Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Creative Process Vs. Creative Product

January 22, 2017


As I nurture a fragile recovery after a long dry spell, I am becoming mindful of patterns in my creative cycle. This week I had a pivotal insight: capitalist culture, with its emphasis on product over process, has been profoundly undermining my self-expression.

To give a little background, I’ve nailed down my creative cycle to six basic phases.

The Spark

Something I’ve noticed about the world niggles. It niggles for a while. Then it suddenly assembles itself into something that can be communicated to others – a story, a painting, a song, an essay, a performance. It demands to be made so it can be shared.

The Burning Flame

When I experience this epiphany, I begin to assemble whatever form of art the niggle has demanded. With reckless enthusiasm, I throw everything into the project. I am wary of anything that might slow me down. I want to get as far as possible before the final stage of this cycle.

The Market Research

Once I’m well stuck into it, I think about the thingy, whatever it is, all the time. But I can’t necessarily directly work on it every minute of the day. So I surf the net for advice on how to make my thingy as exceptional as possible. Nearly all of this advice is strictly oriented around the concept of selling the thingy when the thingy is done.

The Entrepreneur

I come back to my thingy with a critical perspective. How well does it conform to the standards for the genre or style? I know, for example, that I am writing a Pixar-esque, four quadrant, sci-fi / comedy feature film. That’s an exceptionally marketable type of film. It could be worth more than a year’s salary to me if I succeed. One would think that would be very motivating!

The Second Guess

I contemplate everything I’ve done so far, asking what conflicts with the objective of eventually selling my thingy in the appropriate market. The last script I started died at this moment, twenty pages from the finish line, right after I wrote the climactic scene. It was a dystopian birth control thriller and there’s no market for such a thing.

The Fizzle

Once I am certain I’m working on a marketable thingy and everything about it conforms to the standards for the genre and style, I suddenly lose every scrap of enthusiasm I ever had for doing it in the first place.

I start about twenty projects for every one that I finish. On the up side, the projects I finish tend to be modestly successful. On the down side, I tend not to finish the most innovative projects I come up with because they have no market.

The first feature length script I wrote was so bizarre that the film school instructor who was offering advice on how to move forward with our own projects just handed it back to me. He said “I don’t know what to tell you”. I was the only student who received no advice at all. Not even “This could use a rewrite.”

It’s pretty clear to me now where my projects go off the rails. I don’t know why I never saw it before. As soon as I emerge from my chrysalis of stewing creativity and look at the relationship between my inner and outer world, the outer world squishes my creative impulse like a bug.

Now I understand why.

Capitalist culture ascribes value to human endeavour only when money changes hands.

Nothing undermines my creative process more handily than the spectre of an eventual sale. Whatever my thingy is, my niggled subconscious didn’t demand for it to be made because it wants a TFSA top-up. I started out with something to communicate – something I felt was not being adequately communicated already.

Through the lens of capitalism, a half finished novel, a song that will only ever see the camp fire jam, or a bad painting are not just inconsequential, but embarrassing. The trope of the “struggling artist” is embraced by most of our peers with contempt and condescension. An artist only becomes “respectable” when their work sells, and sells well.

This market-based approach to creativity leaves no room for the niggle – that original impulse of social criticism that forms the bedrock of every artist’s urge to communicate something too complex for a bumper sticker.

Creativity is a process, not a product.

Understanding that capitalist culture is fundamentally flawed in its approach to art, I believe I can undermine my cycle of flame and fizzle.

The trick is to remember that the reason I’m making thingies is that I enjoy it. I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy it so much I would like to do it all day long, every single day. I enjoy it like a two year old enjoys finger painting without a care in the world for how much it might fetch at a showing.

I believe immersing oneself in the creative process is a fundamental human need. The creative process in this sense includes activities not typically considered “art”, like gardening or tinkering with cars. It’s possible that this is only true for some folks and not all, but I personally feel that anyone who denies it is just broken.

From this perspective, it really doesn’t matter what I’m working on as long as I am engaged in the process. It doesn’t matter if I finish it, if it’s any good, or if anybody else will like it. The primary benefit of engaging in the creative process is the uplifting impact it has on my mood. The prospect of making a “marketable product” is not even secondary – it is not on the list of benefits at all. If anything, it’s a hindrance.

Creativity takes practice.

When I taught music, I told my students it only takes five or ten years to become quite good. If they were daunted, I would argue that those years will pass regardless of whether or not they learn an awesome new skill.

I also emphasized the necessity of practice. I told my students they were wasting their money if they wouldn’t practice. There is simply no way to become any good at anything but by practice. On the other hand, when one practices, it’s only a matter of time before one becomes good.

Being good at things is its own reward.

When we are learning a skill like yoga or ballroom dancing, we don’t think in terms of monetary reward. But paint a picture or write a short story, and nobody knows how to take it except by assessing its dollar value and dismissing it as a waste of time.

From this day forward, I will approach the arts as a skill that I must practice because I enjoy it and I would like to become good. I pledge to nourish the niggles that inspire all my thingies, to allow myself the freedom to explore and to fail.

With this new perspective, I no longer need to be ashamed of all my unfinished, bad or bizarre thingies. They are not a waste of time – they are practice.

Every time we practice should be counted as a success, regardless of the outcome. I look forward to approaching my writing desk armed with this perspective, and I hope it may be useful to others.


Sneering at dissidents: spiritual tonic for the modern bourgeoisie

June 11, 2010

As much as I love David McRaney for the challenge his blog poses to many of my misconceptions, one of his archived posts touches on a subject that winds me up.  It seems to be a cherished myth for those who would prefer not to reflect on the social and ecological cost of their lifestyle choices that there is no escape from the relentless onward march of global capitalism.  There is no rebellion one could engage in that impacts the big picture, no message one can communicate that isn’t fraught with hypocrisy and naivete, no behavior one can exhibit unmotivated by raw self-interest.

In McRaney’s (truncated, emphasis-added) words:

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity…

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level

You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.

The subtext here is that the only way people can ever hope to express “authenticity” is by buying a shitload of pointless kitsch purposely designed for the “authentic” demographic.  Therefore, the story goes, we are all trapped.  There is no escape.

But what about simply being authentic?  It’s way cheaper and more effective than buying a T-shirt that says “I’m authentic!”  It requires only that we make a serious effort to determine what has real, immutable value to us and attempt to conform our behavior to whatever revelations unfold.

Adam Smith’s argument that pure self interest is the ultimate human motivator has captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie to such a breathtaking extent that competing philosophies are no longer seriously considered by most Western pundits, politicos and ideologues.  I suspect the idea is beguiling because, in a world where a minute fraction of the population sits on the lion’s share of the wealth, the notion that we can effortlessly advance the greater good simply by looking out for ourselves absolves us of shame.  If we can also embrace the delusion that it is impossible to free ourselves from selfish concerns, we can ignore claims that when “the self” is taken out of the picture, compassion flows as indiscriminately as rain and ethical behavior naturally arises.  We are not moved to contemplate how different our culture might be if it were structured around compassion rather than selfishness as long as we insist “compassion” is merely a deluded form of selfishness, from which there is no escape.

With the dogma of inescapable selfishness firmly entrenched, activists, dissidents and revolutionaries can be dismissed as childish, petulant attention seekers.  Even if some dissidents might have been partly motivated by lofty concerns to begin with, their message is entirely meaningless if it becomes popular or profitable.

Suffice it to say, I do not share this perspective.  I believe it is irresponsible, inaccurate, immature and empirically unsupportable.  While it’s true that the concept of individual self-interest underpins our current understanding of biological evolution, research makes it clear that selfishness is not our only motivator.  As it turns out, we are hard-wired to experience the joy and suffering of others as if it were our own.

As a dissident motivated by the desire to reduce the suffering of others, it seems obvious to me that the primary psychological force behind most forms of dissident behavior is empathy.  Whether for children laboring in unsafe factories, civilian victims of state violence, displaced or destroyed wildlife in a devastated biosphere or any other organism we believe has the capacity to feel pain or distress, we object because we feel it too.  It seems equally clear that the primary psychological force behind capitalism is indeed selfishness, exactly as its proponents would have us believe.  I have no idea how anyone is able to subvert their inherent capacity to feel the suffering of others when it interferes with their own personal gain, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the pure selfishness embraced by the most passionate proponents of capitalism is not a universal and inescapable law.

To return to McRaney’s quote, if Ghandi could overthrow the British empire wearing nothing but a home-spun loincloth, surely there is more that is “built into the human experience” than “competition for status” and we have a great deal of choice in how we behave, regardless of how society is structured.  If the human psyche has a greater range of motives than pure self-interest, surely it makes a difference upon which specific values our society is constructed.  We have learned from our own experience that a society constructed on the principle of selfishness behaves selfishly.  It is not a great leap of imagination to propose that a society constructed on the principle of compassion behaves compassionately.

Happy quit facebook day!

May 31, 2010

Hat tip to Dale at Faith in Honest Doubt for reminding me what a clueless dickhead Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is when it comes to understanding internet privacy concerns.

In his own words:

Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity

No, Mark.  Having two identities for yourself is an example of “having a job”.  Would it be great if nobody had to have a job?  Hell, yeah, sure it would.  But that’s not the world you or I live in.  You and I, Mark, live in a world where a Catholic school educator can be fired from her job for ticking “no” on a Facebook poll asking whether or not she believes in God.  Those of us who are not 20-something dot com billionaires spend our time working (or looking for work).  In this world, the more intelligent and interesting you are the more likely it is that keeping your job entails a truckload of make believe.

You go ahead and invite your grandma over for a slide show of your latest XXX leather party.  Give your business associates a running commentary on your gay wedding plans and let the bank handling your debts know where the best mushroom picking is this year.  Who’s going to fire you?  For my part, I’m going to keep deciding for myself who gets to see what.  Just for shits and giggles, I’m going to call it consideration of the differing sensibilities of my friends, business associates and family rather than a “lack of integrity”, but you can call it whatever you like.

Today I changed my privacy settings to ensure that my personal information is no longer spewing all over the shop like blood from a severed kung fu flick limb thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s thoughtless idealism.  Having a good look at exactly what was being shared without my consent was an eye-opener, to say the least.  For Facebook users, today’s top priority should be to opt out of sharing personal information with applications your friends sign up for.  Sharing my personal information with random third parties attached to my friends turned out to be the default setting, believe it or not.  In light of that bombshell, I went a step further and also deleted all but one of my third party applications (MyBand) out of consideration for the privacy of my friends.

Those who find it tricky to get their head around the “simplified” privacy settings can always just quit facebook like the 25,000 users who claim they’re going to do it today.

What should we do about those darn creationists?

May 19, 2010

The inimitable godless blogger P.Z. Meyers has had a go at theistic evolutionist Karl Giberson for an article where he claims science has not only failed to dislodge creationism, but failed abysmally.  Giberson argues non-creationists need to tell creationists it’s “OK to believe in God”, and then gently persuade them that you can believe in evolution as well.  For his part, Meyers insists that it would be better to root out magical thinking entirely from the whole of human civilization.

I think both arguments are deeply flawed, for the simple reason that cdesign proponentsists don’t give a fiddler’s fart what either of them think.  Whether Meyers and Giberson patronize them with a soothing “there, there” or rail against the folly of their convictions, they’re still going to believe a bunch of nonsense for as long as they wish to belong to whatever community they’ve contracted it from.

Dawkins picked up on this phenomenon in an unbearable interview with Wendy Wright, partly transcribed in the Greatest Show on Earth:

Wendy: What I go back to is the evolutionists are still lacking the science to back it up.  Instead, what happens is, science that doesn’t bolster the case for evolution gets censored out.  Such as, there is no evidence of evolution going from one species going to another species.  If evolution had occurred, then … surely there’d be at least ONE evidence.

Richard: There’s massive amounts of evidence.  I’m sorry, but you people keep repeating that like a kind of mantra because you just listen to each other.

He’s exactly right.  The only reason a creationist would be looking at anything written by the likes of Meyers or Giberson would be to quote mine sentence fragments that might mislead the reader into believing they don’t really believe in evolution, or to find material for later use in a character assassination campaign.  I sympathize with them for their charming fantasy that something they could say or do (if only enough of us climbed aboard the bandwagon) might have an impact on the thinking of people like Wendy Wright.  However, I think it would be better for us not to wring our hands about how we can best infiltrate the religious mind and rearrange the furniture.

It’s a red herring.  Personal belief in creationism is not the problem.  In the complex, aromatic bouquet of ideologies the religious right brings to the table, the toxic flower is not personal belief in god or creationism, it is the collective rejection of the separation of church and state. I would propose a third option:  instead of wasting our breath debating religionists or debating each other about how best to debate religionists, why don’t we devote our energy to affirming the principle of secular government?

General human wingnuttery is not a real problem.  Or at least, if it is, it is a problem that will never go away, like psoriasis.  The problem is that a certain wing-nuts are organized and lobbying effectively for the fusion of religion and government.  Perhaps normal people feel no need to organize and lobby collectively to prevent such a development because we are, after all, the vast majority (at least north of the border).  Nevertheless, I think we need to make it absolutely crystal clear that blurring  the line between religion and politics in Canada to appease the Conservatives’ religious base will not be tolerated.

In 2003 Steven Harper wrote an article for the Christian Coalition (motto: a vibrant majority, proudly Christian).  In it, he plainly stated that elusive “hidden agenda” so many leftists love to speculate about:

Rebalancing the conservative agenda will require careful political judgment. First, the issues must be chosen carefully. For example, the social conservative issues we choose should not be denominational, but should unite social conservatives of different denominations and even different faiths. It also helps when social conservative concerns overlap those of people with a more libertarian orientation.

Second, we must realize that real gains are inevitably incremental. This, in my experience, is harder for social conservatives than for economic conservatives. The explicitly moral orientation of social conservatives makes it difficult for many to accept the incremental approach. Yet, in democratic politics, any other approach will certainly fail. We should never accept the standard of just being “better than the Liberals” – people who advocate that standard seldom achieve it – but conservatives should be satisfied if the agenda is moving in the right direction, even if slowly.

Third, rebalancing means there will be changes to the composition of the conservative coalition. We may not have all the same people we have had in the past. The new liberal corporatist agenda will appeal to some in the business community. We may lose some old “conservatives,” Red Tories like the David Orchards or the Joe Clarks.

This is not all bad. A more coherent coalition can take strong positions it wouldn’t otherwise be able to take – as the Alliance alone was able to do during the Iraq war. More importantly, a new approach can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family.

Does it look like Steve’s proposing a prolonged and “careful” culture war to you?  It does to me.  Sign me up.

Tony Blair totally looks like…

May 12, 2010
Blair totally looks like...

…Snow White’s wicked stepmother.

For more of this kind of thing, go here.

Vancouver’s ludicrously engorged housing bubble…

April 26, 2010

… is subjected to some rather amusing parody here:

Take the Crack Shack or Mansion challenge!

“We aim to discover what 1 million dollars will buy you in Vancouver, Canada, and whether your Mansion be distinguishable from a crack shack.  Instructions: Select “Crack Shack” or “Million Dollar Mansion” for each option.”

My score: 8 out of 16.  I did better on the the beta version, but they’d left in clues like realty signs in the yard and all the certified crack shacks were either much nicer or much more decrepit than the average Vancouver house.

The “recovery” of Vancouver’s housing market has been reported in the evening news by giddy sounding homeowners who can’t conceal their excitement despite acknowledging that it is now nearly impossible for first time buyers to enter the market.  There’s only so long these folks can get by on selling their houses to each other though – eventually there will be so many empty “mansions” on the market that Vancouver’s housing crisis will resolve itself:  there won’t be enough police around to evacuate all the squatters.

Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell’s government is raising taxes and implementing massive cuts to social housing, education, social assistance and arts and culture to help pay his bill for hosting the Olympics.

My advice to him:  Stop.  Just stop. You are doing everything ass-backwards.  By placing public projects such as social housing at the forefront of the public agenda you can exert a gentle downward pressure on the property market, ameliorate Vancouver’s rampant homelessness (lowering the cost of crime as a direct consequence) and increase your tax base (by increasing our disposable income) in one go.  On top of that, you would be providing a solid foundation for maintaining civic stability when the bubble bursts, as it inevitably will.

By building public policy around your increasingly irrational faith in infinite economic growth you are measurably decreasing the quality of life of the 99% of us who are not multi-millionaires.

Canada stands alone against Indigenous Rights

April 22, 2010

That seems to be the way the wind is blowing.  Originally only New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia voted against the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (while 11 countries abstained).

New Zealand and Australia have now signed the declaration (which is not legally binding), and the Obama administration has promised to undertake a review of their opposition.

So, here we are. All alone. The only country in the world that stands resolutely against rights for indigenous people.

Of particular interest  are the following articles:

Article 8

1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;
(e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.

(Whoops, there goes the Indian Act).

Article 26

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.

3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the indigenous peoples concerned.

Article 28

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair and equitable compensation, for the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or otherwise occupied or used, and which have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent.

2. Unless otherwise freely agreed upon by the peoples concerned, compensation shall take the form of lands, territories and resources equal in quality, size and legal status or of monetary compensation or other appropriate redress.

With Vancouver’s ramshackle old bungalows currently hitting the market for a million bucks a pop while King George’s Royal Proclamation of 1763 renders the entire province of BC basically illegal, I suppose the government is worried about the cost of this particular article.  But why?  After all, the declaration is not legally binding.

According to the Winnipeg Free Press, “the Canadian government said in a speech by the governor general last month that it would take steps to endorse the U.N. declaration “in a manner fully consistent with Canada’s constitution and laws.””

Would that be laws like the Indian Act, which sweeps indigenous people onto government-sanctioned rural ghettos and instructs them exactly how to run their own business? Or laws like the Canadian Constitution, which reaffirms the Royal Proclamation of 1763?  Hmmm… I think I see a problem.

Thanks to Radio New Zealand (via the Aboriginal News Group) for the tip-off.

Just How Clueless Does Stephen Harper Think You Are?

September 27, 2008

If you think you’re “ordinary”, he thinks you’re pretty damn clueless.  So clueless, in fact, that when you get home after a long day’s work and turn on the TV you tune in to live video coverage of social gatherings of film and television writers, producers, actors, technicians and support staff rather than watching the stuff they’ve created – and then get irritated because you find it boring.

“You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”  Stephen Harper

So… um…. what channel is that on Steve?  Sorry, I was busy watching Trailer Park Boys.  I didn’t realize “artists expounding on the grant application process over drinks ” was on.  Damn – I sure hope somebody recorded it!

Wait, might as well turn off that VCR.  I just remembered artists expounding on the grant application process over drinks is a pretty thick slice of my own social pie!

A lot of the full time, successful, tax paying artists I know got their leg-up from a tax-funded arts grant program like Canada Council.  Like my friends Lorenz, Pascal and Olivier.  I’m not sure whether Pascal and Olivier have time for many “rich, taxpayer-funded galas” what with their exhausting international touring schedules, but I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them express their (approving, supportive and uncomplaining) opinions of various grant programs and how to apply, and I know for certain there was liquor involved.  Beer.  Brewed in Quebec.  But I won’t quibble over such small details.

I also know full time artists who got their leg-up via tax-funded arts grant programs like welfare.  I won’t name names, as they will surely be hunted down and pilloried by bureaucrats if they are found to have earned money (albeit far from enough to live on) while chowing at the public trough.  But just between you and me, I’m one of them.

I decided one day I wanted to try writing as if it were a job (5 days a week, all day long) and see if I could finish a novel before my money ran out.  Well, I couldn’t finish a novel before my money ran out, because as soon as I started writing all day, every day, some kind of metaphysical levee seems to have burst and a flood of stories consumed me.  I just had to get them all down.  Before I knew what hit me, I had four novels on the go, not to mention a bunch of short stories, and when my savings ran out they weren’t done!  So I went on welfare (which paid for my rent and, if I was very frugal, enough “spaghetti, garlic and butter” to last through the month) and kept writing for a few more months.  Then my glasses broke, so I had to get a job, since there’s no margin for such things on welfare.  It was write or see.  I had to choose.

After I stopped working in writing and started working in a job which, as any non-creative job does, made me suicidally and catatonically depressed in a manner of months, a painter friend in a similar situation with a much higher tolerance for hardship and discomfort got his work into a top-notch gallery.  Suddenly his paintings were selling for thousands of dollars and flying off the walls.  No more welfare for the painter, tax money flowing to Ottawa. Win-win.

The point of sharing this is to illustrate that welfare, like any tax-funded arts grant program, sometimes produces wealth and sometimes it doesn’t.  But, with welfare, artists are not supposed to work. They can actually get in trouble for it if money changes hands.  They are supposed to be “job-hunting”, but I know from intimate experience that someone who would rather be writing is not a very productive private sector employee, particularly when entrusted with a PC and left to their own devices.  With legitimate arts funding programs, getting artists to do their work is the whole point and there’s no need to be furtive about it.  In fact, there’s every incentive to embrace the opportunity and work harder than they ever have before – mostly because that’s what artists do whenever the opportunity arises, but also to demonstrate they are deserving of the help.

Somebody needs to explain to Stephen Harper that arts funding is not the handout to burgundy-sipping parasites he believes it to be.  It’s venture capital for entrepreneurs.  Seed money.  Plant it wisely and wealth will grow.  Plant no seeds, reap no harvest.  And, like any vital commodity, the culture my country fails to produce will have to be imported.  I know Harper is a big fan of the US, but I’d sit through an episode of Da Vinci’s Inquest before I’d sit through 24 any day.

If I had a TV.  Which I don’t.  Actually, at the moment I’m watching episodes of Heimat (German) on DVD and before that it was Survivors (the 70’s BBC drama, not the American gong show).  But it’s the principle  of the thing!