Artists and creative work as vehicles for ideas

31 March 2021
31 Mar 2021

I spent an afternoon this weekend at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it got me thinking about artists and writers as vehicles for ideas.

A couple of posters at an exhibit in MoMA

The most conventional view of creative work has the artist (or writer, author, videographer, whatever you want to call them) as the main character. An artist conjures ideas out of their experience and beliefs, and renders it into reality. But I think there’s a more insightful perspective, which is to look at the cultural phenomenon of creative work with ideas as the main character.

An idea here is defined really broadly. An idea can be a statement or thesis, like the ones I write for my blog posts. An idea can also be a specific artistic style or the influence of a particular school of thought or social movement.

The ideas that survive and proliferate are the ones that most effectively spread from mind to mind. This is the basic premise of memetics. In this perspective, artists do not create and distribute ideas. Ideas find their way to artists who are captured by them, and then ideas spread to other people through the work that the artist creates. From an idea’s point of view, artists and creative works are both just the medium through which ideas proliferate. Ideas hitchhike through the world by spreading from creator to creator and artwork to artwork.

The difference between an artist and an artwork is that an artwork can spread to many people at once, rapidly. Especially in the current era, great artwork, fueled by mediums that distribute quickly

If we understand creative work as the process by which ideas spread, one interesting implication is that artists aren’t sources of ideas most of the time. They merely absorb and transform them before sharing them out again in a different form. An artist or creator is one step in a much longer chain of transformation that ideas pass through, from mind to paper to mind to paper.


Art is a hologram of all that is not art