Learning From Creativity

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Art is not only evaluated on the basis of its use-value, it's also primarily understood in terms of commodities. Is this how it should be? I say no.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #28, October 1996


There are millions of people in their basements, waiting to blow your mind.
— Vernon Reid, guitarist.

It was probably a Friday or Saturday night at the townie bar — The Brass Rail — when it happened. I was out with a group of my friends — Carrie, Steve, Greg, Kevin and Lenora. We were talking about movies, and the subject of Bird came up. Now, I haven't seen the movie, but I know a good argument when I see one — and we had such a good argument that spring night that we're all still talking about it. I'll try and recount it to you here. Bird, as I understand it, is a movie about the life and music of Charlie Parker. Like any Hollywoodization of an artist's life, it takes certain interpretive liberties. Among other things, it suggests that Parker's creative virtuosity is a result of his drug use and his misery. Nothing surprising here.

My friends will all tell a different story, but the argument began when my friend Greg pounded the table and said "that's bullshit." The bullshit Greg was referring to was the connection between Bird's drug use, and his artistic success as a musician. Steve countered that the movie was correct on this score — that you can't separate Bird's creative output from his drug habits, especially since he was so often fucked up in performance. Carrie and Kevin (whose clever anagram has led me forever after to refer to the bar as the "Ass Braille") chimed in along the same lines — that you can't so easily separate life and work. By this time, we'd had a few drinks. Greg was on a fine rant, shouting "that's the WORST message we could be sending out" and Kevin was making fun of him. He turned to me, and said "Jon, back me up here."

The more we got into it, the more the tenor of the debate had shifted. As academics are wont to do, we worked up our little Siskel and Ebert routine into a rousing back and forth of general assertions and impossible propositions. Is creativity related to suffering? Does pain produce great art? Does art primarily serve a therapeutic or cathartic purpose for a select few? Most of the table said yes. In fact, most of the United States and Western Europe would say yes. Greg and I said no, and you can file this essay as a minority opinion on the matter....

"All Non Sleeping Time is Work Time"
— Dallas Smythe

What's wrong with the picture that Bird paints? The problem with the image of the suffering artist is really in both halves of the phrase — "suffering" and "artist" are both loaded concepts. We're all familiar with the idea that an artist creates to work through some kind of suffering. But we have to understand where this idea fits into larger notions about the meaning and function of creative work in general.

The "Western model" of art basically operates on a model of tension and resolution. Standard models of narrative work this way, as does the shot structure found in classical Hollywood cinema or the melodic structure of symphonic music — to name just a few examples. This tension and resolution is usually embodied in a person as well as the form — our artist's got to have some tension to resolve in the art. In this way, creativity becomes a form of catharsis — where creative work gives its producers and consumers the chance to "work through" pain or suffering. For example, the disaffected rocker's art is supposed to have some kind of cathartic relationship with his life (and I use the male pronoun deliberately). You lead a shitty life, you nurse a few addictions, have some abusive relationships, and then you write some songs about how fucked up you are and it all works out. Or you're Kurt Cobain and it doesn't, but millions identify with you anyway. So the artist suffers for his art (and I'm still using the male pronoun deliberately). This makes art cathartic, and catharsis — in all its many connotations — is a popular way of looking at creativity whether you're Greil Marcus or Stuart Hall. As audience members, we're supposed to use narratives, pictures, fictions, musics, actions, whatever, to help us make sense of the world. As a creators we make great art because of deficiencies elsewhere in our lives. Everyone's supposed to pay a price for genius.

Now, if that isn't enough, then there's the other half of the equation: the "artist." Creativity under capitalism is a thing, and it's a thing that lives inside of you. People are poets, artists, writers, musicians, dancers, cinematographers, whatever. They have labels. Creativity comes in "gifts" — look at elementary school curricula: there are programs for the "gifted and talented." A talent, a craft, a skill, formal training, a style, a dossier, a widely acclaimed oeuvre — these are things you have. Creativity is something you have. Or you don't. How many people say they can't sing, can't draw, can't dance? And so, from the mundane realities of everyday speech habits all the way up to institutional structures of expression in our mass society, we find this division of creative labor: you have people who are fit to produce creative things because they have creative qualities within themselves, and you have many more people who consume creative things because they see themselves as not having these creative qualities inhering in themselves. This is also a question of values: what activities are supposed to demonstrate the creative qualities inherent in a person? What productive activities aren't valued as creative? In short, the circuit of creativity looks an awful lot like the circuit of capital, the circuit of commodities, the circuit of goods and services. From the ever growing division of labor we get a Taylorism of the productive spirit: the figure of the artist becomes a particular kind of trained commodity producer. And like most such trained producer positions, the ideal type is male. That's not to say that there aren't famous and talented women in the arts; but it is to say that women have had to fight to get accepted into the stereotype even as they've had to struggle with it.

When considered in this way, the ideal of the suffering artist leads to two other conclusions. First, not only does this model assume that creativity is a thing that lives inside of you, but that its ideal expression is functional — it's got to have a use beyond itself in order to be good. The cathartic model demands that art fit some kind of need: why did the artist produce this painting? Will this book make us enough money? What are the politics of this film? Second, the division of creative labor is not only among people but within people as well. Everyone's creative capacity gets chopped up into little bits of use-time: lives are divided between creative and not creative, productive and not productive. And so you've got the kind of "everyday life" that Henri Lefebvre talks about, where people's productive capacities are consumed in the workplace, and once they leave work they switch to a mode of consumption, rejuvenation and catharsis, so that they can get back to work the next morning.

But we can go further with this political economy of creativity. Art is not only evaluated on the basis of its use-value, it's also primarily understood in terms of commodities. We listen to Charlie Parker on the CD (which is itself an entirely different kind of product), we look at that painting, we read the review before we go to the movie, we borrow the book to see if we want to buy it (well, I do anyway). Is it good? Is it popular? What does it mean? Does it empower or disempower people? A great deal of Bad Subjects' writing on culture approaches it more or less from this angle — we look at the thing and derive a social analysis from it. And our analysis depends on the kind of work we think the art is doing: what we suppose its use-value to be.

Is this how it should be? I say no. Creativity isn't a thing, it's a practice, and you've got to practice to be good at your practice. The best model of art is not one that takes it as a commodity for use and exchange, where there's a division between process and product, but rather as an activity, a way of relating to yourself and others, a kind of doing — a "technology of the self," to use Michel Foucault's lofty term. And I know I'm not alone in believing this.

A major exception to my claim here about Bad Subjects' approach to creativity would be those writers who've focused on their own creative work as artists. In fact, many of the artists have struggled with the label artist — as when Ted Byfield and Kim Nicolini both reject the term for themselves. But the artists really struggle with this move — what to call that activity which they do. In addition to backing Greg up, I want to back them up too. But I think art is probably the wrong term — it's already too general, and yet too specific. Let's try "creativity" as the general term, and music as the governing metaphor. One of my present teachers always says that the only way you can understand music is to play it. So I'm hoping that by showing you what I learned from playing music, I can show you what I mean about creativity.

Beyond the Rock and Roll Fantasy

Let's get the basics out of the way right now. I don't suffer. I'm not an artist. I was a middle-class Jewish kid from the suburbs. My instrument is the bass guitar, I've been playing bass of one sort or another since I was 10, and by now I'm pretty damn good at it. That said, I'm basically uncoordinated. Any eye-hand-ear coordination I've developed was earned after a great deal of practice, and I still can't do any of those dances that require you to do anything at any particular time. I can jump around on the dance-floor, but that's about it. I also have no inborn skill for singing, although when I was doing it every day I could carry a tune pretty well. There are no musicians in my family to speak of. A few long deceased great aunts tried their hands at the piano in the Victorian age, but none pursued it for very long. I have no inborn musical skill. There is no musical gene. I have no musical gift. I'm just a guy who fell in love with music and learned to play it.

My playing music has always been a labor of love. The pleasure comes from the physical experience of playing — the sounds entering my ears, the volume cutting through my body, the kinesthetics of unified motion among a group of players. While visual artists are always trying to get beyond the product to the process, music is different. The musical process is what you're always after, whether you've got a theory of musical aesthetics or not. Even musical products like recordings are themselves only musical insofar as they are processural — as they fill up acoustic space and vary over time. Take the sonic aspect of music — it's all about process: different sounds from different instruments come together to create overtones and buzzes; grooves, pulses and counterpoints come together from the coincidence of acoustic events. It's a series of events in time and space.

But music is best understood as a kinesthetic process. No doubt there's a lot of mentality to musical experience (including the very distinction between what is and isn't music), but the disposition of your body is part of the very substance of music. Even the Western concert tradition, which encourages listening as a kind of intellectual exercise, operates on a perversely negative relation to the body — you must sit still and shut up and listen.

To use gross economic language, music isn't so much a product as a service. Musicians serve their audiences. As a musician, I also get the pleasure of serving myself. The problem is that we tend to treat music like we tend to treat art: as a thing. What happens when you do that? This is where the story of my rock and roll fantasy comes in.

Sometime, about 30 seconds after my fourteen year old self picked up a bass guitar for the first time, I started having those rock and roll fantasies. Other musicians reading this probably know what I'm talking about — it's hard to explain the feeling. It's an intense desire for fame and more importantly artistic acclaim — the idea that your music can have a real effect on people. It's the desire to one day "make it" as a musician — not to just make money off the music but to really be somebody because of the music you play. As a leftist, this got tied in with "getting my message out" to the people as well, although I've since learned that there's no such thing as a musical message. More on that in a moment.

Because of my musical experience, it only took me a couple of years to get pretty good. By 16, I was in my first bands. Bassists were in high demand because everyone wants to be the guitarist or the lead singer or even the drummer, so I had no trouble finding work. It was your typical teenage boy rock and roll scene. It was tons of fun — a whole lot more fun than school — and I got to be a "musician" as well, which meant that I could get away with all sorts of things that my peers couldn't. Of course, in high school, this imaginary life I was leading was either confined to the realm of fantasy, or lived out within the limited confines of my social world. High School is like this hermetically sealed society where you can get famous right in your own backyard. My friends and I had a penchant for dressing up in funny costumes and playing shows with psychedelic effects around us. We also drew exceptionally well because we played music by bands that people liked. I was fully identified in my own mind and in the minds of my peers as a musician. You can imagine the yearbook signatures.

Everything changed in college. First off, there was the music thing. I was a creative person — a musician, remember? So I had an obligation to start a band that was entirely original. We'd have our own sound, our own style, and of course write all our own songs. This came together pretty quickly. I hooked up with my good friend Tom — a guitarist — and his friend Craig, a drummer. Pretty soon we had a whole bunch of songs and were on our way, or so we thought. We figured we had talent, our music was good, our style original, so we'd be famous in no time. Ha Ha.

What you get with this kind of thinking is indie rock aesthetics, which is basically good old fashioned American entrepeneurialism. We formed a band, we created a bunch of music, and then we hawked our wares, by trying to develop a following, by making sure we got seen by the right people and reviewed in the right papers. At the price of a couple thousand dollars, we made a couple of tapes so that people could hear us, and so that we could get gigs at the right places. We were going to do it ourselves. Think about it. This sounds like good old small scale capitalism. Or at least a Horatio Alger novel: we had "luck, pluck and courage" alright. Or at least pluck and courage.

You can more or less guess the rest of the story. You never heard of my band, and if you've heard of me, it's not as a musician. But what's interesting for me looking back is that so much of the business end of music got in the way of my enjoyment of it as a musician. There was all this other crap to worry about, like trying to gauge the appeal of various songs with our audiences, or whether we'd get another gig at the particular place we were playing, or buttering up bands that could help us out. In the music business, music always loses to business. The politics of the band — whether about when and where to play, or the nature of the "creative product" we were producing, caused some friction from time to time. And the whole business side of things made it less fun and more stressful. More like work.

This is one problem with the professionalization of art. Artists mistake themselves for professionals or entrepreneurs, and what could be an activity that is simply rewarding in itself becomes alienated labor — something for exchange or prestige or both.

To give the story a happy ending, even though my musical career wasn't going anywhere, my academic career was. So I went to graduate school in a different town and started a new band. I'm holed up with two other academics in another 3-piece group, and eagerly awaiting the return of my guitarist from the eastern hemisphere so that we can begin playing again. But there are all sorts of differences. We play for fun — because we want to — because the mere act of playing brings us pleasure. Performing is much the same thing — we get up, play for our friends and a few people who wander in off the street. Music has no economic significance for me anymore, and I love it all the more for it. I look fondly back on practices and performances from my previous bands, but I also feel a lot freer in relation to the music because I've stopped thinking about it in terms of its exchange value.

So over the course of my musical experience, as I learned to be a creative musician, I also had to unlearn all the baggage that comes with playing music in our culture. I have fond memories of my past band experiences, but now I'm trying to just enjoy playing, without falling into any entrepreneurial traps. It's not about "selling out" or about compromising your artistic integrity: it's about letting go of the very terms of that debate.

Now, it's certain that you could argue that my musical practice is bound up with capitalism in all sorts of nasty ways — after all, I may be a producer of music, but I'm a consumer of equipment, most of which is made by cheap labor in poor countries. That's all true, and that's why we need to fight capitalism as well as make music. But we should still make music.

Beyond Catharsis/Relearning Creativity

Now we're all familiar with the business about the music business. Musicians always complain about that. But I want to take it a step further. Not only is it bad to treat music as a commodity for exchange and the artist as a specialized producer; it's bad to treat music as an object for use. Why? Well, Joel Schalit said it best:

"Punk discourse about individual autonomy, freedom of thought, self-promotion and individual ownership of the means of production is a direct answer to the New Left's failure to develop a sustained and redemptive critique of capitalism. Punk's proposal to do so on the level of culture — and only culture — is a reflection of our inability to...think that way anymore: we're too jaded. Simply put, punk is not socialism."

Neither is rock and roll or any other kind of music. So to simply treat music — or any form of creative expression — as the ideological arm of a nonexistent left wing movement in the United States is not only counterproductive but also self-deceiving. Sure, there's "content" to be examined, but so what if a song is critical of capitalism? Is that all we can hope for from creative work — that is be subsumed toward some greater end?

The next move critics usually make is to talk about creative expression as catharsis — that it helps us make sense of our worlds and to get through the day. But this always takes for granted capitalist relations of production: some people are specialist musicians (like Nirvana), and the rest of us are listeners. Producers and consumers. The rest of us "produce" in other aspects of our lives, that production is alienated from us, and as a result we need to get ourselves together to get back to work the next day. Ah, everyday life, catharsis: it's high capitalism. The labor force reproduces itself — with a little help from the culture industry. This is not to deny that creativity can have a cathartic function. But we should understand catharsis as a possible side effect of creativity, not as its reason for being.

This is why I think we need to look again at our understandings of production and consumption. Might there be something worthwhile in creative production that isn't meant for economic exchange or political/ideological use? Not so much to fill a gap, not so much as self-realization or actualization, but simply as practice. Creativity is practice for a more desirable kind of living. I mean "practice" in the way a musician practices. By practicing an activity we become better at it, find new ways to carry it out, try out a range of attitudes and dispositions toward it. Creativity shouldn't be our consolation prize for suffering that we must endure. It ought to represent a relation to our productive capacities as human beings that doesn't depend on reducing our lives to the economic activities needed for "survival" and "compensation."

That's one reason why music seems like such a good example. If I can learn to play music, anyone can. And if you forget about virtuosity, anybody can tap out a simple beat, and yell in time with a little practice, or move their body with the music. More to the point, though, music is an activity that exhausts itself in its moment of production — it is repeatable, but it is not, strictly speaking, able to be captured (except in memory) — be measured, to be frozen and set to use. It's an activity, a series of events, and not a thing. Thus, a new take on the cliché that all art aspires to the condition of music: would that all art aim to exist more as an event and less as a thing. Would that all people undertake to be "productive" and "creative" beyond those activities they exchange for sustenance or those they undertake as compensation. All this is said with apologies to professional artists and musicians, but I doubt that any of you would argue that the exchange value of your work is what makes it good.

If this essay has been an argument against treating creativity in a certain way, it is also about thinking creatively about creativity, and integrating creativity into the larger project of social transformation. So I'll conclude with a list of suggestions or demands; take them as you like:

1. Democratize creative time and space. Pollute the distinction between production and consumption. This has to be an active and deliberate process — do not limit your productive capacity to activities designed for sustenance, compensation or exchange unless you absolutely have to in order to survive. We needn't be producers every waking minute — by why put all of our productive capacities up for sale?

2. Democratize creativity among people. Music has been my example throughout — but people should only become musicians if they want to. There are any number of ways to enact the kind of creativity I've discussed here — not just in the activities valued as "artistic" but in crafts as well; in physical activity; in the many and multiple forms of play.

3. Democratize creative activity. Music does not belong to the music industry; it does not belong to the bands we all hear and love. It belongs to those people who do it in their everyday life. It belongs to the musicians in their basements waiting to blow your mind. "Artist" is not a kind of person — it's a way of doing things. Do not cede creativity to a professional class.

4. Treat creativity as events, not things. As audiences, as cultural critics, as producers, we have to learn how to think about creative events and places. We can no longer reduce creative activity to the products of that activity and their purported uses.

5. Know the limits of the politics of creativity and push them. The creativity for which I'm arguing here is not a replacement for political activism and agitation for change, but rather an aspect of the world I'd like to live in — an aspect I think people can start realizing now. Valuing creativity isn't about finding that moment of authenticity in a culture beyond our control. It's about taking the materials around us and reconstructing our world and making our own history. The political potential in music is not in its message, its lyrics, its beats or its sound. It's in the potential relation of self to self and self to others that it can engender. This is not a politics looking for a utopian space, but a kind of positive negativity, a refusal of capitalism when and where we can; a moment of action that annihilates itself in happening; an antiproductive productivity; a groove that "if only that groove could go on a little longer....


For Further Reading:

Charles Keil and Steven Feld, Music Grooves (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Joel Schalit, "Just Say No To Rock and Roll," Bad Subjects #27 (September 1996).

Christopher Small, Music-Society-Education (London: John Calder, 1977).


Acknowledgements: All works of thought are collective, and the sources of this essay come as much from the mouths of others as my own head. Once my version was written down, Carrie Rentschler, Jillian Sandell, Mike Mosher, Peter Ives, Annalee Newitz, and Joel Schalit helped me get it together right.


Jonathan Sterne is a PhD student in Communications Research and Critical and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He is writing a dissertation on the history of sound and the invention of sound media. In his 'free' time, he plays in a band and helps to organize a graduate employee union.

Copyright © 1996 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.

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