Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Living With Rejection: Living the Creative Life


 This is part of a series of blogs about creativity, imagination, 
 and the need to shape our future. See these related blogs:
 The Work of the Imagination 
How To Be Intuitive: Intuition, Imagination and Discovery

The solitary visionaries are despised or regarded as abnormal and eccentric.
Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his [her] plastic bank-book, just as he [she] has abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.
Mark Rothko, The Romantics Were Prompted
In 1891 when Herman Melville died, his book Moby-Dick, that had been published 40 years earlier, was out of print, a commercial failure, and virtually forgotten. It would take another 30 years after his death for the first new mentions by favorable reviewers to appear. Today It is considered perhaps the greatest American novel. 

Moby-Dick was far ahead of its time, combining a number of elements and writing styles such as an "exploration of class and social status, good and evil, and the existence of God. In addition to narrative prose, Melville uses styles and literary devices ranging from songs, poetry, and catalogs to Shakespearean stage directions, soliloquies, and asides." "One of the most distinctive features of the book is the variety of genres... sermons, dreams, travel account, autobiography, Elizabethan plays, and epic poetry."

As an accomplished published writer, Melville must have known that he was testing the limits of what his audience of the day could accept -- yet he must have hoped that at least some of the more than 60 reviews at the time would 'get it.' As the famous contemporary author Hawthorne wrote "What a book Melville has written! It gives me an idea of much greater power than his preceding ones. It hardly seemed to me that the review of it, in the Literary World, did justice to its best points."

But oddly it was an English reviewer D.H. Lawrence who in 1923 wrote that it was a masterpiece which helped bring about its rediscovery. In fact, time and time again it has been critics from other countries who recognize the worth of an artist who cannot find recognition in their own country.

The saga of important creative original artists and thinkers whose work is initially rejected and often ridiculed, repeats itself again and again. The list is very long and includes some of the most famous names in science, archaeology, music, literature, and art and some of the most important technology of the modern world. 

We think of a person who is original and creative as a good thing: a person brings gifts to the world and reveals things not seen or understood before. This gifted person adds to sum of human knowledge. As a result, civilization reaps great benefits. 

That is the myth -- which in a sense is true but only long after the person has died in all too many cases.

Culture grows and changes often due to the contributions of men and women with original ideas. While we think of their work as beneficial, they themselves often had to work independently and alone -- frequently shunned by their own society.

Original creativity, almost by definition, is breaking new ground, coming up with new ideas, taking us out of our comfort zones. And what this means for many original and creative people is that their work may be misunderstood, rejected and often scorned -- in large part because it is unfamiliar.

Here Is A Brief List Of Important People 
Whose Work/Ideas Were Initially Rejected:
  • J.S. Bach: After his death he was considered merely a musical technician. For about 100 years his works were not played and as a result many were lost -- including two major masses. He is now considered by some the greatest composer of all time.
  • Franz Schubert: While respected for his song writing, his other work went unrecognized during his lifetime. He is now considered one of the five most important classical composers by many.
  • George Bizet: His opera Carmen met with terrible reviews and he died thinking it was a failure. Carmen is now one of the most performed and popular operas.
  • Herman Melville: Moby-Dick was virtually forgotten when he died. It is now considered one of the greatest novels by an American.
  • Henry David Thoreau: Not well understood or published during his lifetime, his work has led to the civil disobedience movement in India and the Civil Rights movement in the US, along with a host of other ideas about nature and simple living that have become important in the last 100 years.
  • John Keats: Criticized for not being highly educated and part of the lower class 'Cockney School', his work was not taken seriously even years after his young death. He is now considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.
  • Edgar Allan Poe: Not considered an important writer during his lifetime, he is now regarded as a major American author who invented the detective story and made considerable early contributions to the short story and early science fiction.
  • Franz Kafka: Now considered a major 20th century author, very little of his work was published during his lifetime.
  • William Blake: Blake's poems and paintings were virtually unknown during his lifetime. He is now considered one of the major Romantic poets and painters.
  • The Impressionists: One critic likened the Impressionists to mad men who wanted to pass off unfinished and poor paintings as legitimate art. Today their work is one of the most popular styles of painting. 
  • Vincent Van Gogh: He only sold one painting in his lifetime -- paintings which now sell for millions of dollars.
  • Paul Gauguin: His work was ridiculed at the Post-Impressionist exhibit in 1910 -- and it was not until the 1940s that his symbolist imagery began to be appreciated. His paintings now sell for millions of dollars.
  • Johannes Vermeer: He was virtually forgotten after his death for almost 200 years -- not unlike JS Bach. He is now considered one of the greatest Baroque painters and his work is virtually priceless.
  • Alfred Wegener: The principal scientist who championed the idea of tectonic plates was ridiculed during his lifetime. This idea is now considered essential for understanding earthquakes, continental drift and Earth science. 
  • Albert Einstein: Considered a poor student he was not given any recommendations after getting his degree and was confined to a patent office in Switzerland. His work in physics is now considered the most important of the last 100 years
  • Arthur C Clarke: Wrote a detailed plan for placing geostationary/geosynchronous satellites in orbit -- satellites that would appear stationary in relation to the Earth because they would orbit at the same speed the Earth turns -- that could be used for communication. Although his math was correct, he was derided for promoting this idea. These satellites are now the cornerstone of modern communications for cell phones, the Internet, TV etc. The orbit which Clarke predicted, 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above the Earth, is now known as the Clarke orbit and the array of satellites placed in this orbit is now known as the Clarke Belt.
  • Robert Goddard: Now considered the most important early rocket scientist, he was subjected to humiliating criticism. In a condescending review, using incorrect math, the prestigious New York Times derided Goddard's idea that a rocket could go to the moon. This review caused Goddard's money to dry up and severely limited his ability to continue -- all of this happening as the Nazi's were using his ideas to develop V-1 and V-2 rockets that were effectively used to bomb England. 
  • The Cave of Altamira: When the paintings by stone-age people were discovered in this cave, experts -- who never went to the cave -- denounced the findings, some even accusing the man who found them of fraud. Now these paintings are considered one of the most important discoveries about Paleolithic people.


Consider this: Without the contributions of Goddard, Clarke, and Einstein (above) the modern world we have today would not exist. Goddard's rockets are required to put satellites into orbit. Clarke's geosynchronous satellites are now used by cell phones, TVs, the Internet etc. for communications, and Einstein's formula's about space-time make corrections that properly sync Earth and satellite times -- and without which cell phones, GPS and other technologies could not operate.

(Left) Indian Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk III. (Middle) The first working geosynchronous satellite, Syncom II. (Right) Time dilation formulas based on Einstein's General Theory of Relativity -- used to correct the time difference in a moving satellite to the time on the Earth. Formulas from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_dilation

Now to be fair -- there are many unusual ideas that will not past muster. Each needs to be looked at carefully. As Carl Sagan said about scientific ideas, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Or as Pierre-Simon Laplace said in the 1700s, "The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness." Yet each work needs to be judged on its merits but not because it is different or because something like it has never been seen before. 


But there is a flip side to this. I believe that those of us who must be creative -- no matter how hard the path -- are the lucky ones. 

Henry Thoreau, himself unappreciated during his lifetime, wrote "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Many if not most people show up for work and pay their bills but wonder "what is the point" or ask themselves "isn't there more to life than this." Often they dream about doing something artistic or creative if they could ever find the time away from the daily grind. 

For the creative person, those questions have been answered:
Creativity is not secondary, it is primary. 

Such a person might say: Being creative gives me nourishment, without it I would starve. So I create because I must create and my creativity gives me a reason for living and immense satisfaction. 

Nevertheless everything comes with a price. To commit to a life of independent creativity means you'll probably live modestly at best and you'll never be rich or famous. Many of the people you know may think of you as unsuccessful. Your work will often be rejected by established people in your field -- and you may have to put up with damning reviews.

I am writing this article in part because a young friend of mine, Daniel Diver who is just starting out, was turned down by a school for computer animation. We have become friends because he wanted to use some of my experimental art as a background for his animation. I was delighted that he liked my work -- so of course I said yes. I did not realize that he would: draw the figures, write the music, write the lyrics, sing the words and create the animation. And I feel that it all worked very well together (see the animation below).

This abstract picture by Rick Doble is a photograph of TV static that was then enhanced with software. Doble was interviewed by NPR (National Pubic Radio) about his work with television static.

When I saw that he had been rejected by a school (he posted their letter to him on his website), I felt the need to give him some positive feedback about his work. Then I asked him to write a short piece for this blog about his views of being creative and the struggles he has had to endure. 

Here Is What A Young Artist, Daniel Diver, 

Had To Say About His Experience 

See his website at: http://www.leinadsivad.com/

See his video(s) on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/yTefDp8EOpU

I have no idea what I'm doing. I feel like I'm alone in a pitch black room and creativity has taken my hand and seems to be slowly leading me through it.

I've always been into a lot of different things - mostly writing, drawing, and music - but never all three at the same time. For some reason, depending on the day, one of them is always more dominant. This seems to be a perpetual problem, because I've never been able to just focus and master one medium. I can't actually play an instrument, so I pluck-bang and sample. When I write, my grammar sucks and my spelling is alien. I think drawing is a strength but even my drawings are cartoon-y and unfinished. This might be why people and/or institutions have never taken me seriously. However, I actually think that it’s the ability to bang around between these mediums that has kept me working and it has helped me develop a style – albeit one that’s kinda ratty.

Over the past few years, I started seeing a sort of spider web forming in my writing, drawings, and recording. In 2015, I started messing around with animation and I was able to roughly animate my drawings to some music I was making. It totally freaked me out and gave me a new wave of inspiration, followed by some confidence, which led me to apply to school again. Ultimately, this would be met with a second letter of rejection that I received three months later. It hurt BAD and I felt super-lost. But after the initial let-down, I feel like my work is actually starting to make sense - not just to me, but maybe even to one or two other people.

This is a video by Daniel Diver who used my TV static background in the video. He did everything to create this artwork: wrote the music, the words, did the drawings, the graphics and the animation.

Daniel's story as a young artist is very similar to my own story, looking back. I was first a writer who also became a photographer. But in addition I became involved with personal computers in the early 1980s long before most people were working with computers. At the time I had no idea how these different skills were going to fit together, I just knew that it felt right. But now with the Internet all of these skills do fit very nicely.

So The Moral Of The Story Is This: 

If you feel the need to be an artist or do creative original work of any kind -- then explore that feeling. If being creative gives you a deep satisfaction, then consider pointing your life in that direction.

Also if you see new and unusual work that you like, let the artist, scientist, writer etc. know -- and tell them what you found interesting and be specific. Those of us who put our work out there need to know that some people 'get' what we are doing.

To see a Haiku-like poem I wrote about this, go to this blog:
A True Writer Must Write