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Idea Factory

Roger Vivier, the inventor of the stiletto heel, created this architectural masterpiece of a shoe in the mid 1960s. Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource NY (CNW Group/Bata Shoe Museum).

It’s next time again.

If you work in the creative arts and people like your work, sooner or later someone will ask, “Where do you get all these amazing ideas?” The question is usually well meaning and superficial but the answers can sometimes be profound. In an on-camera interview with one of the greatest shoe designers that ever lived we got an answer that had a truly profound effect on my life. Roger Vivier was Christian Dior’s shoe designer. He invented the platform sole (for Marlene Dietrich) and the stiletto heel. His answer was as elegant as his designs. He said, “I go to a museum to be inspired. I walk around and sometimes an idea will occur and sometimes not.” And then he dropped the other shoe. “Creativity is a gift of observation.” That simple phrase has supported me for my entire career. I take inspiration from it at least once a week.

Who doesn’t want more creative thinking in their lives? The words, “I have an idea!” always seem to take a boring meeting up a notch. If your business depends upon good ideas you have probably found interesting ways to cultivate your creativity. I’d be so interested to hear about your most effective techniques. This topic leads in all sorts of interesting directions. How does creativity really work? How does art cross-pollinate between cultures? How does art advance? How do ideas morph and develop as they move through society in different eras? These ideas even connect to the “usefulness”of art and its ability to inspire in all walks of life.

George Lois, a legend in the advertising world, created his famous 1968 Esquire cover of Muhammed Ali through inspirations from weekly visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Saint Sebastian that inspired Mr. Lois was painted by Botticini but it is no longer on public view at the Met. The one pictured above is by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1614, oil on canvas, 200×120cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany.

One of the great things about watching Mad Men is the glimpse you get into the creative process of advertising. George Lois is sometimes described as one of the “original” Mad Men. This is a characterization he doesn’t like very much, but I’m sure he approves of the recent attention he has received because of the show. I came across his work and ideas and was so impressed by his weekly habit of visiting the Metropolitan Museum.

“To constantly inspire breakthrough conceptual thinking I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art religiously every Sunday.” Lois goes on to say, “Lou Dorfman, design chief for CBS radio and leader the CBS television network for over 40 years once said, ‘In reality creativity is the ability to reach inside yourself and drag forth from your very soul an idea.’ However, nothing comes from nothing. You must continuously feed the inner beast that sparks and inspires. I contend the DNA of talent is stored within the great museums of the world. Museums are custodians of epiphanies and these epiphanies enter the central nervous system and the deep recesses of the mind.”

The Crucifixion of St. Paul by Caravaggio is a terrifying painting depicting the hard work of murder. Martin Scorcese is one of many filmmakers who adore Caravaggio and it is not only because of the painter’s masterful command of light and shadow. Painting by Caravaggio, c. 1601, oil on canvas, 230cm x 175cm, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome.

For the reasons articulated so well by George Lois, I find Art History to be one of the most pleasurable and practical uses of my time. One of the best books I have ever read about Art History is Andrew Graham-Dixon’s new biography of Caravaggio, Caravaggio – A Life Sacred & Profane.  Graham-Dixon describes Caravaggio’s work as “proto-cinematographic.” I found myself totally captivated by the amazingly dramatic story of Caravaggio’s life; his own search for creative inspiration (which Graham-Dixon describes with riveting clarity) and Caravaggio’s enormous impact on his contemporaries and followers. To give one brief example, Graham-Dixon describes how a Caravaggio painting completely “takes over a room.” Even if surrounded in a museum by other masterworks; there is something about Caravaggio’s sensuality and drama that keeps grabbing for your attention. Just like the entrance of a truly great actor, it is really hard to look at anything else when a Caravaggio comes on to the stage. Martin Scorsese provides additional insight as to why this is so.

A young and energetic Martin Scorsese directs Robert DiNiro in Raging Bull. Photo credit: United International Pictures

Scorsese is an enormously cultured and sophisticated filmmaker. It is no surprise his remarks about his study of Caravaggio are as insightful as his invaluable observations about the history of Cinema. A video of his conversation about Caravaggio with Andrew Graham-Dixon can be found here: Scorsese on Caravaggio. He draws inspiration from his many cultural interests. I loved it that he forced his crew to listen to one of his favorite Bach recordings as they shot one of the best sequences in his film, The Aviator. Scorsese knew he wanted that particular piece (and specific performance by Eugene Ormandy) for the soundtrack which would be used for pacing the scene in the editing suite. But, he decided the energy of the music would somehow inspire not only the actors, but also the crew, the mood and the entire cinematic chemistry if he had it playing on set during the filming. If creativity is a gift of observation, Martin Scorsese must sleep with one eye open.

He learned about Caravaggio from his collaborator Paul Schrader when they were working on Mean Streets. Schrader felt the paintings would speak to Scorsese. The intense and violent mood of some of the paintings is quoted in much of the filmmaker’s subsequent work. Scorsese points out when you look at a Caravaggio you are injected into the middle of the scene. What a great observation! I just love this idea. If you are going to paint a crucifixion there are all sorts of ways to do it. But look again at how Caravaggio did it! You are confronted with all the messy details. Bam! You are smack dab in the middle of a murder and you don’t know exactly how you got there and how you are going to get out of it but you can’t take your eyes off the violence. Sounds just like a Scorsese movie doesn’t it?

Michael Fassbender draws inspiration for his performance in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from an unlikely source – Peter O’Toole’s legendary portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia. Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

Another extraordinarily smart and cultured filmmaker is Ridley Scott. His summer blockbuster Prometheus is packed with cultural references. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who have not seen the film, but the way in which Scott quotes David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and in particular the acting genius of Peter O’Toole, is both brilliant and charming. Prometheus is a violent sci-fi futuristic horror movie but a beguiling Chopin étude haunts the score. The dominant visual impact of the film comes from Scott’s almost visceral collaboration with the painter H. R. Giger. Giger is a swiss artist, born in 1940, whose work is eerie, seductive and repulsive all at the same time. Ridley Scott made Giger world famous by using his creepy imagery as the powerful art direction for Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, Alien. The devastating final act of Prometheus is like a “Vulcan mind meld” with Giger’s brain. It hit me like a ton of bricks. The realization of Giger’s world through some sort of viscous and viral collaboration with Ridley Scott who spread the contagion to all of his crew; the craftsmen, the lighting technicians, the set designers, the CGI wizards – all of them infected and transformed by a mood which started with one guy and paint brush, is truly a testament to the power of good idea and the creative tenacity to take it as far as it possibly could go.

H. R. Giger painted this portrait of his muse, Li. The sadness and torment of the portrait is all the more unsettling when you learn that she later committed suicide. Image courtesy Museum HR Giger, Château St. Germain, 1663 Gruyères, France.

While it is fun to examine the seeds of inspiration sown by art in the making of great films and other other creative disciplines, do these ideas find any purchase in the business world? One of my really smart attorney friends told me about his creative process. He is in the business of good ideas. After all, people are coming to him for his advice. He said he learns as much as he can about the case and then he lives with it a bit. He said, “It is always there, just in the back of your mind.” And then, in due course, he said things just mentally fall into place. He did not mention art specifically but he describes an unforced organic Eureka moment that is not necessarily the result of direct concentration upon the matter at hand. I somehow knew exactly what he meant. I find this process fascinating. “Chance favors the prepared mind” (see Sarah’s comment below) is another way of looking at it, and I think this is what an active, positive Museum experience can bring to the mechanics of the creative process. You observe – actively. You learn. You investigate whatever strikes your mood. You look at great Art and Film and listen to great music and in those moments of appreciation (after the homework is done on the particular problem) and suddenly there it is! A solution – a really good solution. A solution that is grounded in preparation and soars to transcend the limitations of the situation blocking the insight. It is a complete joy when this happens and I think the atmosphere created by great Art is conducive to the nurturing and the constructive exploitation of these moments.

Jean Cocteau, the French poet, said of his painter friend, Christian Bérard, “He could pluck naked beauty from the thin air in which she resides.” I could not help but think of that quote as I read more about George Lois’ creative process.

He writes, “Creativity is not created – it is there for us to find. It is an act of discovery. Great advertising comes down to the big idea, but I never create the ideas that characterize my work. I discovered them – snared from the air as they float by me. Michelangelo said that a sculpture is imprisoned in a block of marble and only a great sculptor can set it free. Sounds mystical, perhaps, but after doing the requisite homework to understand the product, its competitors, etc., ideas and advertising are ignited by the sparks and sounds of an understanding of 7000 years of the history of mankind.”

He goes on to say, “Plato defined “idea” (EIDOS) as a mental image. I don’t create that mental image in my head. I somehow see it in my minds eye, floating by me, and I reach out and grab it. So if you’re trying to achieve greatness in any creative industry, go out into the world and sail the ocean blue and live a life of discovery.”

Until next time with much love,


5 Responses to “Idea Factory”

  1. Hi Tom!

    This is a wonderful reminder that creativity hangs somewhere in the balance between receptivity and activity, or practice. This brings a few things to mind. Louis Pasteur: Dans les champs de l’observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares. The definition of serendipity is the meeting of accident with sagacity. Serendipity is contingent on reception, and receptivity is a condition itself of practiced attention and cultivated intuition. Space must be cleared for magic to happen. Otherwise we live in and with the boundaries of ordinary making.

  2. Tommaso, so glad to read your great article. While studying my Masters in Painting, I had to concentrate for an art history class in two paintings of Caravaggio for the entire semester, “The Deposition” and “The Death Of The Virgin Mary”…Having been raised in Catholic schools, the subject matter had been exposed for many years, but certainly Caravaggio’s approach are masterpieces of inspiration. the summer after writing the paper I was lucky to visit the Vatican and the Louvre, where I was rewarded to see the originals. I agree that the museum experience is a must, in order to get inspiration and search for ideas. Your eye is trained to select what interests you, and the joy to explore and find treasures is never ending. A couple of years ago, while visiting the MET, I entered a room and I saw a painting depicting the Virgin Mary with Jesus as a child and also st John as a child. It was an amazing Caravaggio that I had never seen before…it wasn’t in any of my art books, and later I read that it had been in a private collection in France and recently put on displayed. I see his influence in movies as well…the last scene of “Sunset Boulevard” when Norma Desmond is descending the staircase, looks like a Caravaggio painting. It’s fun to see the possible roots where artists have found inspiration to create their works…
    Thank Tom for an inspiring subject!
    Caravaggio at the Met

  3. I explore a different sort of museum every weekend—the library. In search of patterns, I collect and rearrange the most powerful quotes into a narrative flow (some of which, as in drama, directly contradict):

    “…human creation is not from nothing (ex nihilo, on divine lines) but from something or someone else (ex aliis…)”
    “I need a stimulus to give me an idea so that I can change it and incorporate it into something else. For example, sometimes going out to eat is part of the compositional process.”
    “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.”
    “Poetry is always the result of flooding.”
    “Only through the development of discipline will the shaman’s habitual ways of seeing and behaving dissolve, and the visionary realms open.”
    “Creativity does not result from mysterious visions that come in dreams, or from fortuitous circumstances. Creativity and persistence are synonyms. Constantly thinking about the problem, consciously and unconsciously, maximizes the possibility that any chance occurrence is likely to be useful in solving it.”
    “…work goes on whether you want it to or not. Most of the stuff that goes on up front in the mind is just like flies buzzing. The work is going on on a deep level. The important thing is to get the space, and get rid of the flies, so that the results of the work can surface and be there for you when you need it.”
    “My best poems are the ones that came to me with no effort.”
    “Thinking about what you are doing degrades your ability to do it.”

    (“Creativity in Language & Literature” by Rob Pope and Joan Swann; “Talking Music” by William Duckworth, interview with John Zorn; Ranier Maria Rilke; “The Secret History of Dreaming” by Robert Moss; “Shaman, the Wounded Healer” by Joan Halifax; “The Man who Tasted Shapes” by Richard E. Cytowic; “Talking Music” by William Duckworth, interview with Pauline Oliveros; Sarah Arvio quoted in “Muses, Madmen, and Prophets” by Daniel B. Smith; “The Man who Tasted Shapes” by Richard E. Cytowic)

  4. Dear Tommaso,
    You again bring such a brilliant focus to the issue of art, to creativity, to our efforts to see! I love the thread about Caravaggio and Scorcese. I think your insights here are wonderful, and visually, totally right-on! I love the insight about museums. I have recently been walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, as I shared with you, and it made me very aware of the way museums and cathedrals both have a way of showing us art in the time in which they were given– I found the crucifixion of Paul painting in your blog breathtaking. There were many St. Sebastian paintings and statues on the pilgrimage, and that too was interesting– to see the way different artists approached the subject. The Esquire photo of Muhammed Ali was a new one to me. In Spain, I was able to see the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, and walk through the Gehry labyrinth of curved metal walls– it was very interesting and powerful to be in it— not just seeing photos of it. I love what you said about getting insights and inspiration from continuing to be observant of the work of other artists. Have you seen the paintings of the sea by Ran Ortner?? I am just thrilled with the one they put in the June magazine “The Sun”– fantastic light in/on water– like an Old Master. The interview of him certainly has many insights as well, into art and meaning. I love the quote you gave from Jean Cocteau— what a perfect tribute! I was so aware of the history of art as we walked through the museum of Human Evolution in Burgos– a fantastic space dedicated to the archeological findings from the local dig at Atapuerca, as well as all the known paleo-anthropology. I remember the paintings from the caves at Santillana del Mar– which are now projected onto a big canvas in the museum– much easier and more impressive to see than in a poorly-lit cave. Bless you for giving me another feast of food for thought! THANKS also, for the great posting on my blog of the pilgrimage!

  5. Great blog, Tom – as always, a feast of insights and images, too many for me to comment on. Glad you got into Graham-Dixon’s “Caravaggio” (brilliant book) and even gladder that you mentioned George Lois, who had one of the fastest minds I’ve ever encountered. I got to know him in 1983 when I launched a new film magazine “The Movies.” His “Esquire” covers in the ’60s had been a great inspiration for my first magazine “Seattle,” which got into a lot of trouble for putting cheeky Lois-like images of a Black Panthers enforcer and a middle-class gay businessman on the cover. “The Movies,” alas, lasted only 5 issues before we ran out of money. I wanted to do a “final” 6th issue and went to George for some ideas. I brought along a bunch of movie stills for inspiration and within a minute George seized on one and said, “There’s your cover.” The still he picked was from “Terms of Endearment” – a between-shots image of Jack Nicholson sitting on a director’s stool surrounded by what looked like an ocean of water. He was wearing his usual arch smirk, one eyebrow raised. George said, “Run this with the caption “Can this magazine be saved?” I loved it, but we couldn’t come up with the dough. George Lois – a brilliant flash artist!