Keep it secret! Keep it safe!

My preciousnesss
Creative Commons License photo credit: lrargerich

I read a short blog post a few days ago called ‘Creative Privacy‘, which posed the question “Do you agree that it’s best to keep your creative projects private until you’re ready for input and criticism?”… here’s what I posted by way of a comment:

This is a thorny one. I think it really depends on what you’re looking for by ‘letting people in’… and on your degree of artistic confidence. If you’re looking for approval or validation, because you need those things in order to feel OK about your work, then I think there’s danger there for sure. If you’re looking for criticism to hone your ideas, and you’re confident enough to handle that, it can be a healthy part of the process. It’s not necessary – some people create in a very private way, some in a very public way. I’ve experimented with both, and have pretty much arrived at a place where I’m confident enough to have a very open process; the project I’m immersed in now is a relatively public one, where I put out works in a very raw form and I’m not much bothered by how people respond to it. I’m really just happy if there is *some* response as opposed to deafening silence…

Predictably, there was a range of other responses, ranging from the somewhat paranoid (“what if someone steals your idea?”) to the more blustery (“I’m an artist. I don’t care about input and criticism!”). Some found an ambivalent middle ground; I guess you could put my own response in that category.

I think it’s worth examining our responses to this a little more closely, because they say a lot about our relationship to our work…

Honour among thieves

For me, the ‘what if someone steals my idea’ has proven to be a red herring that I’ve put a lot of energy into getting past. Ideas are fascinating, and since they are the germ and core of our work, we tend to give them great importance. I think this is a mistake. Ideas, even good ideas, are a only so important. Execution is what really matters. Ideas without execution are essentially nothing at all.

This is a common thread in a lot of business books and blogs, but I think it’s crucial for more overtly creative work as well. As a creative person, do you often find yourself out scouring the internet for other people’s half-realized ideas to steal? I’d wager probably not. I certainly don’t.

Mostly we want to realize our own ideas. I personally don’t want to put a lot of energy into someone else’s idea unless they’re paying me handsomely to do so. All things being equal, I’d prefer to work on my own stuff. I’m only going to be able to get so excited about other people’s ideas (unless they’re executed well, in which case I am interested in an appreciation sense). I really can’t imagine being so compelled by someone elses unrealized vision that it would make me want to forego my own in order to steal and develop it. I have lots of ideas of my own, and I like them just fine.

The agony of influence

And even if someone does come across your nascent idea and ‘steal’ it and execute it, what have you really lost? Can you not still do something unique and amazing with it? Is it somehow dead, or less than it was? Is it really originality that defines artistic worth?

The same person who complained that sharing your unfinished work incurs the risk of idea theft wrote “Who knows; their version of your concept may be even better!”… to which I have to respond, would that be a bad thing? Would that hurt you in some way? Are we in a competition, where there are winners and losers and it’s all about protecting your assets to make sure no-one can use them to get ahead?

This seems strange to me. I like original ideas as much as the next guy, but I like sublime execution even more, and I tend to think it has more lasting value.

Radical creative transparency

I read a panel in Keyboard magazine once which featured, among other electronic musicians, the great Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin. The subject of sampling and piracy came up, and the artists on the panel were sharing their experiences and perspectives, and someone asked James what he thought about it. Here’s what I can recall of the exchange:

(I hope I have this right, I couldn’t find it anywhere to quote directly; it might not even have been him, but that’s how I remember it)

James: “I don’t care”.

Keyboard: “You don’t care? What if someone stole your work and passed it off as their own?”

James: “I don’t care at all. I don’t care if someone takes my whole album and puts it out under their own name. I couldn’t care less.”

This made a big impact on me. I realize it’s an extreme position, and I don’t necessarily share it, but I think it’s worth thinking about, because it asks us to consider exactly why we are so protective, so secretive, so insecure about our creative work. Do we really own it? Is it really benefitting us to take the usual kneejerk defensive stance, imagining sending in the lawyers to protect our rights and properties?

I’m not sure, but I think the idea of a radical transparency is very interesting and might be very liberating, freeing up from the mental and psychic energy we normally put into worrying about this so that we might put it to better and more creative use…