’t until they had elicited a promise from me that I would write about their work. What I wrote instead was an expose about how galleries were exploiting young and naïve artists.
FAST-FORWARD THREE-PLUS YEARS, and I am now somewhat tired of dealing with the endless string of young artists who are dying to share their latest artwork—like I’m the refrigerator door of their adult years and they are seeking parent-like pats on the head for their work. It’s become enough of a hassle for me not only to drastically curtail the amount of arts writing I do and to take a much lower profile in the community, but to take silent umbrage at all the hidden and not-so-hidden messages this culture gives, particularly to young people, to get up and start creating.
Just create, says the world. Go ahead and line up for American Idol or America’s Got Talent or whatever. You can do it! And while you’re at it, why not fill the web with your poetry, videos, art, musings, and every little snippet of creative detritus you can muster. And don’t let anyone say it’s wrong!
Never mind that no one really has a “light” hidden deep inside that makes them able to paint or sing or whatever. You could argue that most people, genetically speaking, do not possess the recessive traits that make creative talent likely. You could also argue that few people also have the perseverance to endure long hours of training, preparation, and hard work that make true art work possible.
Such hard realities aren’t in keeping with the times—when Nike exhorts us to “Just Do It” and Xerox screams “Express Yourself”; when students receive ribbons just for participating in the art exhibition, regardless of the quality of their product; when the very notion of “creativity” has spawned an entire industry of books (140,587 titles on Amazon.com last time I checked), countless magazine articles, and websites, such as www.creativity-portal.com, which among its many features and articles has links to fifteen expert “creativity coaches” who promise to help you “find inspiration” and “unlock your creative talents”; when people flood the internet with self-promoting blogs like www.agirlwhocreates.com by a children’s book illustrator who describes herself thusly: “Holli's artistic talent and creativity has been evident from a very early age. Although she excelled in many areas of school, art projects were always her favorite. In third grade, Holli's art teacher presented her with a big green pencil case (which she still has today) for having the best drawing in the class,” or like http://www.onesongeveryday.com, maintained by a guy who wrote, for whatever reason, one toss-off song a day for an entire year; when social scientist Richard Florida starts an entire cottage industry by inventing a new social classification, the “creative class,” and a new job designation, the “creative industries,” that impossibly includes about a third of the current work force; when “thinking outside the box” and “thinking laterally” and “pushing the envelope” become such commonly repeated sentiments that they are almost universally accepted as useful ways to approach almost every problem; and when a new organization called CASK (Creative Art Space for Kids) has as its philosophy that we are all born creative and this needs to be fostered because “when a child creates a work of art, they are not just drawing a picture, they are creating aspects of self-importance (!) [and] individuality (!).” (Exclamation points mine.)
An otherwise prestigious school—Skidmore College in upstate New York—decided a few years ago that creativity is such an important “skill” that, after a multimillion-dollar rebranding effort, it changed its school motto to “Creative Thought Matters.” According to the school’s marketing material, Skidmore people “believe that every life, every career and every endeavor is more profound with creativity at its core.” It explains that the college seeks out faculty and staff who are dedicated to “showing students how their own lives and successes will be shaped by their ability to think, communicate and solve problems creatively.” And, apparently, a science professor at the school described the role of creativity in his work as a “sense of exhilaration—like when you’re hiking and you go off the trail, and you realize that you might be standing on ground that no one has ever stood on before.” (I’d argue that that’s probably a recipe for getting lost and perhaps catching a little hypothermia, but then what do I know about trails anyway?)
Over and over, today’s culture not only reinforces that everyone is creative, but also that we have to be creative in order to be fully realized and fulfilled beings. We are told we need to have creative work, and that our creativity is the key to innovation at our work. This is true even as the number of cubicle-bound paper-pushing jobs ever seems to multiply, and as fewer and fewer jobs really require much creativity. We are told, and have bought the notion, that creativity is now the solution to every problem, and that without creativity we are destined for failure. And having bought into how essential is creativity, we end up constantly seeking validation—from the culture at large or from anyone who will give it—for what we want to hear: that we are creative, essential, important people who are valid and crucial to the working of modern civilization.
What is the result of all this bluster about “creativity”? Well, inevitably, lacking validation for its creativity the creative “class” grows ever more despondent in their lives and disgruntled in their jobs. Statistics show that job tenure has declined over the years, and according to a recent CNNMoney.com poll, 49 percent of workers expected to change jobs in the next year. Meanwhile, rates of depression among the population have increased in recent years. Whereas only 1-2% of the population in 1915 had major depressive episodes in their lifetimes, 15-20% do today, and the number of people being treated for depression increased sharply particularly between 1987 and 1997 (more than tripling from 1.8 million people to 6.3 million). Young workers are rapidly becoming known above all else not for their “creativity,” but for their tendency to become unsettled and to grouse to any and all about being underappreciated for their boundless creative skills.
I know there will be some—perhaps many—out there who will judge me harshly for pointing out such things, deeming me “bitter” or a “jerk” or “asshole” for my willingness to harp on something so seemingly harmless as encouraging everyone to become creative. But I would argue that the feel-good sentiment of shouting “just be creative” to every impressionable young person leads us into a very dangerous dead-end—in which we become a nation of navel-gazing dreamy-eyed so-called creatives who no longer consider it worthwhile to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work to get a job done, or, even worse, who no longer deem it worth their time to bother checking out any of the stuff that anyone else has made.
From my vantage point, the zero-sum creativity spiral has some strangely counterintuitive and dreadfully harmful results. Most worrisome among these is the fact that the constant lip service to creativity leads to the creation of more and more stuff—art and music and writing and the like—that is actually not very creative, uninteresting, of poor quality, and off-putting to any potential audience. This may seem an impossible thing to stem from such a feel-good sentiment—more creativity must mean a better world, right?—but the problem is that more emphasis on creativity means less emphasis on what it is precisely that makes art good. It’s not the simple act of making—of creating something, anything—that makes art. It’s the application of craft, dedicated practice, careful thought, hard work, and artfulness that makes art. Real creative art is a rare and precious thing and this will likely always be so.
Instead, we’ve become so inundated with creativity--in weblogs dedicated to every petty interest and whim, in vanity websites created by people of not much interest, in random belly-gazing podcasts of the braindead, in home-edited YouTube snoozefests, in well-meaning “preprofessional” writing associations, in endless craft groups and quilting associations and art meet-ups, and so on and so on—that actual audiences for honest-to-goodness good art and real creativity and cultural production are driven into hiding. Isn’t it the supreme and telling irony that even as the cultural emphasis on creativity grows, the actual audience for art is shrinking in real numbers?
People are running away from real art, likely because they now believe that creative people are unable to make anything worth looking at or listening to.
“Creative people must be stopped,” indeed.
** As near as I can determine, the “Creative people must be stopped” sentiment stems originally from a 1998 album of the same name by the Texas alt-rock band Baboon.
Tune in next week for Fallon on competition . . .