I’ve talked about the different types of creative legacies as a way for you to think about your goals, and how to balance your creative goals with other concerns, be they financial or critical.
I find that artists respond to success in one of two ways: to double-down on what made them successful in the first place (“Consistent Refiner”) or to continue to explore in unexpected ways (“Relentless Innovator”).
I don’t personally feel like I’ve yet reached a level where I’ve needed to contend with expectations based on my past work. But real-world examples are important, so here are some examples of how artists have responded to success.
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The members of Monty Python (who recently reunited for a one-off “final” performance) had a goal when they formed their comedy troupe. As Terry Jones, one of the members, explained:
“One of the things we tried to do with the show was to try and do something that was so unpredictable that it had no shape and you could never say what the kind of humor was. And I think that the fact that ‘Pythonesque’ is now a word in the Oxford English Dictionary shows the extent to which we failed.”
What he is saying, in effect, is that Monty Python set out to be a Relentless Innovator, but instead became a Consistent Refiner.
But what a “failure.” Regardless of what you think of Monty Python, it’s impossible to argue that as comedy goes, they have been widely successful. Whether on not the “Knights who say Ni” or the parrot that is “definitely deceased” are funny to you, you’ve probably heard of both of these skits. (And in terms of cultural influence, the reason we call junk email “spam” is due to them, at least indirectly.)
But judging from the above quote, Monty Python’s goal was to constantly reinvent their own brand of comedy, such that no one could predict what they were going to do next. And in this respect alone, they were a failure.
When you think of Monty Python humor, you know exactly what kind of humor it is. The overly optimistic shop owner. The imbecilic housewives. The anti-silliness Colonel. The Gumbys. All of these ideas were once revolutionary, or at least new-ish (they owe a great deal to The Goon Show, even if few people know The Goon Show today). For the first few years of the Flying Circus, they experimented with the medium, but when they achieved success, the true experimentation stopped.
During the reunion show, there was a skit I hadn’t seen before, a conversation between the Michelangelo and the Pope. And while humorous, this was clearly in the same vein as The Pet Shop, The Cheese Shop, and a dozen other skits. We laughed, but was a laughter based on a familiar premise.
Monty Python does what they do, and we all know what they do. I personally love them, but whether you love them or hate them, they haven’t surprised us in a long time.
The Thin White Duke
Very few artists have the ability to reinvent themselves in such a way that we expect the unexpected from them, while largely enjoying their output. And one of the most successful artists that I can think of that falls into this category is David Bowie.
David Bowie found his first burst of fame in the Space Oddity era, but he gained creative immortality with his Ziggy Stardust persona. This was both a musical sound but also an actual character, inextricably linked with him as an artist.
And then he threw it away. Just retired the persona.
Crazy? Stupid? He could have toiled in obscurity for the rest of his career. He could have been remembered as the guy who was Ziggy Stardust, and then was never heard from again. Such is the fickleness of success.
Instead, he became The Thin White Duke, went and recorded the Berlin Trilogy, survived the 80’s with only a bit of regret, went electronic, and today is still surprising people, even with his most recent album. He has not stopped at music either, having worked in other areas such as film and the visual arts.
David Bowie has never shed who David Bowie is; you can find a distinct personal thread throughout all his work. But he has never restricted himself to doing a single creative thing. Indeed, he is one of the few musicians who can truly be said to have successfully pursued Relentless Innovation.
In each of these cases, the artists in question faced a choice when confronted with success: what would they do now? In Monty Python’s case, they chose to continue on with what they had done before. In David Bowie’s case, my guess is that he felt compelled to continue to innovate, being naturally creatively restless. (In fact, I’d also argue that some of the individual members of Monty Python, namely John Cleese and Terry Gilliam, also fit into this mold as well.)
These artists were/are incredibly successful, each pursuing their work in their own way. Similarly, the question of your creative legacy is purely a personal choice. As you continue your work, always be mindful about what is important to you. You will eventually need to face this choice.
(And while researching this piece, I found out that David Bowie actually had a cameo in a Monty Python spin-off movie. There’s a QED in there somewhere.)
Who do you think of as a Relentless Innovator? As a Consistent Refiner?