Every creator’s creations are their coping mechanism for life — for the loneliness of being, for the longing for connection, for the dazzling incomprehension of what it all means. What we call art is simply a gesture toward some authentic answer to these open questions, at once universal and intimately felt — questions aimed at the elemental truths of being alive, animated by a craving for beauty, haunted by the need to find a way of bearing our mortality. Without this elemental longing, without this authentic gesture, what is made is not art but something else — the kind of commodified craftsmanship Virginia Woolf indicted when she weighed creativity against catering.
The year he turned fifty, and a year before he gave his irreverent answers to the famous Proust Questionnaire, David Bowie (January 8, 1947–January 10, 2016) contemplated the soul of creativity in a television interview marking the release of his experimental drum’n’bass record Earthling — a radical departure from the musical style that had sprinkled the stardust of his genius upon the collective conscience of a generation, and a testament to Bowie’s unassailable devotion to continual creative growth.
Nested into the interview is his most direct advice to artists and the closest thing he ever formulated to a personal creative credo.
In consonance with E.E. Cummings’s splendid insistence that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Bowie reflects:
Never play to the gallery… Always remember that the reason that you initially started working is that there was something inside yourself that you felt that if you could manifest in some way, you would understand more about yourself and how you coexist with the rest of society. I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations — they generally produce their worst work when they do that.
Echoing Beethoven’s life-tested insight that though the true artist “may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun,” Bowie adds a mighty antidote to the greatest enemy of creative work — complacency:
If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.
Complement with John Lennon on creativity, Nick Cave on the relationship between art and mystery, Paul Klee on how an artist must be like a tree, and Wassily Kandinsky on the three responsibilities of the artist, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s account of the epiphany that revealed to her what the creative life means.