Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

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.