Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
I’m a fan of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and recently enjoyed his latest work, The Dead Don’t Die. It’s the only zombie film I’ve seen in its entirety, so while I appreciated some of the genre references (such as allusions to George Romero’s work), I was more interested in contemporary cultural symbolism. Jarmusch’s zombies, reanimated by a fracking method that throws the earth off its axis, are relentless consumers that crave the things they wanted most while alive: clothes, alcohol, wi-fi, etc. Not so subtle, the message is still well-taken. We already live much of our lives as zombies, directed more by advertising and algorithms than our own free will. A slightly stealthier message is that we had plenty of time to see this disaster coming. Throughout the film, a small town police officer played by Adam Driver repeats the line, “This is going to end badly,” because he has read the script. In other words, those who have read the scientific community’s warnings about climate change since the 1970s knew, unless we changed our ways, the global catastrophe currently unfolding was inevitable.
We have fallen prey to a “free market” system that demands endless expansion and relentlessly turns every object and activity into an economic transaction. Creative types are often urged to maintain “side hustles.” In other words, society values your work so little, you need to work multiple jobs to cover basic living expenses that are increasing at a faster rate than wages. A recent essay by writer Janice Lee describes her own healing process and expresses frustration at a publishing industry that evaluates books, not based on the experience they might offer, but on how easy they are to sell, an approach that limits opportunities for readers and diminishes the self-worth of writers. “How would things be different if we thought of books, not as products or commodities, but as bridges?” she writes. “If instead of possession and ownership and separation, we moved towards intimacy, forgiveness, and emancipation?” Apply this same logic to any creative endeavor. We find ourselves in a society where a few benefit from the sacrifices of many. In 1998’s The X-Files, a movie subtitled Fight the Future and the inspiration for this blog post title, a consortium of individuals direct global events, planning to sacrifice the general population so a privileged handful can thrive. Are the likes of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg that different? (In a recent Between the Covers podcast, the writer Zadie Smith pointed out the hypocrisy of Bezos’ claim that he doesn’t want government in our private lives, while he uses his own company’s technology to position himself in every corner of our lives. And we, by and large, have eagerly cooperated.)
What does all of this have to do with creativity, besides the obvious implications that we tend to only value work based on its profit outcome? Art is a form of choice by both the creator and the viewer. Allowing government or corporations to limit the art available to us puts corresponding limits on our own freedom. This is not just choice of selection, but choice in how we express and explore ideals that reflect who we are as individuals and a society. The 2018 film Never Look Away, inspired by the life of artist Gerhard Richter, depicts an artist’s coming of age in East Germany. The young man yearns to express himself but finds himself constantly pigeon-holed in a country where only socialist realism is tolerated. The artist, like the real-life Richter, ultimately flees to the West where he can develop his unique artistic style. The artist, and the audience, are better for the opportunity.
It goes deeper than that, though. Creativity has the power to inspire a generation, or bring down an empire. We see the importance of creative choice in Ben Macintyre’s book The Spy and the Traitor. In an entirely true story, KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky became embittered toward his homeland after Russia’s crushing of the Prague Spring. But one thing frequently on his mind was the boring marches broadcast incessantly in Russia as compared to the inspiring works of Bach and Mozart he heard during visits to Western countries. Gordievsky began spying for Britain’s MI6. His work played a significant role in ending the Cold War. Another example is punk culture in East Germany in the 1980s, as described in Tim Mohr’s book Burning Down the Haus (which I’ve only begun reading). One East Berlin punk said they confronted “Too Much Future,” as opposed to the fear of “No Future” demonstrated by many British punks. “Your whole life was planned out for you almost from birth…there was no space, literal or philosophical, to live outside the system or even to express criticism of it.” Young people in East Berlin endured Stasi interrogations and physical assaults to defy socialist realism and express their individuality and their anger toward a repressive regime.
These examples seem like a simple East vs. West debate, a question of politics, but that’s not the point. As Mohr reminds us in the Preface to Burning Down the Haus: “In the West, we tend to harbor smug, simplistic views of the old Soviet Bloc and to dismiss out of hand comparisons of our system to authoritarian regimes like the one in East Germany. It’s worth noting, however, that East German police – unlike our own – could not murder people in the street with impunity.” Is it possible that what we believe to be a free society might only be a more gilded cage? A prettier dystopia? The “freedom” of cars and the open road has led to gridlock, soul-crushing commutes, toxic air, and vast sums of money sunk into road projects that never end. The free market has given us a cumbersome healthcare system that is monopolistic in many areas and keeps a majority of us financially enslaved to premiums and copays (if we’re lucky enough to have “insurance” in the first place). Even the many book and movie choices put before us are, more often than not, filtered by corporations that define what we see (including Google and YouTube search algorithms).
In his book The Culture of Make Believe, Derrick Jensen writes about a system of production, where all activities orient around serving a faceless economy regardless of the impact on individual health or, in the inevitable outcome, the viability of the human race. This mindset that connects concepts like power, property, assimilation, and contempt (to borrow some of Jensen’s own subtitles) into an entire culture resulted in European settlers driving native populations out of North America, slavery and indentured servitude in 1800s America, and a long economic supply chain that puts enough distance between child labor and consumers (like myself, who recently purchased a laptop computer no doubt partly assembled by young people) as to render the victims essentially invisible. In his book, Jensen quotes sociologist George Ritzer on why it’s so important for the “free market” to crush creativity:
“I think the key issue here is creativity. The notion you’re operating with – and the notion we typically operate with – is that work should involve creativity. Cooking should involve creativity. Even consumption should involve creativity. But what Ford and Taylor did in the work world, what Ray Kroc did in McDonald’s, and what is broadly done now in the world of consumption, is to limit – if not totally eliminate – creativity. No creativity is required of the person who works on an automobile assembly line. No creativity is required of the person who works behind the counter at McDonald’s. … In fact, people who try to be creative on the job are likely to get fired, because they are, from the point of view of the system, more likely to mess things up. That leads to one of the irrationalities of all this rationality: The system – a nonliving thing, an idea, even – has priority over living beings, over individual workers. The same constraints apply to the consumer. Picture this: You walk into McDonald’s, and say, ‘I’d like a Big Mac, but I want it cooked rare, and I’d like the tomatoes in quarters instead of slices.’ The system will break down. It cannot, will not, accommodate even that level of creativity on the part of the consumer.”
Creativity isn’t just about the works we create, it’s reflected in how we live. It’s essential that we question every assumption. How much of what we do is a result of our own choice, or the choice of a system so vast we can barely find ourselves? We should think carefully before we give our attention to any “opportunity” put before us – whether a display in a clothing store, a Facebook ad, a billboard, a streaming service, or a politician. We can consume less and reuse more. We can seek out our own information and entertainment rather than mindlessly consuming whatever Netflix or another company puts front and center. We can put our phones down to reflect on our surroundings. We can walk more and drive less. And we can incorporate all of this into work that values life over transactions, not just human life, but all life. I’m not talking about corporate-inspired mindfulness designed to make us more productive workers, but genuine contemplation of what we truly value and how we reflect that in our most basic behavior. We can begin by stopping to think rather than constantly feeding the gristmill of hustles and social media. (In a recent Maltin on Movies podcast, director James Gray expressed frustration with people who post Twitter movie reviews even before the end credits have rolled. “Aren’t you going to think about it for a minute?”)
We should expect more from our companies, governments, and NGOs. First, we must expect more from ourselves. The wisest choice, often, will never be offered to us. It’s one we need to find for ourselves. If we don’t #RESIST and fight the future, who will?