Creativity needs freedom

My friend is in his late twenties, works for a multi-national company, and earns a standard five-figure salary—a more than adequate income considering he was single and lived in a share house with five others. 

His day begins as usual: brush, wash, shower, and bus to work. He clocks in at 8 for his 9 o’clock shift and get an overtime bonus. He skips coffee breaks, brings canteen lunch to his desk, and keeps a bottle of water beside him at all times. He has no reason to engage in office chatter, which has made him more efficient than others and mechanical in completing work on time.

“Get a life!” People tell him.

He spends Saturdays in office, sometimes for the overtime bonus and sometimes for the cheap canteen food. He sleeps in on Sundays, saving breakfast expense and surviving on a big brunch.

He’s the office nut case. No one knows what he likes to do for fun or how he spends his money. He doesn’t read, he doesn’t sing, he doesn’t listen to music. Doesn’t paint, doesn’t write, doesn’t…live. According to the world, he had no creative nerve in him. He was a good-for-nothing corporate mushroom who churned out labour in exchange for payment he locked away.

No one knew—

that he was paying off his family’s debt.

He had no time for art and music and poetry. He was too engrossed in getting through each day, subsisting, so that he could sustain long enough to become free.

We don’t always realise it, but creativity is strenuous. It’s hard work and it demands your full attention. To create, you need a clear mind, a soul that’s not crushed by the weight of poverty and responsibility. That’s why every struggling creative needs someone or something to support them so that they can shed their worries, even momentarily, and create. Those who have that assurance—through family, friends, or a support group—end up making magic. But those who don’t, like my friend, may never unleash their creativity.

Goes both ways

I often talk about what it means for me to write. To be able to translate the wrangling mess of confusion bubbling on the surface of my mind, to put it down on paper or screen, bare. To rid myself of that pressure, so intense that it sears my being every time I postpone writing. It’s a privilege to have the freedom and capacity to sit down and ball up all that thoughts into a form that could hit people, make them pause, muse, smile, relate, and even change their minds.

In a way, creating art is such a selfish act. I write because I want to spew out ideas galloping in my head. I expose part of myself when I write, and I do so willingly, deliberately, consciously choosing and trying to achieve the emotion I wish to impart.

In other words, artists often create art to satisfy themselves and their egos.

What of the consumer, though?

Graffiti in Melbourne

Browsing through photographs from Melbourne, I came across one of a graffiti. It was at one of the many infamous graffiti alleyways of the city. And on it was a piece of advice you’d least expect to receive from an overcrowded wall. Free your mind, it said. As if it knew that despite wandering around town ecstatic at the experience of exploring a new city, I was processing angst and fear. Although I was in the moment, taking in the beauty that sprawled around me, inhaling the chemical scent of rebellion splashed across the walls, I still had other things in mind. Some of those were important things but most menial—like where I’d go next or what I’d get for dinner afterwards. And as if it knew the meaningless banter cantering through my head.

It wasn’t new. I’d heard the same words many times in various places. And yet, that work of art spoke to me. Waking me, throwing me off of everything I could’ve hoped for.

That’s what art does to the consumer.

Art, when delivered at the right time to the right person, becomes a conversational medium. The creator doesn’t need to intend to self-satisfy, but instead to share, inform, and educate.

That’s when art transcends personal involvement, transitioning into a commitment to convey something to society. From being what the artist feels, it becomes what they want you to feel.

A note on bad reviews

I recently attended a panel discussion about going and receiving criticism. The panel consisted of writers, reviewers, and art critics. It was an hour-long showering of insightful opinions and ideas that I had to note down and mull over. As I mulled over, an incredible urge to write them down gnawed my brain.

One of the points that a writer of over 30 books, brought up is that in this age of social media, writing as an art has taken a massive turn. People can now share their opinions with the greater world even as they watch a movie, read a book, or wander through an art exhibition.

And that got me thinking.

From being a slow, iterative process like a stewing stump of steak, creating art has now become quicker, like pre-packaged chicken caesar salad, to offer instant gratification for souls so eager to tweet out their amusing reactions to a book as early as five pages in.

Since writers and other artists are aware of the instantaneous effects that the audience’s opinions will have on their work, they tend to take safer strides in their writing. Afraid of being criticised by people who don’t see what they see, artists adjust their art to satisfy the audience that happens to see their work. As a result, art becomes tailored for a specific audience, instead of reflecting the artist’s being.

Bad reviews and harsh criticism isn’t always about the artwork. In most cases, especially in today’s social media-powered world, adverse reactions come from people who didn’t necessarily enjoy the work. This also means that the art hasn’t reached those who would enjoy and appreciate it. When put that way, any review becomes mildly questionable. Sure, this reader hated the book. But there may well be other readers who’d love the book but haven’t read or reviewed it yet.

That’s a good reason not to rely too much on reviews.

Of making art

“Do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”

Kurt Vonnegut

I stumbled on this quote when I was least expecting to. But it made me stop and lean back in my cold, stone chair. It made me look out into the void, thinking, mind wandering, wondering about the undeniable necessity of art.

Remember when art was hobby? Singing, dancing, writing, painting, crafting—all of those were categorised as activities to do during your leisure. Stuff you do to de-stress, to clear the mind after a long day of work. That’s the mentality I grew up around. My family and teachers looked at art and creativity as an add-on to normal life—not life itself.

Kurt challenges that ideology. Creative thinking shouldn’t be allocated or limited to a specific time. Instead of looking at art as an activity for an appropriate time and place, we should think of it as part of our everyday lives.

Art is everywhere. From a puddle in the street and the graffiti on the toilet walls to an activist’s speech and signs on a protest. Everyone has it within them. And we should consciously choose to bring it forth and declare it as part of our personality—our identity.

Except, we don’t.

Think about it: what would people say if you skip home from school one evening? When and where I grew up, people would label me as crazy, undisciplined, and out of control. They’d blame my parents. A child dancing on the street is unruly.

In reality, though, it’s self-expression. Children will be children. And they shouldn’t be penalised for it. Our society has become so adept in suppressing the artistic and creative outlets of our younger generation that we’ve ended up with a group of people who’re too busy to have time for art in their lives. And thus, art is now luxury.

The small Tudor village

Art finds countless ways to make history. When in Melbourne, attending a work conference, I managed to wander into the Fitzroy Gardens. It’s a massive nature haven with a 150+ year history. What’s more, it’s in the heart of the city, making the city far more prone to desirable infection from beautiful greenery, flora, and thousands of chirping birds.

Part of Melbourne’s charm, aside from its century-old Victorian architecture and artisan coffee, is that everything has a history worth remembering—or trying to remember.

To appreciate how deeply history and art are embedded in Melbourne’s lifestyle, I had to see the Tudor Village.

Tudor Village in Fizroy Gardens, Melbourne

Among the many historical elements in the Fitzroy Gardens, The Tudor Village is a piece of art and a gift from a British artist. Mr. Edgar Wilson was 77 and lived in Norwood, London when he made villages as a hobby. Modelled in cement, the Tudor Village is one of his three works and is a miniature replica of an English village during the Tudor period.

It took me a while to notice them, but the village comprises of thatched cottages, a church, school, hotel, a barn, and all the public buildings you’d expect in a self-sufficient small town. Even the architectural elements were precise to that period.

The Tudor Village, however, isn’t just any gift. It was a symbol of gratitude to the city of Melbourne for sending food to Britain during the Second World War.

It’s such a great icon in the gardens. There I was in Victorian Melbourne, dropping my jaw at an ancient Tudor-period village.

If you visit Melbourne, stop by the gardens. There’s plenty more to see as well.