I recently had the good fortune to catch the David Bowie exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before it closed and I can’t stop thinking about it. The exhibit explored more than five decades in the extraordinary career of David Bowie as a pioneer, cultural icon, innovator, and influencer of music, art, design, fashion and more.
Perhaps what continues to fascinate me is the insight the exhibit provided into Bowie’s creative process. As a wall panel noted “All artists take ideas from the world around them but few spread the net so wide or create something so new with what they find. (Bowie’s) skill in filtering all ideas to find exactly what he needs is the major contributor to his success.”
I find Bowie’s creative process inspiring and think it translates into many fields – including mine. Here are my takeaways:
- What you say and how you say it matters – Bowie was a prolific artist whose prose was poetic yet exact. Simon Price, head of the Victoria & Albert Museum explains, “(Bowie) put words together for the way they feel together aesthetically as much as for the meaning. Just the beauty of the words together… fizzles and crackles.” Bowie is a ruthless editor of his own art, for example, changing the lyrics to “Rebel Rebel” several times, ultimately landing on the line “we like dancing and we look divine” because he was dissatisfied with “we like dancing and we like to ball.”
- Be courageous – A compelling vision that engages others requires a certain fearlessness, a willingness to risk failure. Bowie says he was not aiming to be a rock star. Rather, he viewed himself as an instigator of new ideas with the intent of turning people on to new perspectives. At the height of the success of Ziggy Stardust Bowie retired the character, surprising everyone. Unbeknownst to anyone, he was already crafting his next persona, Aladdin Sane (A lad insane?). He would go on to create and kill off various popular personas throughout his career with impunity as he explored different perspectives and shared them with the world.
- Borrow; make ideas your own – Bowie possesses an uncanny ability to transform ideas into his own, making them seem original. He said Ziggy Stardust, his most famous invented character, was modeled on Vince Taylor a British-born pop singer. And Ziggy’s gender is an amalgam of samurai warrior and kabuki onnagata – the male actors who play female roles in Japanese theatre. As the exhibit curators explained, “Bowie channeled the avant-garde into populist mainstream without compromising its subversive, liberating power.”
- Collaborate – David Bowie’s genius lies in the many collaborations that energize him; he is always actively looking for the best people to work with. Over the years, he has produced, written or performed with many other artists. For instance he wrote “All the Young Dudes” for Mott the Hoople, co-wrote “Fame” with John Lennon, collaborated with Queen on “Under Pressure,” toured and played keyboard for Iggy Pop.
- Embrace Change – David Bowie is often categorized as the ultimate chameleon. His career is one of constant re-invention and creative exploration. Bowie once joked, “ I re-invented my image so many times that I'm in denial that I was originally an overweight Korean woman." As his song urges, “Turn and face the change.”
David Bowie once said, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know it won’t be boring.” Perhaps there is a lesson in that for us all.