Not Knowing: Art, startup culture, and the genius of Charlie Kaufman

We are told so much these days by "thought leaders" that we are all artists AND we are all brands, that we are solo-entrepreneurs (solopreneurs?), that we need to use social media to market ourselves, that our social network is the most important thing we have.  It is in this dizzying environment that I find other artists as well as myself taking cues from Silicon Valley rather than art history.  I agree we have a lot to gain from studying startup culture; the lessons of real-time prototyping, A/B testing, pivoting your business quickly, bootstrapping, iterative correction rather than the drawn-out expectations of a perfect launch, disruption, the list goes on and on.  But there is a certain soullessness to all of this.  What is missing, I think, is what William Carlos Williams famously summed up in his long poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:  

It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.

We live in a consumer culture, and inevitably non-consumer things get swept up in that way of thinking.  Obviously we all need to make a living, but there is often a simplistic equation that makes popularity into a barometer of quality, especially when it comes to marketing, to social media presence, to pure revenue.  Great artists can be greatly successful, and I wish that for everyone who does inspire me.  But often we are misled with the lures of this virtual popularity, the rush of internet mini-fame, advertising that masquerades as legitimate art or worse, some kind of social awareness or justice all the while selling us a product.  None of this is new.  We all buy into these ideas, and I'm not above any of it.  I work commercially, and my images have helped to sell products.  But there needs to be an awareness, and a balance.  I've spent the last two years deeply immersing myself in business & marketing books, startup guru podcasts, life-hacking blogs, life optimization groups, you name it.  I've found it fascinating and yes, there are some helpful ideas to glean from these worlds for sure.  But in them all there lacks the one thing art offers above all else--a wordless beauty and a sense of comfort, but comfort given not by gentle platitudes, it is the comfort of recognition; that we are human, that we are flawed, that we often fail, or that we just get lost sometimes, and we don't know everything.  These things are beautiful and we can gain wisdom from that recognition.  We learn how to live not by becoming super-human, as many of these blogs cheer us on to attempt, but by gaining insight and acceptance, kindness and clarity, forging a community of understanding, these are the things that will keep us all going in the face of difficulty.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”  This is the spirit that goes beyond the often narrow view of business culture.  

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter whose films include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and others, is one of the most conscientious observers of the human spirit of our time.  He doesn't pull any punches, but he has infinite grace when it comes to illustrating our struggles in this world.  I came across this speech he gave to the British Film Insitute last year, and it addresses many of these ideas.  It is an antidote to the constant inescapable striving and self-sellling we see so much of these days.  It is worth watching.