Society VS Abby Normal's Brain

By | Tuesday, August 24, 2010 1 comment
Earlier this week, cartoonist Scott Adams (I have to delineate him as a cartoonist because old guys like me were first aware of the game programmer Scott Adams) noted on his blog about a relative failure of one of his recent Dilbert comics. He said, in part...
The Artist's Secret is that all art comes from abnormal brains. So if you create art that satisfies your own tastes, you have created for a market of exactly one abnormal person. If you're lucky, a handful of other freaks get some joy from your creations too. But it won't be enough to pay your bills. It's not a career until you learn to create products that normal people like.

To some degree, this goes back to my point last week about creativity and how some is needed in your everyday life. While I was talking earlier about how so much of our society stifles creativity, the extension of that thought is that being creative is considered abnormal. Society, on the whole, doesn't want you to be creative; it wants you to fall in line with everybody else and do what's expected of you. For as much lip service as is given to "thinking outside the box", what's really being asked is, "See what we can swipe from somebody else's box." The people who really ARE thinking outside the box aren't even aware that there's a box to be thinking outside of and just come across as lunatics or blasphemers or non-entities.

Take a look at Jack Kirby's work in the 1970s. OMAC, 2001, New Gods, etc. By and large, that work fell flat in the marketplace. No one understood it. It didn't sell. The only people who did buy it were the people who were buying it exclusively because Kirby's name was on it and he MUST be up to something interesting. But that work ruffled a lot of people the wrong way within comicdom and he essentially had to drop out of comics for a while. (He took up a career in the animation industry for several years.) It's only now, three decades later, that his work from that period looks inspired and visionary.

Visionary. A term that's almost exclusively used in retrospect.

Vincent van Gogh died destitute and lonely in 1890. The 1927 release of Fritz Lang's Metropolis was said to be filled with "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement" by no less than H.G. Wells. In 1969, no one called Jim Henson a visionary for coming up with Seasame Street. These people, and countless other creative geniuses, were never labeled as such at the time they were being brilliantly creative. It was only after people were able to absorb the work and reflect on it for a period of years before the depth of vision was recognized.

The frustration, then, of many creative people is having to reign in their ideas for the sake of earning of living. They work in mundane jobs doing dull and repetitive tasks (Albert Einstein famously worked in a patent office before he began publishing scientific papers) or try to be as creative as they commercially can, creating superhero comic books or storyboards for animated TV shows.

But there's some level of frustration that remains because their brains are considered abnormal. Something different from everybody else. Something "other." To have a way of thinking that is outside the norm inherently means that you have to mask at least some of that to connect with other people.

You know, I didn't get that Dilbert cartoon when I first read it; I think there's some failures there from a craft perspective (mainly that key components to the gag were drawn to small to be seen, depending on how/where the comic was displayed). And I think Adams recognizes that. But reading through some of the comments, I don't think a lot of people liked it even after it was explained. It was too unusual. Too removed from the normal Dilbert format. Too out of the box.

And that's just a really sad state of affairs that society is like that. That to be able to create is considered odd or unusual. That coming up with ideas that are different from the vast majority of the population is abnormal. I don't know that there's a solution, other than for creative types to accept some level of outsider status for thinking "abnormally."
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Matt K said...

I think this is why people eat up the writings of Tom Friedman with a spoon: he says nothing remotely new or inventive or daring. Instead he's always just within the outer bounds of what has become familiar and conventional.

I'm sure one can think of other examples from comics, music, art, etc., which succeed wildly by hitting this apparent "sweet spot" of taking up something already established by actually innovative people just as it stops being too new or "out there" for a mass audience.

(All that said, I can't help observing that Metropolis was filled with "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement." Remarkable all the same, yes. But still filled with platitude, muddlement, etc.)