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Blog // Creativity
March 18, 2023

A Canon Of Creativity

A canon is a collection of inspired work. Learn how crafting your own canon can improve your creative output.

In his new book, The Creative Act, acclaimed music producer Rick Rubin devotes one chapter to the benefits of immersing yourself in work of great quality and spending less time on the noise that often fills our days.

Rubin believes that in order to be more creative we must approach life with a sense of curiosity, a desire to learn, a hunger for beauty, and an openness to being fascinated and surprised.

“In service of this robust instinct, consider submerging yourself in the canon of great works. Read the finest literature, watch the masterpieces of cinema, get up close to the most influential paintings, visit architectural landmarks.”
– Rick Rubin

I love that he chose the word canon. It has a fascinating history. We’ll explore why it’s fallen out of favour. But also why it’s still a good word to use, and how to develop this practice of “submerging yourself” that Rubin talks about and how it can help you become more creative.

What is a canon?

The Bible is perhaps the most famous example that comes to mind when we think of the word canon. Here, canon refers to a a collection of divinely inspired religious writings.

Not everyone agrees on what belongs in the canon, though. Followers of Judaism have a shorter list. Most Christians add a large number of works to their list, creating two sets within the canon, the Old and New Testaments. Some Christians add more works still, which get called the Apocrypha. Other Christians hold that there’s a kind of “canon within a canon”, where the four works that specifically refer to the life of Jesus are more important than the rest.

Within Christianity there are also different theories over what constitutes canonicity. Some say that all the words in every work were literally dictated by God, and that’s why they belong on the list. Others believe God inspired the writers, who then mostly wrote in the way human writers do, with occasional exaggerations and mistakes. But that inspiration is still evident and separates those works from others. Finally, some view inspiration as resting not in the writing as much as in the collecting, editing and grouping of canonical works. The decision to put something inside or outside the canon is the inspired moment.

How does this matter for us today?

Mostly it’s a cautionary tale. Making a canonical list of anything is challenging. Possibly we’re doomed to fail. However sure we are of our list, others will disagree, and that’s OK. Even once we finish our list it might seem provisional or incomplete, and that’s also OK.

What matters is making your list, setting your canon, then learning from it, living with it, and letting it change and inspire you.

A Canon Is A Growth Tool

Returning to Rick Rubin’s idea, how does crafting a canon foster more creativity?

First of all, it concentrates our attention on what Gary Rogoski calls “quality.” It tightens our sense of what makes the best work better. It helps us focus on the craft of what we’re passionate about.

“If you make the choice of reading classic literature every day for a year, rather than reading the news, by the end of that time period you’ll have a more honed sensitivity for recognizing greatness from the books than from the media.”
– Rick Rubin

Second, engaging consistently with great creative work shows us what’s possible. It gives us permission to take risks and embrace bolder ideas. It reminds us to be brave in our self-expression. Once again, Rubin makes the point:

“Nonetheless, exposure to great art provides an invitation. It draws us forward, and opens doors of possibility.”

All this talk of canons and quality might seem elitist. In some ways it is. It might mean spending a bit less time on the most recent things in popular culture or whatever happens to be trending on social media this week.

But the goal isn’t to become some kind of elitist for the sake of it. We’re not trying to win social status by doing this.

The objective is to concentrate on our own creativity, cultivate our appreciation of beauty and good craft, develop a sense for the skills and dedication that go into making great work, and expand our capacity for taking risks and standing out in the things we do.

A Further Problem with Canons

One problem with the idea of a canon of great works, whether it’s in art, books, film or music, is that those lists for a long time featured a preponderance of white men, mostly from Europe and North America.

Of course, this isn’t a new realization. We’ve been grappling with this at least as long as I’ve been alive.

The Sight and Sound list of The Greatest Films of all Time is a great example. The list is compiled every decade, and the last couple of editions have seen quite a bit of change. Look at the list today and it hits you as being spectacularly diverse. New films, old films, famous movies, obscure titles, cinema from all over the world.

But from 1962 to 2002 the list hardly changed at all.

As you can see in this excellent visual essay from the New York Times, part of what changed was the expansion of the list. By growing from 10 films to 100 it highlighted a wider range of films and filmmakers. It also gave more scope to reconsider older films as well.

As we make our own canon it’s worth considering what we might be excluding. Are our ideas of what is the best work a little outdated? Might we benefit from casting our net a little wider?

After all, the purpose of this exercise is to grow our capacity for curiosity and creative exploration.

Consume Criticism Carefully

There’s a commonplace if somewhat naive assumption that the job of a critic is to tell us whether a piece of creative work is good or bad. That’s not really the case. Expressed most simply, the job of a critic is to give us enough context to understand if and how a piece of work might be good or bad.

But the deeper work of criticism is to create canons.

A good critic is a kind of teacher who helps you become better at appreciating the kind of work they criticise. A film critic doesn’t just tell you whether or not a movie is worth seeing. They also remind of you what makes a film good. The good critic points you in the direction of their canon; the films they hold up as benchmarks of the craft of film-making. They call to mind the reason why you love films in the first place, why cinemas are our contemporary cathedrals, and why we enjoy talking about the films that touch us deeply.

Yes, it’s every bit as lofty as all that.

The Danger of Elitism

Over the years I’ve met plenty of people who take a perverse pleasure in telling you how they don’t watch television. They brag about how their refined sensitivity makes it impossible for them to consume low-quality mainstream art. TV is just rubbish, after all.

Except it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a long time.

It used to be that TV shows had tiny budgets (compared to film) and could draw a much smaller number of the most talented. That started changing in the 1990s and it hasn’t been like that for a long time. TV now has the budgets, talent, and production values to rival most films. Plus, it has longer episodes that allow for richer storytelling.

Whenever we talk about quality we run the risk of telling stories about the work that’s out there that are really more about our own desire for status and recognition.

For many people of my age, there’s a danger of falling into the same intellectual trap when in the matter of video games. We assume it’s just a junk form of entertainment. Our lack of engagement blinds us to the quality that exists in that realm, and the skills of the many creative people who work on games. So many movies and TV shows have been spun off from games, which speaks to the amazing storytelling and world-building that exists in some games.

Canons create Canons

The word “canon” came into our vocabulary from the Latin and later the French translations of the ancient greek word for “rule”. In theological circles, the word is sometimes still used in this way, to describe a rule or principle and even someone who lives according to a particular set of such rules.

I’m not suggesting we adopt this older use of the word canon.

But it’s worth reflecting on how the canon we choose, the list of great, inspired works on which we focus our attention, can shape the ideas and principles that guide our work.

A well-chosen canon of inspiring creative work will help us to derive aesthetic and technical principles and ideas that can inspire our own creative endeavours.

“The objective is not to learn to mimic greatness, but to calibrate our internal meter for greatness. So we can better make the thousands of choices that might ultimately lead to our own great work.”
– Rick Rubin

Don’t Shoot Yourself in The Foot With Your Canon

One final word of caution. As you make your list of great work and take the time to appreciate it, don’t compare your own efforts too harshly.

Ira Glass does a great job of highlighting how we can often get in our own way. When we start out, our sense of what is good is often far better developed than our ability to do good work. We can become excessively self-critical. It can even hold us back from trying or really committing to the things we try to do.

Instead, just make your lists, in whatever digital or paper format suits you. Spend time enjoying that great body of work, spend less time on the junk that usually fills our days, and let it seep into your view of the world and the work you do.

And enjoy the process.

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