Ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev famously remarked that countries were just different places where he could dance. The great performer grew up amid a repressive Soviet political and cultural background, and as a direct reaction to that world he defined his spectacular career as an artist who didn’t care much for the churning political fray. Nureyev famously despised authority and rules; his patience for impediments to his creative interests were notoriously volatile. For him the problem with geopolitics as well as micro-local politics of the kind found inside notoriously gossipy, back-biting arts organizations was that it interfered with the act of creation.
The creative process is one of figuring something out that has little to do with gaining popularity. Politics, conversely, is all about popularity. Politics is about getting enough people to like you so that you can do things to perpetuate the trend of people liking you. Creativity is about solving problems.
To be clear, creative people may desperately crave adulation and respect from colleagues and adoring fans, but the hard labor of inventiveness fundamentally transcends singular pursuits of being popular. It must. To create anything that’s lasting and valuable and true requires work that goes beyond the desire to simply make friends and fans. No matter how important politics may be in the modern world – and it’s clearly important no matter how oleaginous politics may be – it behaves differently than the motivations driving a creative life.
The creator of the first Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak, has often reiterated his belief about how vital it is for creative people to work alone. To work in a team is a recipe for mediocrity; teams do not bring out the best creative work because teams ultimately suffer from political compromises. Wozniak famously created the Apple II by himself.
No doubt Wozniak did not mean that all relationships are bankrupt, or all colleagues are trouble. The other Steve at the helm of that fledgling computer company did things that The Woz simply could not do. As any filmmaker, opera singer, or HVAC engineer can tell you, it’s almost impossible to create anything complex without some measure of collaboration. It certain phases of the creative process, it’s even essential. To be honest, it’s even desirable. Even fun!
But not at all phases of the creative process.
Artists have been historically impassioned by political forces, both local and global. Anyone whose life spins on the axis of ideas cannot help but be influenced by political forces. The irony is that even as those forces provoke acts of creation, those forces can make little sense. Politics defines a human enterprise that ultimately eats itself, even if if the ejecta of its exhausting, messy meal becomes the tangible stuff of human enterprise.
Nonetheless, it’s inescapable. Unless you live on an isolated mountaintop, you face political forces the moment you have more than two people standing in front of you. With one person, you have a relationship. With two or more people, you’re always conscious about how the tenor of your relationship with one might be perceived by the other. Like it or not, political savvy becomes essential. It governs much of our lives; it’s the functional social equivalent to human weather. Come rain, come shine, a competent person must be able to navigate regardless. But for people who spend their days churning against the creative wheel, political machinations can provoke a grinding friction.
Inventive people need to be shielded from political vicissitudes as much as possible, at least so long as they’re not kept in a hermetic bubble that prevents them from absorbing influences from the larger world. That can be a tough balancing act, but the more that inventive people are buffeted by political winds, the less they can devote their energies to the act of invention.