You know what time it is! As the ancient, mystical saying goes. If not, here’s a little heads up: it’s time to drop the collectivist performance art orgy with your gender-morphing pleasure automatons because I have another blast from the past ready and waiting for your future-based read-through.
This particular letter deals with ‘creativity’, a word with a very special meaning in my present. You see, being creative ranks very highly on the list of prestigious human activity here in 2017. There’s the Creators Project, a medium dedicated to praising the work of, you guessed it, creators. We have various style and design ‘bibles’ like I-D and It’s Nice That churning out whimsical, cutting-edge takes on creativity and youth culture. And then there’s countless art media whose central premise is revering artistry and creative self-expression in its myriad forms.
Artwork via Its Nice That
What these media have in common is their intense preoccupation with the artist as singular genius. Worshipping at the altar of the auteur, they put creativity on pedestals and elevate individuals or limited groups of people to ‘Godlike geniuses’, propping them up with superior takes on the human condition.
Young Thug with added, oversized halo in Dazed & Confused.
In itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. Isn’t making stuff that makes other people feel a lot of other stuff, sometimes even to the point of them being happy, ecstatic or reflective, a worthy pursuit? Drawing attention to this pursuit would seem a wholesome enterprise.
That is, until you consider what kind of world we’re navigating. The context in which these individualist, self-expressive tendencies are revered as the apex of human endeavour. As you’re no doubt keenly aware in 2120, it’s a world that’s straining to keep up with exponential population growth. Where increasingly scarce resources are causing unpredictable conflict and instability. A place filled to the brim with high-risk volatility, leaving little to no room for error, if we’re to turn it all around and create a 2120 in which you, my future-dwelling reader, don’t hate our oblivious, irresponsible guts. Consider this quote from journalist and documentary film maker, Adam Curtis, the director of Century of the Self:
‘We look back at past ages and see how things people deeply believed in at the time were actually a rigid conformity that prevented them from seeing important changes that were happening elsewhere. And I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.
This might be quite a difficult one to get over, but I think this is really important: however radical your message is as an artist, you are doing it through self-expression—the central dominant ideology of modern capitalism. And by doing that, you’re actually far from questioning the monster and pulling the monster down. You’re feeding the monster. Because the more people come to believe that self-expression is the end of everything, is the ultimate goal, the more the modern system of power becomes stronger, not weaker.’
Still from Century of the Self.
While I don’t buy into everything Curtis says or the intermittent, questionable associative leap he sometimes makes, I think he’s very on-point here. Creative self-expression is maintaining the status quo, not subverting it.
For me, the takeaway is this: 2017 is not the time to fuck around with cosy, little, self-expressive experiments that may or may not go somewhere. We have neither the time, nor the resources. Every inconsequential brain fart uttered, is precious energy spent, vital resources squandered, essential opportunity wasted. In the end, it amounts to depletion instead of creation.
In light hereof, I’d like to take a moment to address my contemporaries with a proposition for a new take on contemporary creativity. A take that reintroduces art’s utilitarian dimensions, (which were often castigated and belittled in the the avant-garde manifestos of the 20th century), favoring the common, function-driven essentials over the abstract, singularly expressive. Because I’m not some borderline, loony-toon, proto-fascist with delusions of grandeur, this is intended as non-coercive, encouraging suggestions and not as a domineering manifesto to live by. It’s nothing more, nothing less than common sense. Common being the operative term here.
Marinetti, the Italian Futurist and proto-fascist.
1) I propose that we push music, and all forms of art and design that don’t contribute to the awareness of the problems we face, firmly off its immortalizing pedestal into the categories of industry, trade and craft. Making pretty things, nice sounds or pleasant installations should no longer be considered creative. Following this logic, a musician is no longer creative by default. She/he is a maker of music performing a societal function. While the skill required to perform said function may be impressive and admirable in its own right, it’s no different to carpentry, plumbing, selling insurance or being a lawyer and should, from here on out, be treated accordingly.
Unless, of course, the music, design or art is made in our common best interest. The new creativity contributes directly to the greater good that is the betterment of everything. Whatever form it takes, it plays its part in creating a future that doesn’t suck.
2) All art and culture that’s deliberately elitist or needlessly academic, rendering it incomprehensible to people who didn’t have the money or means to go to university or art school, may be intelligent, thoroughly researched and nuanced, but in the grand scheme of things it’s also highly irrelevant. If it’s doesn’t, in some universally comprehensible way, contribute to instilling the collective agent that might, for example, recalibrate our consumption habits, then the erudite become the unimportant, the smart become the dumb.
On that note, this isn’t about dumbing things down. It’s about hitting a universal communication chord that brings on board everyone with an interest in the planet not being a worst case scenario hellhole in 30 years. Preaching to the choir is easy. Proselytizing for your convictions is where the real challenge lies.
3) In the Anthropocene, advertising made with the purpose of marketing inessential products should never, in any way, be considered creative. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It’s a job and most of us need to make a living in late capitalism. But let’s not pretend that it matters by deeming it creative. Manipulating the truth isn’t creative. Circumventing reality to get people hooked on sugary products or sneakers isn’t creative. To that end, I propose that all high-profile advertising awards be renamed the World Championships in Spraying Air Freshener on the Rotting Corpse of Excessive Consumption.
4) The fundamental conditions of human existence are changing. Just like Freud and Jung, the Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics changed our core beliefs about our place in the world, bringing about momentous sociocultural shifts in the process, the Anthropocene has thrust a new reality in our unsuspecting faces and one that demands that we change with the change. In the wake of these developments, many of the avant-garde movements of the 20th century are becoming startlingly irrelevant. Who cares about the free, abstract expression and aesthetic innovations of a tiny, opaque elite in our rapidly deteriorating present? The 20th century avant-garde should be considered children of a naïve era whose recklessness and straight-up ignorance played a significant part in landing us where we are. Childhood is a necessary part of growing up. But we need to become adults and face facts, unpleasant as they may be. If we can somehow harness the modernist movements’ forward-thinking spirit for our purposes, that’s great. But it’s high time we curb our retrospective fascination with self-absorbed 20th century artists. Despite their undeniable ability for turning a lovely phrase and giving us flights of the feels. The future is collectivist and inclusive; not centred around the arbitrary whims of one person, movement or ideology.
5) Moral and cultural relativism (not to be confused with postmodernism) is the enemy of true creativity. Respecting other people’s entitlement to their viewpoint is fine. However, if that viewpoint contributes directly to the deterioration of our future, it may be entitled to exist, but it must also me fought at every turn and deemed unacceptable by the means available to us. Our era prompts artists to stand up for what they believe in and state it clearly, unequivocally and unambiguously. Playing around with discursive layers, dichotomies, shades of meaning and narrative trickery is a luxury we can’t afford. No hiding behind complexity; it’s time to man or woman up, and step the fuck up.
From your perspective in 2120, stood as I’m now envisioning you, gazing over the lush, terraformed plains of Mars, 2017 must seem like that episode of the Simpsons where they have ‘Do What You Feel Festival’ in the name of creative self-expression and Springfield starts to unravel because no one really feels like doing what they ought to be doing.
It’s a slightly deranged, comical farce where everyone runs around throwing their hands up, wearing the internet ‘shruggie’ as a badge of hapless, nihilist pride.
Obviously, this needs to change.
What I’m proposing here is a comprehensive dethroning of inessential creativity, and a restructuring and reprioritization of all things creative. A rewriting and rechanneling of creative energy. As it stands, the word ‘creativity’ and the meaning and hierarchy it generates needs a good, old-fashioned slap upside the head.
As one of the more lucid and conscientious manifestos from the 20th century, speaking about detrimental decadence in art, puts it:
‘Art is always nourished, consciously or unconsciously – it’s not important – by the absolute of its age. The Contemporary artist’s soul is, in the majority of cases, empty. The Literature of decadence is a literature with no absolute. But man can take no more than a few steps like that. He cannot march forward without a faith because having no faith means having no goal. And marching without a goal is standing still. The artist who declares himself most exasperatedly skeptical and nihilistic is, generally, the one who most desperately needs a myth.’
– José Carlos Mariátegui
So what constitutes creativity in The Anthropocene? Saying what it isn’t is much easier than pinpointing what it is. The thing is that we live in strange times. The transformative movements of the 20th century, like 60 radicals, the Black Panthers, second-wave feminism and the many varieties of the hippie have liberated and changed for the better the lives of millions if not billions of people. You can’t really argue with that.
Then again, we’re at a point in history where something equally transformative needs to happen. Our problems will not be solved by more emancipation and empowerment of the individual. You could actually argue that it has a counterproductive effect since it causes more individualism in our present self-expressive, hyper-capitalist, global setting. I think we can all agree that what’s needed is some kind of empowerment of the collective imagination. We need to get our teenage kicks to global cohesion un an unprecedented scale, to get our rocks off to holding our leaders accountable, to get lit when the moment arrives where we can all agree on one single thing: this shit’s getting out of hand and we have to rethink everything.
So what kind of language, imagery and rhetoric can make an entire globe populated by extremely varying people rally around a single cause? A cause with so many factors, so much complexity, so many loose ends and relative uncertainty that it’s impossible to sum up in a single catchphrase or sentence?
From my perspective, contemporary culture contains transformative potential. It goes without saying that this potential is in no way fully realized. Holly Herndon has the right idea when she makes an album to ‘shine a light on the cooperative nature of the modern world.’ But as much as I love her, she’s too academic, niche and, well, white about it. The Knife are onto a good thing when they deconstruct the live spectacle and its problematic hierarcy with a show focusing on collectivism and audience participation. But their overly precious theatrics and navel-gazing melodrama, make them unlikely to reach anyone but the cultural elite. Hip hop has always been a universally relatable art form and in certain cases a conscientious, no-bullshit observer of political wrongdoing and cultural oppression. But its inherent, fierce individualism mostly just furthers an every-man-for-himself-attitude that inhibits collectivist thinking. David Lynch’s productions conjures up symbols and archetypes from the collective unconscious that moves and resonates with people of all races, nationalities and ages. But his message is too impenetrable, suggestive and opaque. Rave culture makes people from all walks of life come together in time and space. But without a clearly defined objective, it fizzles out in short-lived ecstasy and transient escape from reality.
Still from Mark Leckey’s ‘Fiorucci Made me Hardcore.’
To be honest, I haven’t a fucking clue where to begin to look for creativity that could inspire lasting transformation. But when I do, I’ll be sure to write the answer in a letter. Maybe it’s a mix of all of the above. Or maybe the answer’s just staring me in the proverbial face: the new wave of nonpartisan, sustainability activists, technology-innovators and designers are the new, true creatives.
Okay, I’ll let you get back to your orgy now. Judging by the way things are going here, you could probably use some hard-earned R&R from the clean-up job.