How Art Gets Created (Homage to Howie Becker)

My approach to creativity was deeply inspired by Howie Becker’s 1982 book Art Worlds–a close analysis of the work done by painters, sculptors, and photographers, of course, but also all of the other roles necessary to get art done and to get it valued, sold, and talked about. Becker made a convincing argument that art doesn’t come from the solitary artist in the studio; there are many other people involved. They remain hidden only because we aren’t looking for them–we believe so much in the romantic myth of the solitary lone genius that we look right past everyone else involved in the collective creative process.

Basically, Becker believes that Yogi Berra was right: you really can observe the most by watching.

This quotation comes from a fascinating portrait of Becker in the latest New Yorker magazine. Becker is now 86 years old and spends most of his time in Paris, where he’s a huge academic star. Adam Gopnik interviewed Becker at a French restaurant, and here’s what Becker told Gopnik about how art gets created:

Mine is a view that–well, it takes a village to write a symphony and get it performed. It’s not just the composer. The great case for me is in film, because nobody ever figured out who the real artist is: the screenwriter or the director or who? Or, rather, everybody figured it out, but never figured out the same thing. Early on when I was reading about art, I read a book by Aljean Hametz on the making of “The Wizard of Oz.” She was the daughter of someone in the wardrobe department of M-G-M, and she explains that there were four directors of that film, and the guys who thought of the crucial thing, the change from black-and-white to color when the characters enter Oz, were the composer and the lyricist! In an important way, I took the list of credits at the end of a Hollywood film as my model of how artistic creation really happens.

Creativity consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation, and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

In a nutshell, this is the core message of my 2007 business book Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration. Of course I hope you read my book, but if you then want to go deeper, and really understand creativity, you have to read Howard Becker.

Great New Book: The Business of Creativity

I just love this new book by Professor Brian Moeran of Copenhagen Business School. Professor Moeran is a business anthropologist, which means he goes into real companies and watches what real creators do. And just as I’ve found in my research, when you study closely the reality of creative work, you quickly get disabused of a lot of creativity myths. Myths like the belief that creativity results from a solitary person having a flash of insight (when really it emerges from groups and teams); or, myths like the belief that creativity is all about having an idea, when in fact creativity is about engaging in the hard work of making and doing.

In this new book, The Business of Creativity: Toward an Anthropology of Worth, Moeran brings together many different anthropological studies of creative workplaces. After reading this book, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the reality of creativity and innovation, and you’ll never believe in those creativity myths again. I loved the book so much, that I agreed to write one of the back cover endorsements, and here’s what I wrote for the publisher after I read a pre-release draft:

This brilliant book is filled with profound insights on every page. Moeran’s book is a window into the creative process; he convincingly shows that creativity is embedded in cultural practices and collaborative relationships. His ethnographic studies, mostly in Japan but also in Denmark, reveal that creativity emerges from collaborative improvisations, unpredictable but always grounded in conventions, norms, and cultures. If you are interested in creativity, innovation, and the role of creative work in today’s economy, you absolutely must read this book.

When I received my copy of the book last week, I saw the other back-cover endorsement, by one of my scholarly heroes, Howard S. Becker (author of the seminal book Art Worlds):

Brian Moeran’s deep, detailed investigations of a sparkling variety of work situations lead him to an understanding of creativity, solidly based on close observations of people at work, that anchors this field, so often mired in vague talk, in the real world of potters, fashion magazines, perfumers, and other workers who are on creativity’s front line.

Amen. And by the way, if you haven’t read Becker’s book Art Worlds, stop everything you’re doing and buy it right now.

I should probably add that Moeran’s book is not written in the accessible, trade press style you would associate with someone like Malcolm Gladwell; this is a scholarly book, and it will take some effort and energy to read, especially if you are not a scholar or professor. But the effort will be worth it.