Portent Staff // Sep 12 2008
Get over the gun analogy. It’s Quentin Tarantino, so of course he’s going to use incredibly violent imagery. Don’t let that stop you from learning some of the best creative advice I’ve heard this year. First, a little stage setting. As a Creative Lead in an Internet marketing agency myself, I would venture to say Tarantino’s advice is relevant to anyone who has experienced the double-edged financial comfort/frustration of doing a creative job in a commercial setting. In an even larger sense, it’s about anyone who doesn’t work in a technically “creative” field, but who views their job through a more artistic lens, and gets frustrated because their fellow colleagues don’t. I’ll get into more detail about how such an artistic lens is defined later. And now, time to pull the trigger….
Here is the Tarantino quote, from the episode of Sundance’s Iconoclasts he did with Fiona Apple. It’s a truly fascinating episode and I highly suggest watching it in its entirety. But for now, here’s what one of our culture’s leading cinematic visionaries had to say on the subject of creativity:
Here’s the thing. They can write a mean letter. But these guys don’t have any real fight in them. But if you’re a real artist, you will go all the way. If you’re an artist as opposed to a careerist and your movie is more important to you than a career, you have a loaded gun in your waistpants, and its filled with bullets and you know you have what it takes to put it in their face and blow their heads off. If you have what it takes to do that, if you know you can go there, its about never taking the gun out….It’s about not going there, it’s about not doing it, but you know you can. So if you have to flash it, it means something.
Like every brilliant thing Tarantino does or says, this quote cuts deep and has reverberated in my mind for quite a while after hearing it. After mulling it over, here are the key points that, as a creative professional, really reassured me. Let’s take this explosive quote apart piece by piece and see what it’s made of:
Here’s the thing. They can write a mean letter. But these guys don’t have any real fight in them.
Tarantino’s very first sentence here is an incredibly crucial message to creative professionals. If you are a creative person in a commercial setting, at a cursory glance it can seem you are outnumbered, under-appreciated, and surrounded by adversity. The sheer force of commercially-minded persons in your periphery, breathing down you neck, can make it feel very deeply like you are a butterfly in a sea of barracudas. Bullshit. As Tarantino very astutely points out, it’s the other way around. it doesn’t matter if you are the single token creative in a cloud of suits. It doesn’t matter that you receive a million emails a day pilfered with forboding threats about budgets, and deadlines, and angry clients. As long as the proverbial “they” is just going through the motions (which they always are) even their gravest threats, or most pompous grandstanding cannot touch you. Because at the core, they don’t really care. They may appear to, but really, they are just following protocol, and protocol makes a most dusty bedfellow. But you, the creative professional, you do care, and deeply. Cling to that. NOTE: Am I saying that creative professionals care more about their jobs than other people? Yep. Creative people are so close to their craft, and the work they do is so intensely personal, that the wily creative brainchild is always going to wield more weight than the rubber stamp.
If you’re an artist as opposed to a careerist…
That said, I have already mentioned above that I was going to use a broader definition of artistic temperament in this article, so here’s what I’ll say. Artists aren’t just designers and flash animators. An artist is anyone who cares more intensely about the work itself than they do about job titles, or checking off a list, or winning in office politics. As long as that work itself, and its potentially transformative nature, is what enthuses you, you are an artist-whether butcher, baker, or candlestick maker. For example, by this definition, I would call Barack Obama an artist. I heard echoes of Tarantino’s above comment reverberating last night in Michelle Obama’s opening statement at the Democratic National Convention. She said that she and Barack “never talk about being President, or what it would be like to be President. We talk about changing the world.” And that’s the key. If you have a loaded gun and you’re shooting for your own wounded pride, you’re a thug. But if you have a loaded gun that you use to fiercely protect the integrity of a creative vision, you’re…you guessed it…an iconoclast.
But if you’re a real artist, you will go all the way.
So beyond the core meaning, how does the difference between being an Artist and a Careerist manifest? Bloodlust, baby. Forget fluttering visions and glittery prose. The truly artistic people I’ve known, the leaders and the trailblazers and the rainmakers, have been the single most intense, unstoppable people I’ve ever known. Why? Because
the result of artistically pure motives is conviction, whereas the result of petty careerist motives is confusion. If you’re playing political games, you have an ever-changing destination full of pitstops, second-guessing, and about-faces. If you have artistic conviction driving you, it’s full steam ahead. Your creative vision will balloon and unfold until it’s big enough to sustain you through every bureaucratic argument, every budget constraint, every trouncing from your boss. An Artist just keeps going, meeting every obstacle with the mindset of “This needs to happen. How can we make it so?” not “Can we do this? How hard will it be?” Instead, piece by piece, artists follow the knotted string through all the snares and tangles until they reach the triumphant end. They are so polite and so patient, but artists on the hunt to finish a vision are the most scarily persistent people you’ve ever met, and they never stop until they get what they want because they can’t.
If you have what it takes to do that, if you know you can go there, its about never taking the gun out.
With such a fire under your feet, Tarantino’s parting piece of advice becomes the most crucial. Now that you acknowledge the force of your own creativity, you need to control it very, very carefully. Creative, artistic people are temperamentally fiery, explosive, audacious personalities. But this doesn’t work in a commercial environment. You must never flash that fierceness unless it becomes absolutely necessary. If you are too self-indulgent about expressing your feelings, your incisive bullets quickly become a dull, bludgeoning hammer banging on every minor point and high horse. This is why Tarantino (rather ironically) points out that the second, equally important part of having the gun is never, ever using it unless you absolutely have to. The line between madcap blowhard and bohemian genius is the simple ability to transcend the pedestrian. That’s all for now, my fellow iconoclasts! Now go out and rent Kill Bill!