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  • Economics of the Creative Mind

    Economics isn't ideology—it's hard work.
                                               –Bill Clinton, to John Stewart

    Artists tend to set their sights on their goals, and we often know where we are heading before we begin the journey. As a composer, I set out to “achieve” something predetermined with every piece. This—how we work, how we create—does not always reveal the same sense of exploration and experimentation embodied by the adjective “creative.” When in the process of producing a work of art the creativity can be said to happen places artists on one side of the line separating artistry from calculated effort and moral predilections.

    Speaking recently to John Stewart on the Daily Show, Bill Clinton said that “The problem with any ideology is that it puts the answers before the evidence.” Clinton was speaking about economics, but the application of this quote to music—and perhaps, by extension, all arts—should be obvious. But to understand the relationship, we first have to unpack the meaning of the word “ideology.” As Clinton means it, an ideology is a set of beliefs guiding one's actions with respect to the problem at hand. An ideology is typically an ethical stance, and actions within that ideology are based on a concept of right and wrong. Clinton's critique of Republicans is simple: to approach the American economy ideologically is to take an ethical stance on how we guide the flow of money. The opposite approach—the one advocated by Clinton—is to make calculated decisions based on decades of data and statistics, successes and failures. In Clinton's use of the word, ideologies aim for moral imperatives, whereas evidence allows us to calculate the easiest path to a desired result.

    Ideology for a composer is quite similar. Right and wrong in music may take the form of aesthetic preferences, misgivings about historical developments, performance traditions, of even genre distinctions. Ideological artists are less concerned with Clinton's success and failure, because they have categorically redefined those words as “right” and “wrong,” and placed them at the center of their ideology. For instance, performing Bach with rubato is wrong because it is sounds bad; mid-century serialism should be abandoned because it is less commercially viable than neo-Romanticism; atonality is the future because it succeeds in challenging the audience, etc. These are Clinton's accused Republicans, who put the answers before the evidence. If questions are answered, where does “creativity” appear?

    Artists may also rely on evidence. Say I am interested in composing a “successful” work: my decisions will be calculated using what I know to be effective writing practices. In other words—methods. But the application of these methods of composing constitute what we might call an “approach.” And isn't approach the same as Clinton's ideology? Musically speaking, setting aside ideology in favor of evidence soon leads full circle back to ideology. Whether we are interested in the outcome or a moral imperative, if we create a work of art based on calculated determinations, then which side of the line defining artistry are we on?

    This is what I would call the economics of the creative mind. An experienced artist, working from evidence rather than ideological conviction, economizes his/her decisions, and in doing so closes the window through which we can see “creativity.” And as I offer above—if questions are answered before gathering evidence, making art is just the act of codifying one's ethics, not creating. Both attitudes are ideological in the end, and neither fosters a strong relationship with creativity. This is where we stop being artists, and instead become politicians.

    All this only matters if we still hold artists accountable for creativity. Look at it this way: economics alone forces creativity into a narrow box, while ideology dismisses potential forms of creativity. I want to do it differently; I want to equate hard work with creativity. This is closest to what we mean when we say “creative,” and it captures the essence of creative work. If we are concerned with the path taken, this is the only way to approach our artistic problems. If, however, we become wrapped up in worries about the outcome and morals, then Clinton would have us abandon art for politics.