July 4, 2012
It’s next time again.
If you work in the creative arts and people like your work, sooner or later someone will ask, “Where do you get all these amazing ideas?” The question is usually well meaning and superficial but the answers can sometimes be profound. In an on-camera interview with one of the greatest shoe designers that ever lived we got an answer that had a truly profound effect on my life. Roger Vivier was Christian Dior’s shoe designer. He invented the platform sole (for Marlene Dietrich) and the stiletto heel. His answer was as elegant as his designs. He said, “I go to a museum to be inspired. I walk around and sometimes an idea will occur and sometimes not.” And then he dropped the other shoe. “Creativity is a gift of observation.” That simple phrase has supported me for my entire career. I take inspiration from it at least once a week.
Who doesn’t want more creative thinking in their lives? The words, “I have an idea!” always seem to take a boring meeting up a notch. If your business depends upon good ideas you have probably found interesting ways to cultivate your creativity. I’d be so interested to hear about your most effective techniques. This topic leads in all sorts of interesting directions. How does creativity really work? How does art cross-pollinate between cultures? How does art advance? How do ideas morph and develop as they move through society in different eras? These ideas even connect to the “usefulness”of art and its ability to inspire in all walks of life.
One of the great things about watching Mad Men is the glimpse you get into the creative process of advertising. George Lois is sometimes described as one of the “original” Mad Men. This is a characterization he doesn’t like very much, but I’m sure he approves of the recent attention he has received because of the show. I came across his work and ideas and was so impressed by his weekly habit of visiting the Metropolitan Museum.
“To constantly inspire breakthrough conceptual thinking I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art religiously every Sunday.” Lois goes on to say, “Lou Dorfman, design chief for CBS radio and leader the CBS television network for over 40 years once said, ‘In reality creativity is the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.’ However, nothing comes from nothing. You must continuously feed the inner beast that sparks and inspires. I contend the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. Museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and the deep recesses of the mind.”
For the reasons articulated so well by George Lois, I find Art History to be one of the most pleasurable and practical uses of my time. One of the best books I have ever read about Art History is Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new biography of Caravaggio, Caravaggio – A Life Sacred & Profane. Graham-Dixon describes Caravaggio’s work as “proto-cinematographic.” I found myself totally captivated by the amazingly dramatic story of Caravaggio’s life; his own search for creative inspiration (which Graham-Dixon describes with riveting clarity) and Caravaggio’s enormous impact on his contemporaries and followers. To give one brief example, Graham-Dixon describes how a Caravaggio painting completely “takes over a room.” Even if surrounded in a museum by other masterworks; there is something about Caravaggio’s sensuality and drama that keeps grabbing for your attention. Just like the entrance of a truly great actor, it is really hard to look at anything else when a Caravaggio comes on to the stage. Martin Scorsese provides additional insight as to why this is so.
Scorsese is an enormously cultured and sophisticated filmmaker. It is no surprise his remarks about his study of Caravaggio are as insightful as his invaluable observations about the history of Cinema. A video of his conversation about Caravaggio with Andrew Graham-Dixon can be found here: Scorsese on Caravaggio. He draws inspiration from his many cultural interests. I loved it that he forced his crew to listen to one of his favorite Bach recordings as they shot one of the best sequences in his film, The Aviator. Scorsese knew he wanted that particular piece (and specific performance by Eugene Ormandy) for the soundtrack which would be used for pacing the scene in the editing suite. But, he decided the energy of the music would somehow inspire not only the actors, but also the crew, the mood and the entire cinematic chemistry if he had it playing on set during the filming. If creativity is a gift of observation, Martin Scorsese must sleep with one eye open.
He learned about Caravaggio from his collaborator Paul Schrader when they were working on Mean Streets. Schrader felt the paintings would speak to Scorsese. The intense and violent mood of some of the paintings is quoted in much of the filmmaker’s subsequent work. Scorsese points out when you look at a Caravaggio you are injected into the middle of the scene. What a great observation! I just love this idea. If you are going to paint a crucifixion there are all sorts of ways to do it. But look again at how Caravaggio did it! You are confronted with all the messy details. Bam! You are smack dab in the middle of a murder and you don’t know exactly how you got there and how you are going to get out of it but you can’t take your eyes off the violence. Sounds just like a Scorsese movie doesn’t it?
Another extraordinarily smart and cultured filmmaker is Ridley Scott. His summer blockbuster Prometheus is packed with cultural references. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who have not seen the film, but the way in which Scott quotes David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and in particular the acting genius of Peter O’Toole, is both brilliant and charming. Prometheus is a violent sci-fi futuristic horror movie but a beguiling Chopin étude haunts the score. The dominant visual impact of the film comes from Scott’s almost visceral collaboration with the painter H. R. Giger. Giger is a swiss artist, born in 1940, whose work is eerie, seductive and repulsive all at the same time. Ridley Scott made Giger world famous by using his creepy imagery as the powerful art direction for Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. The devastating final act of Prometheus is like a “Vulcan mind meld” with Giger’s brain. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The realization of Giger’s world through some sort of viscous and viral collaboration with Ridley Scott who spread the contagion to all of his crew; the craftsmen, the lighting technicians, the set designers, the CGI wizards – all of them infected and transformed by a mood which started with one guy and paint brush, is truly a testament to the power of good idea and the creative tenacity to take it as far as it possibly could go.
While it is fun to examine the seeds of inspiration sown by art in the making of great films and other other creative disciplines, do these ideas find any purchase in the business world? One of my really smart attorney friends told me about his creative process. He is in the business of good ideas. After all, people are coming to him for his advice. He said he learns as much as he can about the case and then he lives with it a bit. He said, “It is always there, just in the back of your mind.” And then, in due course, he said things just mentally fall into place. He did not mention art specifically but he describes an unforced organic Eureka moment that is not necessarily the result of direct concentration upon the matter at hand. I somehow knew exactly what he meant. I find this process fascinating. “Chance favors the prepared mind” (see Sarah’s comment below) is another way of looking at it, and I think this is what an active, positive Museum experience can bring to the mechanics of the creative process. You observe – actively. You learn. You investigate whatever strikes your mood. You look at great Art and Film and listen to great music and in those moments of appreciation (after the homework is done on the particular problem) and suddenly there it is! A solution – a really good solution. A solution that is grounded in preparation and soars to transcend the limitations of the situation blocking the insight. It is a complete joy when this happens and I think the atmosphere created by great Art is conducive to the nurturing and the constructive exploitation of these moments.
Jean Cocteau, the French poet, said of his painter friend, Christian Bérard, “He could pluck naked beauty from the thin air in which she resides.” I could not help but think of that quote as I read more about George Lois’ creative process.
He writes, “Creativity is not created – it is there for us to find. It is an act of discovery. Great advertising comes down to the big idea, but I never create the ideas that characterize my work. I discovered them – snared from the air as they float by me. Michelangelo said that a sculpture is imprisoned in a block of marble and only a great sculptor can set it free. Sounds mystical, perhaps, but after doing the requisite homework to understand the product, its competitors, etc., ideas and advertising are ignited by the sparks and sounds of an understanding of 7000 years of the history of mankind.”
He goes on to say, “Plato defined “idea” (EIDOS) as a mental image. I don’t create that mental image in my head. I somehow see it in my minds eye, floating by me, and I reach out and grab it. So if you’re trying to achieve greatness in any creative industry, go out into the world and sail the ocean blue and live a life of discovery.”
Until next time with much love,