Creation, adversaries and disruption: The War of Art, fundamentalism and humanism

In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield puts in terms of art fundamentalism and humanism.

I usually read the book once or twice a year, and this is the first time this particular passage has jumped out at me.

The main character (if you will) of this book is Resistance — whatever it is that is standing between the creative individual and the act of creating. Resistance could be anything from agreeing to meet your friends for the game to spending three hours at the gym to deciding on just one more nap or one more cup of coffee or — worst of all — waiting for inspiration instead of sitting down to do the work.

It’s certainly not the first time since I’ve been reading and re-reading War of Art that I’ve thought about fundamentalism or about humanism, but maybe we should look a little bit about what they are before diving into what Pressfield has to say about art (and by art, he means something creative — books, screenplays, sculpture, painting, etc.).

Fundamentalism, says, is:

1. (sometimes initial capital letter) a religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts, especially within American Protestantism and Islam.
2. the beliefs held by those in this movement.
3. strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles: the fundamentalism of the extreme conservatives.

And since the definitions of humanism vary so greatly, including one that disavows God (while Pressfield specifically includes God), I’ll include only the first:

any system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity predominate.

So, a fundamentalist is someone who subscribes to literal texts, while a humanist is pro-people.

“The fundamentalist (or, more accurately, the beleaguered individual who comes to embrace fundamentalism),” Pressfield writes, “cannot stand freedom. He cannot find his way into the future, so he retreats to the past.”

“Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive,” he continues. “There is no such thing as fundamentalist art. This does not mean that the fundamentalist is not creative. Rather, his creativity is inverted. He creates destruction. Even the structures he builds, his schools and networks of organization, are dedicated to annihilation, of his enemies and of himself.”


Fundamentalism and art are mutually exclusive.


I put extra space around that because it’s a good reminder that the narrower your mind, the less you are capable of.

It gets worse:

But the fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil One, seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.

Pressfield reminds us that the fundamentalists who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center frequented strip clubs during their training, that their promised reward was to be a harem of virgins in heaven. They were most drawn to the things their teachings said were evil.


The fundamentalist puts his greatest creativity into the perfect avatar for the thing he most despises.


“The humanist,” on the other hand, he writes, “believes that humankind, as individuals, is called upon to co-create the world with God.”

What’s the difference? Pressfield:

While the one looks forward, hoping to create a better world, the other looks backward, seeking to return to a purer world from which he and all have fallen.

“When fundamentalism wins,” he writes, “the world enters a dark age.”

Where are we right now?

I love people. As individuals. As a collective, not so much.

We create tribes. It used to be important: we were resource-poor, inadequately defended and we needed to band together to prevent tigers from eating our babies, monkeys from stealing our food and other tribes from killing our men, raping our women and taking our stuff.

Now, it just gives us a reason to despise others for dumb reasons, like what they look like and what they believe. I’ve written and spoken enough about that in public forums. I’m not here to beat a dead horse.

But if you talk to individuals, you’ll find most of them are rational, generous and empathetic, even if they don’t have a lot of empathy. They are willing to share resources if you ask. They have reasons for what they believe, even if that reason is inheritance (“I believe this because my parents believed it”). They will help a person in pain.

So, if there’s a dichotomy between fundamentalists and humanists (it’s more likely, of course, that it’s a spectrum and there’s a lot of nuance and many other points along the way), I’m firmly on the humanist side.

I keep thinking about John Baldessari, who cremated his early work. This has been my Resistance point. I wrote about it a while ago. And a while before that.

I’m pretty good at destroying my bad art. In recent memory, I dumped a bunch of early tweets; maybe 27,000 or so. I cleaned out my Facebook profile. I axed a couple hundred subpar blog posts. I suspended my Instagram account. I ended my solo podcast.

You can prepare forever. But if you do that, you never actually achieve. That is Resistance.

I keep moving around the office furniture. Cleaning off my desk, letting it fill back up, cleaning it off again. This is Resistance.

I spend time tweaking the childproof-ness of the house. I crawl around and decide swap the card table and the chair, decide I don’t like it and switch back, then decide I liked the change better. This is Resistance.

Steven Kotler and several members of the Flow Research Collective are hosting a series of calls while we’re all quarantined.

During the first call, they discussed something a lot of us are feeling: cognitive overload. I think the term is self-evident when you hear it, particularly if you’re suffering from it. You get overwhelmed and — here’s the important thing — you never get out of the fight or flight response, which means your creativity is stymied.

Not only is that dangerous for creators, it also means that the innovators aren’t innovating as much, and we really need innovative solutions right now, not only as a global pandemic causes a lot of people to work from home and some economic issues, but also as we move into the future when more and more things will be automated and people will generally be out of work in favor of robots.

What’s your Satan right now? Are you putting your energy into crafting the perfect enemy? Is it a virus? A government? Your family? Are you putting any energy into an adversary? If not, good for you!

We need creators. We need art. We need growth. We need less adversity, less energy spent on running scared. We need the right kind of disruption. Go out and make.


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