“Make good art’ is Neil Gaiman’s prescription for whatever ails you. If the job market isn’t there, if your boss doesn’t respect you, if the world doesn’t get you – make good art.
If it’s not working, then make better art.
If you don’t know how to make better art, learn.
If the people around you are sabotaging your art, ignore them.
If your boss stops your art, make different art. If he stops it again, take responsibility and make different art. Keep doing it until your art gets better or you get fired, whichever happens first.
…And then make. more. art.” -Seth Godin
Just a few days ago, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away. For reasons I’m still trying to sort out, I was rather surprisingly struck by this loss.
Firstly and foremost, PSH was a profoundly talented actor. His breadth of perfection is second to few, and entirely his own. He’s given performances that rival those of Daniel Day Lewis and but he’s also got the tenure and breadth of a Kevin Spacey, not to mention the modesty of eschewing the celebrity’s life. And unlike the Matt Damons and George Clooneys of the world, Philip Seymour Hoffman was our everyman, complete only in imperfection.
But beyond a brilliance cut short, there was also the shameful backlash against the circumstances of his death that ate at me. It’s nothing new to know what happens to the light that burns twice as bright, PSH was a recovering heroin addict. To lose a life to addiction is god damn travesty, especially such a brilliant one. And perhaps through wrestling with my own demons, and perhaps through documenting the struggles of comedians, and perhaps even from witnessing a few people in my own life taken by addiction, I’ve got a well of empathy in my heart for the occasion. So my grief was only matched by my disappointment with how quickly so many outlets and people cast him and his canon of work aside as a product of being “one of those people”.The type of people that aren’t people like you and me. They’re sick and weak… fundamentally different. And just as quickly they pat themselves on the back, proud that they didn’t turn out like him… an addict.
I was immediately reminded of the reaction to Adam Lanza’s Autism, Chris Dorner’s “justice,” and Carnell Marcus’ “monsters.” Long before Ted Kaczynski became the Unabomber, he was outcast mathematical prodigy, who would later go on to write the most well respected Neo-Luddite treatise that even some of the most technology forward thinkers can’t help but tip their hat to today. These people acted like animals because the were treated like animals, but at the end of the day, they never were anything less than human. They were sick. Starved of humanity until their lost their own. Of course, in all the bloodlust, we forget how quickly we’ll forsake our own in the name of “justice.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman never lost his humanity, but no less quickly were many people lining up to decry his imperfections, assign the blame, and cast him aside. I understand it, it’s evolutionarily advantageous to exile the sick, the weak, the lame, and the handicapped; But at some point we need to start exercising that pre-frontal cortex by extending some empathy to our fellow man. Until we can see our own capacity for darkness, our own capacity for sickness and weakness, and our own capacity for inhumanity, we’re asking for trouble. There are over 7 Billion people on this planet and counting. Technology is accelerating far quicker than our own understanding of it. Society is the most complex, mysterious, and potentially dangerous invention we’ve brought to this earth. Unless we can learn to extend our empathy to our fellow man and biosphere, then, in the words of Jeremy Rifkin, “I just don’t see… how we’re going to make it…”
All of this is to say that what I really had eating at me was a burning desire to start on my next project, Outliers, as I’m calling it. A culmination of my writing here on empathy, my background in operations management, my non-fiction habit, and my filmmaking addiction. Philip Seymour Hoffman is just the latest victim of a sick society getting sicker. And until we start learning from our outliers, those that fall outside of “normal,” we’re going to be completely unprepared for what comes next as the mean continues to slide down social health scale. (More on Outliers later)
Which brings me to my last disappointment/grief. I was saddled with this melancholy and empathic drive to create on a Monday, at my day job, helping to keep prices low and profits high for a chemical company that had all too recently broken it’s promise to the well-being of it’s people. I was sitting at my desk, mourning the death of a true artist, and I couldn’t bring myself to just leave.
In the meantime, with what free-time my life affords me, my only recourse is to make good art.
“There are two kinds of sufferers in this world: those who suffer from a lack of life… and those who suffer from an overabundance of life. I’ve always found myself in the second category.
When you come to think of it, almost all human behavior and activity is not essentially any different from animal behavior. The most advanced technologies and craftsmanship bring us, at best, up to the super-chimpanzee level. Actually, the gap between, say, Plato or Nietzsche and the average human is greater than the gap between that chimpanzee and the average human. The realm of the real spirit, the true artist, the saint, the philosopher, is rarely achieved. Why so few?
Why is world history and evolution not stories of progress, but rather this endless and futile addition of zeroes? No greater values have developed. Hell, the Greeks years ago were just as advanced as we are. So what are these barriers that keep people from reaching anywhere near their real potential?
The answer to that can be found in another question, and that’s this: Which is the most universal human characteristic–fear or laziness?” -Robert Mackey