Against Neoliberal Dogma: Art And Creativity

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One of the worst aspects of living under neoliberal capitalism is to realise how far its underlying thinking has become an important part of our collective life. Social media have vastly amplified the importance of conforming to these ideas.

Personal responsibility is everything. In itself, there is much to be said for exercising a sense of personal responsibility. But personal responsibility without its necessary counterpoint in the form of communal and/or societal support is toxic. In the end, you’re responsible for everything, including, crucially, your failures — which you then have to deal with yourself.

In part as a consequence of all of this, there has been a proliferation of ideas of efficiency. A very cartoonish, yet widely accepted (and commercially very successful) example is provided by Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book is little more than pseudo-scientific neoliberal ideology of the worst kind. But its ideas have become so common that we often don’t realize any longer how ubiquitous they are.

Obviously, I’m not going to suggest to you how to lead your life. If you want to, for example, buy yourself a smartwatch and monitor your habits, that’s fine with me. If you think that you need to use your time more efficiently, go for it. But I run into manifestations of neoliberal thinking regularly when teaching photography, and I thought it might be time to spell out how bad this really is if you want to become a photographer (or even an artist).

Let’s begin with the obvious: creativity cannot actually be quantified. The same is true for productivity. I’m pretty sure that there are people who will disagree. But if you think you can treat your creativity the way Amazon treats the supply chains inside its warehouses, you’re basically going to turn yourself into one of the people working inside such a warehouse. That is a very, very bad idea, which will create a lot of damage to your creativity and mental well being.

In my teaching, one of the biggest challenges students appear to run into is when or how to commit to doing something. More often than not, they have a lot of ideas. Having a lot of ideas isn’t a problem. But what do you do with them? As far as I can tell, there are two big problems.

The first problem is having to make a decision which idea to pursue. Often, students cannot decide what they want to do because too many ideas sound equally interesting: how can you pick one? Well, I can tell you how you pick one: you just do it. In the worst case, you could toss a coin or write ideas on slips of paper and pick one out of a hat (this is only for the ideas that are really interesting).

But isn’t that too flippant an approach to a serious problem? Well, no, because it actually is not a serious problem. If you’re stuck with too many ideas in a creative field, being unable to make a decision, the question is not: which idea is the best? Instead it is: why is it that you’re stuck there in the first place? In all likelihood, it is because you’re looking at the possible outcome more than at the actual idea and the process that might get you there. You’re worried that you will make something bad, so you don’t get started at all.

It is true, if you have two ideas and pick one, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be the best possible. But honestly: who cares? This obsession with only wanting to get the best is neoliberal ideology: only the real winners count. Everybody else is a loser.

The situation of not picking an idea can be found in the fable of Buridan’s ass. Now, you’re the donkey, and you’re starving your own creativity because you won’t get started on anything.

Neoliberal thinking also promotes the idea that everything has to conform to maximum efficiency. Again, how or why would you apply such an approach in a creative field? A priori you don’t even know what you’re going to run into. That is the very essence of being creative: to discover something, to allow oneself to be surprised. Maximum efficiency cuts out surprises (because they might waste time).

In the creative field the real outcome of anything you do is only partly provided by the end result. The process itself — that’s where the actual enjoyment (and frustrations) lie.

Social media make this fact very hard to see, because everybody only talks about outcomes (which obviously are always super successful). The struggles of the process and the inevitable failures remain hidden. Nobody wants to talk about that because in a neoliberal world, your public face depends on being seen as successful.

But creativity feeds on failure and on struggles a lot more than on the eventual success. The reality is that once you have finished a project (whatever it might be), you’re not learning anything from the fact that it’s done. It’s just done. This might feel great — this is not to diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. But the exhilaration and of course frustration of the creative process happen a lot earlier.

The accomplishment isn’t just to have this finished thing (whatever it might be: a book, photo(s), sculpture, …). If you have gone through it, you know that it’s the fact of having seen yourself through this arduous process. The finished things — that’s just the cherry on top.

The creative process also is highly non-linear. You can’t plan it out. You don’t know how it is going to evolve. If you could plan things out, it wouldn’t be creative, would it? (Doing a paint-by-number painting isn’t creative.) Consequently, you cannot think of the creative process as being effective. That makes no sense. There’ll be a large number of dead ends, of things tried that don’t work out, of false starts, etc. That’s a huge part of it.

Following neoliberal thinking, it’s tempting to view false starts and dead ends in the creative process as inefficient: you could have planned things more carefully and spent your time more wisely. But if you follow such an approach that only shows how little you understand what creativity actually means. There is no such thing as wasted time in the creative process. Well, actually, there is: any time spent on not doing something is wasted.

I often hear students tell me that they’re thinking about making a picture. Usually, I ask what prevents them from just making it. Well, they tell me, they’re not sure how to do it or whether it will be successful. One of my (many) old records that then gets played is me saying that the only people who solve problems by thinking about them are philosophers and theorists.

In the creative process, you don’t think about doing something. Instead, you do it, and you see where this leads you. The process itself needs to show you as much as the picture itself. Photography is a visual medium, which means that you have to see it. You can’t just think about it. Again, there is no such thing as wasted time and energy. If you let a picture challenge yourself and guide you to something that works better, then you’re in business.

If there is one thing that you really want to concentrate on it’s your focus: show up regularly, and see things through. Those two aspects are literally the most important parts of the creative process. Everything else — the false starts, the surprises, the failures, the experiments, … Those aspects are essential for your creative process. They keep you on your toes, they keep you exhilarated, and they help you embrace something that is deep inside you on your own terms.

And you actually don’t have to produce and share something all the time. I realise that in the day and age of social media, that’s a strange statement: artists are now thought of as “content creators”. But is that really how you want to see yourself? As some sort of drone who puts out stuff every other day just to feed some machine that mostly does nothing for you (other than making you feel bad)? How is that a good idea?

Don’t allow other people to set your terms for you. Don’t see what you do with a critical neoliberal audience in mind. It’ll be the death of your creativity and artistic process, and it will only serve to make you feel very bad about yourself.