What is good? Art, food, design, music, architecture, business…in basically every creative endeavor we find ourselves assigning value to the work of others. Why are some paintings hanging in museums and others are never seen by anyone other than the artist? Why are some songs by some artists played on the radio incessantly while others are never heard? Why do some products reach incredible sales levels and others fail and disappear?
There are certainly many answers to this dilemma, but there is one I have been thinking about lately. Last week, I was in St. Louis for business and was able to take some time to go to the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM). Among pieces by Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Charles Eames, and Dale Chihuly on display in the SLAM is “White & Hot” by Barnett Newman. Is it a large abstract expressionist piece, 84” x 72”, and it is almost entirely flat orange. There is a narrow band of white running vertically on the left side and a band of white about four times as wide on the right side. It is easy to look at this painting and think, “What’s the big deal? My kid could do that.” You might be right, but here’s the thing. Your kid didn’t. Moreover, in 1967 when Newman made this piece, no one else was doing it either. Newman was mostly overlooked during his lifetime in favor of more colorful artists (their personality, not their work) like Jackson Pollock; however, he influenced many younger artists, and toward the end of his life his work was taken more seriously.
While at the SLAM, I was particularly interested in an exhibition of works by Elias Sime. Sime is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and works with found objects, many of which come from Mercato, the Addis Ababa open-air market, said to be the largest in Africa. In particular, he frequents the market’s Menalesh Tera section—literally “what do you have?”—where trash is repurposed in resourceful ways and its new potential is shared among the community. When viewing Sime’s work, one might think, “I could do that,” and maybe you could, but you didn’t. Like so many of the influential artists before him, Sime is breaking new ground. Others will follow, as they always do. Most will be derivative, but perhaps one or two will stand on Sime’s shoulders and see farther down the road and do work that is truly innovative and unique.
Seeing these works in person rekindled thoughts I have had many times before regarding the work we do and how we do it.
We often talk about innovation and creativity. We use these words to describe a process and product that we seem to expect will be unique, relatively quick, and more or less widely received. Occasionally, this may be partially true in small quantities; however, it is not the rule. The “rule” is this: True innovation is in part derivative, takes significant time and effort, and is rarely understood or accepted when first introduced.
True innovation and creativity are also rare. We may each have a few chances to make minor alterations to the status quo; however, many of us will be lucky if we effect a single true innovative shift in our chosen field. By “lucky”, I mean cursed. Being one of the “lucky” ones who causes a substantive shift in the fabric of our known field comes with some consolation prizes.
- You have an uncontrollable tendency to see what is not quite right in the things we are surrounded by every day. Those who are suited to find a quantum shift are obsessed with the “wrongness” of the constructs around them. This is a burden most people do not want to bear. Simes responded to the horror of toxic western e-waste being dumped on Africa by finding renewal everywhere, and taking greatest interest in the way that objects and ideas can connect in new ways.
- You are granted a lifetime of nearly compulsive attention to the “work,” excluding most everything else. You can be good at several things or the best in one, but not both. Those who are called to make substantive changes focus most of their energy and attention on that one thing. For over twenty-five years, Simes has made collage and sculptural assemblage from found objects. Twenty-five years!
- You have the privilege of being misunderstood, dismissed, and under-rewarded for your efforts. The majority of truly innovative things take time to be recognized and accepted. Since recognition and acceptance are prerequisites to fame and fortune, many innovators do not see the benefit of their work in their lifetime. Simes is in his mid-fifties and has only recently seen his work become valued and understood.
Before you despair due to the bleak picture I have painted, there is some warmth and light at the end of this cold, dark tunnel. Most of us can and will make a difference where we live and work. We will move our craft and our communities forward incrementally. We can innovate in small quantities without completely subjugating our entire lives to a single effort. We can experience the effects and create benefits for those around us within our lifetimes.
This is perhaps the better life. Personally, I would much rather be good at many things than the best at one. The generalist is more versatile and often has more opportunities to make a difference. What is certain is the test of time. The best is sometimes hard to spot in the immediate present. Time has a way of finding the best things and making it obvious that they are so. The good is easier to see and easier to accomplish. For most of us, we shouldn’t let the pursuit of perfection impede the power of progress. We don’t have to be the best, but we should consistently embody the good.
You don’t have to be a van Gogh, or an Eames, or a Simes to make a difference in people’s lives. If you are called to create a substantive shift, you will make the sacrifices required without much concern or thought. However, if you are called to participate in the incremental forward progress of humanity, as most of us are, you have the privilege of making many other sacrifices—sacrifices of self, of humility, of credit, of empathy, of patience, and of love. Those sacrifices and the differences they make in people’s lives are every bit as critical and influential as the most famous inventor or artist the world has ever known, and they are The Kimray Way.