How (and Why) to Establish Your Creative Philosophy

Creativity and philosophy go hand-in-hand in crucial ways. In fact, you will have trouble making any worthwhile art without first understanding the philosophy behind it. Luckily, it's easy to achieve in a few simple steps.

Anyone who talks to me for more than a few minutes learns that I enjoy getting philosophical. Sometimes I dive a little too deeply into a topic very quickly, but that's just the kind of guy I am; I like to skip past the superficial crap and get right to the interesting stuff.

I'm a firm believer in establishing a personal philosophy that provides a frame of reference for making important decisions. That's a much bigger topic for some future posts to cover, so for now I'm focusing on a smaller, but related, topic: the creative philosophy. 

In this post I'll tell you three important things:

  1. Why all creative endeavors need a philosophy

  2. Examples of creative philosophies in action

  3. How to find your very own personal creative philosophy

Why Creativity Needs Philosophy

All great artists have philosophies. Actually, most mediocre and even some crappy artists do, too. I’m not trying to define what good art means to you here, but I believe many creative people who aren’t living up to their potential may just be lacking a solid philosophy. Or it's possible they're just forgetting to go into a psychotic meltdown and cut off their ear so they can give it to a friend. We all have our creative quirks.

Much like the art itself, there is no right or wrong philosophy to have. But you need to have one. That philosophy can change from project to project, even from day to day or hour to hour, but it needs to be there. If you don't believe me, read an interview with one of your favorite artists. At some point they'll drop a philosophical bomb that reveals where their mind was when they created their last work. It won’t necessarily be deep, intellectual or even original, but it will exist. A musician will speak of his overarching album concepts or his preferred sound palette. An actor will share insight into her method of capturing a character. A painter will explain why the f#$% he decided to paint a single, upside-down triangle with his own blood on a pink canvas.

In many ways, the process of creating art is simply the process of applying whatever philosophy (or philosophies) you’re working under at that moment to your medium of choice. As I’ve talked about at length before, art is at its core simply a decision. But in order to make that decision, you must have a direction. Even deciding to be as directionless as possible is a direction, so don't try to pull that smart-ass question on me. I speak smart-ass fluently, so I saw it coming a mile away.

Most high-level artists are greatly philosophical when talking about the purpose of their creations, but even artists who you wouldn't associate with being museum-worthy inevitably reveal philosophical guidelines. Smash Mouth wasn't out to write songs with political or social commentary, they just wanted to be a fun party band; that was their philosophy. Well, that and cursing out audiences for throwing bread at them.

In order to make a decision and create something that has a purpose, you need a framework to operate within. It doesn’t have to be fully formed when you start, but it should become clearer as you make progress on the project. And it can change any time you want; just look at David Bowie’s discography and see that change in action. You could even think of it like this: it's the art itself that has a philosophy, and in order to maximize its impact it's your duty to figure out what it is.

Real-World Examples of Creative Philosophy In Action

In order to avoid putting words in other artists' mouths, I'll use a couple examples from my own experience to show you what applying a creative philosophy might look like in the real world. Or as close to the real world as I live, anyway.

Years ago when my band Shaimus was making what would be our third and final album, we recorded a song called “Rainy” which featured an atmospheric audio track of a gentle rainstorm in the demo version. Our producer (Brian Fennell of a great Seattle-based band called, naturally, Barcelona) insisted we jettison any literal reference to rain in the final product. In his vision of what our album would become, it was far too on-the-nose to have the sounds of actual rain; it was like we were saying, “See what we did here? The song is totally freakin' rainy!!”

This choice was in line with his personal artistic philosophy. We very easily could have had a producer who loved the idea of putting rain sounds in. Neither of these preferences are right or wrong in an objective context, but they have a far more concrete answer when working within the framework of a creative philosophy. You'll notice this example seems like a very small decision, but even small things can have large consequences in your final product, so it's important to be applying the philosophy even at a granular level.

One of my personal philosophies when it comes to music is that I believe a truly great song can be performed as a solo voice with acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment and still hold its own as a great song. This is important for me as an artist because I love interesting song arrangements and cool production elements, but I won't allow myself use these things as a crutch to make a mediocre song "better." If it doesn't pass the stripdown test, I don't consider it a good song. This is just one of many guiding ideologies I use when making music. Another one is to try really hard not to suck. That is very difficult for me sometimes.

When I'm drawing my comic, much of the philosophy is dictated by the characters themselves. It's quite satisfying to let a fictional talking dinosaur's personal philosophies guide my creative flow every once in a while.

Finding Your Philosophy

If you’re having trouble figuring out what your own artistic philosophy is, there’s a very simple way to get some insight: have a thoughtful friend “interview” you about what you’re creating, as well as what you’ve created in the past. This will get you into a mode of thinking critically about what you do and why you do it. You should probably record this interview for your own reference. If the interview itself doesn’t go as well as you wanted, there's still hope: I’ve done enough interviews to know that you often think of the best answers well after it's over, kind of like thinking of the ultimate comeback to an insult you received the day before. This is very frustrating in actual interviews, but very handy for this exercise, because even if the exercise initially yields nothing useful, it may just get your gears turning enough to help you find direction later.

You might also try re-writing your artist bio, but instead of just listing your accomplishments, write personal stories of how you came to be an artist and why your approach to creating is unique, notable or interesting. This is generally a better way of writing a bio anyway, so if you get a good result you've killed two birds with one stone. If you're writing an artist statement (as many visual artists must do) or just want to establish your "elevator pitch," you'll want to distill this philosophy down to as few words as possible (a short paragraph or even just a sentence or two). Then you just need to hang out near elevators all day and hope to see someone who can advance your career.

Again, you can always change your mind on these things, and evolving is something great creatives do. It's also important to note that you're under no obligation to tell anyone about your philosophy. It's perfectly acceptable to just use it as a personal guide without the need to declare it publicly. People are too damn nosey these days, anyway.

So before you create another thing, sit down and think through your artistic ideology. When you think you're on to something, you can use it as a guide for whatever your next project is. Even more importantly, if you discover some basic and essential aspects of your approach that you believe should be consistent in everything you do, go through what you've already created and start cutting out the things that don't fit in with that vision. This can really help you hone your niche and your brand. Now get philosophizing, Plato!

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