The Creative Society
Moderating our politics in order to uphold beauty in the face of a world that insults it.
In upholding beauty, we prepare the way for the day of regeneration when civilization will give first place—far ahead of the formal principles and degraded values of history—to this living virtue on which is founded the common dignity of man and the world he lives in, and which we must now define in the face of a world that insults it.
Albert Camus, L'Homme révolté
Beauty will save the world
Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously and emphatically proclaimed that “Beauty will save the world.”
More specifically, he channeled it through Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin: the protagonist of his 1869 novel The Idiot. Dostoyevsky’s way of doing philosophy was to cloak it in fiction, garnish it with stories, and hundreds of pages later consummate it with the vivid imagery of an entire universe. If only we paid attention.
A full century after Dostoyevsky penned his prophecy, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on these five words and the true nature of art and beauty in his 1970 Nobel Prize speech (emphasis mine):
There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.
We arrive at the profound insight hiding behind the words of a prince who’s creator called “a perfectly beautiful man”: beauty is transcendental. This may sound vague and abstract, but it is in fact the complete opposite—it is the only thing that all of us know to be true.
The way forward is beautiful
To illustrate the transcendental nature of beauty, the way it leaps above and beyond our earthly politics, consider the performing arts—music1, film, and the like.
Today, we suffer from a crisis of antagonized elites, where those doing the most to move humanity forward (if you disagree, keep reading) are also the most hated public figures today. Whatever you think about Musk and Bezos, ask yourself why these attitudes don’t typically bleed into music and Hollywood. Nobody is asking their favorite musicians to play for free or to unplug the microphone, get off the stage, and do something more productive with their lives. Nobody asks their favorite artist or actress or musician to pay more taxes, despite some having net worths in the billions and most being significantly more exuberant with their wealth than Musk and Bezos.
This surely can’t be a case of where to draw the line, can it? Having a billion dollars is immoral but having half a billion dollars is just fine? No, it is not a question of mathematics. It is a question of aesthetics.
One plausible reason for why people spare artists from these critiques is that what they do is more obviously beautiful than what our antagonized elites do. Everybody loves music, everyone has a favorite musician. A world without film is an obviously bleak world. Sadly, it is difficult to make the same claim for Bezos and Musk—many people are simply and straightforwardly politically opposed to the idea that SpaceX is beautiful.
The beauty of the performing arts, in this case, and art more generally, transcends our political attitudes. To artists, many of the same rules and criticisms simply do not apply. The solution here is not to try and influence people’s perceptions of beauty from a cultural perspective, which is impossible in a sufficiently pluralistic society, and neither is it to ask the State to get involved in matters of aesthetics, as this would effectively kill art2.
Instead, the solution is to anchor our politics in the idea and the possibility of beauty, whatever that may be to whoever is concerned. It is not my beauty, nor is it yours: it is the possibility and respect for any sort of beauty at all. It is not my music, nor is it yours: it is the possibility and respect for the sound of music itself.
This is where most of us fall short. It is easy to defend our own conceptions of beauty and, in doing so, tyrannically project our aesthetics onto the world with a scorched-earth policy, razing all fields in the name of beauty. When Dostoyevsky said beauty will save the world, he forgot to add that we must allow it to. Beauty transcends politics and our societal quarrels, but only if we let it. By framing our politics in terms of beauty, and by resisting the prideful temptation to dominate it, we can create a better world.
The way forward is beautiful.
Creativity: the supreme virtue
Ultimately, art and beauty owe their existence to nothing other than human creativity.
The beautiful world calls on us to nurture, grow, and exalt human creativity above all else. The collective goal of humankind should be to nurture and grow creativity and the ideal society is a creative one, where creativity is exalted above all else.
Creativity is the supreme virtue and, from this premise, everything else follows.
We already know this, but we have gotten lost playing politics. No culturally dominant political philosophy today satisfies all of the conditions necessary to nurture, grow, and value human creativity—none of them treat creativity as the supreme virtue that we know it to be.
I am calling for a society that explicitly prioritizes human creativity and works backwards from there. Unfortunately, today’s dominant political philosophies are materially anti-creative in very meaningful ways; none of them satisfy all of the conditions necessary to nurture, grow, and value human creativity.
Building is a political philosophy. It is neither red nor blue, progressive nor conservative. It is averse to the political short-termism and zero-sum thinking that permeates our aging institutions that won’t protect us in this era.
Building is a political philosophy. Another way to phrase this: our politics should be anchored in a culture of building and of creativity. In our current moment, the politics on both the right and the left betray the conditions necessary for a healthy, creative society.
From the right, creativity is threatened by the relentless and unmoderated pursuit of growth and profit—we all know the story here: the sterile pop star who’s every song is written by a team of ten, the movie franchise that gets ruined after one too many sequels, the television series that gets botched when its final season is turned into a two-part fourteen episode bender with a plot that is entirely devoid of any substance whatsoever.
But this problem is not an existential one, nor is it an indictment of capitalism. We know how to avoid these pitfalls. We have some resoundingly beautiful, very capitalist examples of creativity as the supreme virtue among us today. Two in particular come to mind: Billie Eilish and Pixar.
I have personally come across ~5 people on the internet today who understand and appreciate Billie Eilish on a deep, fundamental level. One of those people is Skye Paine, a French professor with a YouTube channel where he posts comprehensive, sometimes hour-long, reviews of popular albums. In only the first few minutes of his review of Billie’s latest album Happier Than Ever, Skye explains the magic of Billie Eilish and the magnitude of the moment we are living through (I recommend listening to the first three minutes). In Skye’s words:
With Billie Eilish, art is driving everything.
Not commerce, not the desire for popularity, but the same way that the creative impulse has driven artists for centuries and millenia, that is what is driving this album. That is what drives Billie Eilish.
And we just haven’t seen it before.
The story of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas is the story of two homeschooled siblings doing the same thing they have done for their entire lives4: make art in their room. We are talking sweeping the Grammies and becoming the most exciting and dynamic pop star and producer on the planet, respectively, by sitting in their childhood bedroom and making music. It is completely insane and totally beautiful. Pure, intrinsic, unfettered creativity free from the clutches of the record label complex and immune to the Icarian hubris that plagues so much of art today.
The second example is Pixar:
Gonzalo Nuñez @gonzalo__nunezI noticed this while at Pixar. The Story Artists were so fast that it even the most sophisticated optimizations at the time (2016) were not enough — too laggy. Speed is confidence. https://t.co/zXB2DZkRm2
Pixar is an example of sustained, moderated, and disciplined creativity: it has produced 25 feature films spanning 27 years. In Pixar we see a fundamental understanding about the nature of creativity: you cannot scale creative output by simply hiring more people.
With 1200 employees, they make ~3 movies every 2 years. No more, no less. The discipline needed to sustain this pace and fight the temptation for explosive growth is extremely commendable, especially if you contrast this with the growth of computers and Moore’s law—via that lens, by staying still you’re almost moving backwards. But, in any other scenario that involves chasing metrics on a dashboard, Pixar fails to maintain its cultural relevance a full quarter-century after its first feature-length film Toy Story is released in 1995. Simply put, they would put out way too many flops—another case of Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Creativity as the supreme virtue is how we inject humility, patience, and discipline into capitalism and avoid its common creative pitfalls. No bursting into flames, none of the wax melting off of our wings, just vibes, forever.
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From the left, the threats to creativity are more subtle and, as a result, more dangerous. The left’s problem is that, in the relentless pursuit for equality, it becomes very illiberal, very quickly. It kills freedom and stops celebrating individual differences and individual greatness, all of which are essential conditions for creativity.
Take, for example, the notion of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion, for the uninitiated). Diversity is a necessary condition for freedom and creativity. It is not my music, nor is it yours, it is the sound of any music at all. Creativity, being open-ended by nature, calls for diversity, by definition.
Inclusion, the next leg of the three-legged stool of wokeness, is a surface-layer quality. It can perfectly well be a positive (in the philosophical sense) addition to almost any philosophy—it is nothing more than being nice to people. Also a good thing!
The culprit lies with the notion of equity. We all know how the story goes here as well: the emphasis for equal opportunity quickly turns into the emphasis for equal outcomes, leading to the rescinding of merit-based admissions and eliminating algebra from high schools, etc. Anybody even moderately acquainted with the hot topics of the culture war should be able to come up with a few examples of this same phenomenon. Like most issues on the left, this is not a question of judging intentions but one of judging results and second-order effects. Equality of outcomes is anti-creative, and an obsession with equality as the supreme virtue very quickly rears its illiberal horns.
Nietzsche understood this and, around roughly the same time that Dostoyevsky made his proclamation, left us with a prophecy of his own:
And "will to equality”, that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and we shall raise outcry against everything that has power!
You preachers of equality, thus from you the tyrant-madness of impotence cries for “equality”: thus your most secret tyrant-appetite disguises itself in words of virtue.
Equality as the supreme virtue condemns individual greatness, which is a necessary condition for creativity. Nietzsche was attempting to “formulate the conditions under which we may hope to recover a conception of greatness, above all that kind of greatness which we associate with creativity.”
Again—we place our musicians up on stages and our athletes up on podiums for a reason. It is ok to be great. In fact, it is great to be great. It is great that we have great people doing great things!
Hannah Arendt also understood this, and in a very nuanced way: she condemned the “perversion of equality from a political into a social concept”. For Arendt, equality serves as a way for us to organize politically, but that is about as far as it goes. I don’t mean to understate the importance of equality in the political sphere, quite the opposite—the quickest way to kill creativity is to have the State decide who is allowed to sing. Equality in the political sphere is a necessary condition for creativity, as it protects diversity.
Socially, however, we must leave space for individual differences—this is a pro-diversity argument! There exists a threshold beyond which the emphasis for equality consumes everything in its wake, destroying the societal conditions necessary for creativity to flourish.
By exalting creativity, we moderate our most extreme political tendencies in service of what really matters. We protect ourselves against the biggest threats from the dominant political ideologies of the current moment: the unbridled pursuit of growth from the right and the erosion of individual greatness from the left.
Creativity is the supreme virtue.
The one that chose to create
In some sense, the vacuum left behind by our politics is by design. It was the trade-off that the founders of modern liberalism like Hobbes and Locke made, says Francis Fukuyama, in a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart. In liberalism they devised a system of government for “peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies.” It sought to “lower the aspirations of politics”, but this has not come without its shortcomings. Its non-prescriptive nature produces “a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing.”
By definition, the solution to this vacuum is not a political one—it must come from the cultural sphere in order to fit in the liberal mold. Fukuyama argues for a return to the Greek virtue of moderation sophrosyne (Greek: σωφροσύνη), and he is right in prescribing us this solution: moderation is what we see embodied in the creativity of Billie Eilish and the nuance of Arendt. Moderation for moderation’s sake, however, is a difficult concept to grasp and neither is it a very exciting proposition.
That is why we must anchor ourselves in creativity. Moderation for creativity’s sake has a shape and a direction. Beauty is something that everyone feels and, like Solzhenitsyn reminds us, has a way of being completely irrefutable and forcing even opposing hearts to surrender.
It is on us to recognize the beauty in everything and protect the possibility of beauty itself. There is beauty inherent to all creative endeavors: reusable rockets and interplanetary travel, 1-click ordering and last-mile delivery, violin concertos and food delivery startups.
One thousand years from now, when the only thing that will have moved us forward is the same thing that always has, what type of world will you be wishing we had lived in today? The one that chose to create.
… instead of killing and dying in order to produce the being that we are not, we have to live and let live in order to create what we are.
Albert Camus, L'Homme révolté
There is a long history of the tyrannical desire to control art. One of the most salient examples is Walter Benjamin, who attempted to reach up into the clouds and strangle art, submitting it to the style and will of the revolution—an impossible task, as art calls for freedom. Art without freedom is not art, it is propaganda.
This is a fantastic piece and worth reading in-full.