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Rick Rubin’s Minimalist/Maximalist ‘The Creative Act’

Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act is, as his rap often was, minimalist and maximalist – musically austere but lyrically extravagant and self-aggrandizing.

The Creative Act: A Way of Being
Rick Rubin
January 2023

To say that there is virtually no original thought anywhere in this book isn’t a criticism. On the contrary, it’s an affirmation of Rick Rubin’s vocation and gift. As a producer, his work is to organize, shape, and inflect the sounds other artists make. The Creative Act is thus a creative act quite authentic to the creature who created it.

Both creature and creator—early in the book, Rubin makes it clear that to live day by day and minute by minute is itself a creative act, and what is created is one’s own inimitable life and self. He writes that each of us is “a singular work of art”, of which we are the artist.

The Creative Act, then, is about making art and “a way of being in the world”. In fact, for its first quarter or so, it’s mostly about that way of being, and if he did not eventually turn his attention to artmaking, The Creative Act might be of dubious value. Its suggestions for how to live and do are almost entirely rephrased. If you’ve read Ralph Waldo Emerson,  Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Stoics, to name just a few sources where you can find beautiful expressions of life advice, Rubin’s book will summon those echoes. If you haven’t, you may have encountered less beautiful iterations in the relentlessly expanding market of self-help books, such as the Stoics’ latter-day mouthpiece, Ryan Holiday.

Fortunately, Rubin eschews the you-can-do-it rah-rah that typifies personal improvement publications. His tone and demeanor more closely resemble that of a self-styled guru or mystic: pithy, unadorned, sometimes gnomic or vague, other times dry or blunt. He’s fond of sentence fragments, and some pages of The Creative Act contain just a single sentence, center-formatted and broken up into haiku-like lines of quasi-verse, e.g.

“Look for what you notice

but no one else sees.”

Rubin starts by introducing the concept of Source—a lifeforce, a universal well of inspiration/ energy/ creativity. In music-making terms, Source can be recognized as what the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson once described as “The Big Song”: the providential substance off which all songwriters were dutifully chipping, each hoping to find flecks of gold (or better still, platinum). According to Rubin, the artist’s role is to tune into Source by means that will probably be familiar to most anyone who has engaged with their creativity: get quiet, slow down, make space and time, get outside and into nature, mindfully notice both your surroundings and your innerness.

Source will yield Seeds, which we sort through via Experimentation. A seed that sprouts and takes root will lead to Craft: the cultivation of Seed into art. As The Creative Act progresses, the book slowly introduces further ideas about how to pursue Craft, how to shape art, how to work (or not work) through creative blockage, how to edit, and how to give and receive feedback. But this book shouldn’t be absorbed as a sequential narrative. Early on, Rubin suggests picking it up, turning to a random page, and seeing what resonates there. He invites us to pick and choose: “Use what’s helpful. Let go of the rest.” In that way, The Creative Act’s intended UX is much like that of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, which predate and distill in a quick deck of cards most of what you’ll find in Rubin’s expansive and languorous book. (It’s worth noting that, just as Eno had a lesser-known collaborator in creating the Oblique Strategies, The Creative Act is credited to Rubin “with Neil Strauss”. We don’t know exactly how much of the book is really Strauss’ work, just as we don’t know the extent of Rubin’s contributions to most of the music he has produced.)

Other reasons not to read The Creative Act straight through: It’s repetitive; it contradicts itself; and as is often the case with this kind of thought, it can sometimes seem banal rather than profound. (Also, the creative act seldom proceeds straight through, either.) Practicing artists will find some of Rubin’s thoughts either so obvious that they scarcely need to be said or so plainly wrong that they should never have been said at all.

That is probably fine with Rubin: provoking objection is a great way to excite your reader, and by complicating almost every idea with its opposite somewhere in the book, he never limits himself to a fixed position. Nor does he supply many specifics. The Creative Act is not a memoir; it contains barely any autobiography. He does include some very brief anecdotes and examples, but Rubin doesn’t name names except when explicitly citing another thinker (which is seldom). Rubin has stripped away almost all self, color, and feeling, and what flavor the writing has can be rather medicinal. This is a book by a rock artist that rejects the rock pleasure principle.

Yet this approach is subtly in keeping with Rubin’s musical style. Like much of his production work, The Creative Act is simultaneously minimalist and maximalist, as his original genre, rap, often was: musically austere but lyrically extravagant and self-aggrandizing. The book’s lack of ornament can grow paradoxically fatiguing at times. Despite its aphoristic, fragmentary style at the level of both the sentence and the chapter (many chapters are fewer than three pages long, and none exceed ten), the book is surprisingly long—it could have gotten its message across in far fewer than its 400 pages.

Indeed, Rubin hasn’t followed his own very sound advice here: “If you’ve written a book that’s over three hundred pages, try to reduce it to less than a hundred without losing its essence.” If he did try this and decided to reinstate what he’d cut, it’s not clear that his book is better for it. The Creative Act both counsels patience and requires it.

In its minimalist-maximalist tension, The Creative Act clearly reflects Rubin’s attraction to extremes. As he told The New York Times journalist Ezra Klein in a podcast, “Now I like the extreme in a quiet way instead of a loud way.” Perhaps he has liked the quiet way for a good deal longer than it might seem. Although Rubin is best known to much of the listening world for producing rap, hip-hop, metal, Andrew Dice Clay, and other sometimes repellent loudness, he really established himself as a colossus bestriding music with his acoustic recordings of Johnny Cash in 1994. The almost shockingly bare and restrained treatment Rubin gave Cash’s voice and guitar served notice that Rubin had much more on his mind than fighting for our right to party and much more in his ears than the so-called “Loudness Wars” he has done so much to prosecute.

Perhaps the aesthetic Rubin developed could best be called Quiet Parts Loud/ Loud Parts Quiet. Having a musician play something gently or at low volume and then turning it way up in the mix is a technique he has used in the studio. The result is rather stark and in-your-face (go back and listen to those Johnny Cash recordings, and you’ll hear that), and it’s true of The Creative Act as well. It’s often jarring in deceptively plain ways.

The Creative Act may seem an unexpected project coming from the man who made Slayer a household name, but detach it from Rubin’s discography—as he has gone out of his way to do in writing it—and it’s a very characteristic expression of its creator: self-assured, difficult to parse, and dictated from an unexamined position of power. It’s also undeniably valuable if even only a few readers adopt his prescriptions: more quiet and patience and sunsets, less noise and haste and internet, deeper observation of both self and world. Surely we could all do with more of that.

If there are any serious concerns to be raised about The Creative Act, they’re about suggestions it makes that aren’t explicitly part of Rubin’s project. Finding beauty is an important early step in Rubin’s creative act, and by way of helping us identify beauty, he tells the reader to “level up your taste” through “reading classic literature” and “exposure to great art”. (Granted, this is somewhat hard to take with a straight face from Andrew Dice Clay’s producer, but to be fair, Rubin has generally levelled up his own taste in projects over the past three decades.)

Rubin even goes as far (in Klein’s podcast) as to urge us to visit the museums where great art is so we can appreciate, for example, the way the paint is applied to the canvas. No doubt going to museums can be a rewarding experience, including the part of the experience that involves traveling to the cities where museums tend to be and enjoying the cities themselves; but the unexamined question is: What constitutes great art, and can its greatness be confirmed by hanging it in a museum? “Taste” is generally policed by a mostly white bourgeoisie and maintained by their power to purchase taste’s baubles, whether by acquiring or visiting them. It’s probably significant that The Creative Act frequently uses the word “curate”, and not just with regard to museum exhibitions. Acquisitiveness and materialism are subtly assumed “ways of being in the world”.

Although Rubin acknowledges that “the ‘canon’ is continually changing,” nonetheless, the canon he generally sticks to in The Creative Act is overwhelmingly white, male, “classical”, and dead. This reduction has the effect of leveling taste rather than leveling it up, and it’s surprising coming from a producer with such a diverse discography—especially at a moment when the American sociocultural soundscape could use a lot more inclusiveness and midrange.

It may be, though, that The Creative Act is less a question of exclusionary aesthetics and possibly more about Rubin’s assumptions about who his readers are and what our lives can accommodate. Over and over again, he tells us to take more time for everything, not just museum-going. He calls patience the “rule to creativity that’s less breakable than the others”. Sage advice. But if The Creative Act is meant to supply rules for living and artmaking, then Rubin requires us to allocate many hours a day to what is essentially leisure activity (and inactivity). Very few people have that luxury, and thinking otherwise is naïve.

Yet there again, Rubin is shrewd. All throughout the book, he counsels us to be naïve. He calls this cultivated innocence “Beginner’s Mind”, a childlike cognition of the world around us that allows us to tap into Source and engage with all the creativity that ensues from it. He’s almost certainly right to encourage this. Adult habituation and routinization lead to all kinds of maladies, and almost every artist needs Beginner’s Mind and the naïvety that comes with it.

There is a flip side to this naïvety that can get us into trouble, though. The trouble is subtly—and probably inadvertently—embedded in two of the words Rubin frequently chooses in discussing the creative act. One is “share”, and another is “content”. These are dangerous buzzwords that have dominated the last few years of socialized life and commerce (and art), and Rubin’s preference for them is one of the reasons dedicated artists may be wary of The Creative Act. There is a vast difference between making art and “sharing content”. Not all art is meant to be “shared”, and not all “content”, indeed very little of it, is art.

This difference is important because our willingness to “share” our “content” is exactly what the enemies of art are quite literally banking on. Encouraging all of us to think of ourselves as artists, or even “creatives”, generates a constant and factitious stream of created self. We upload that stream into digital platforms where our “content” allows an unseen but powerful corporate audience (powerful because unseen) to know what we care about and tailor advertising accordingly. The insidious ingenuity of something like Facebook is that we supply free content that gets chewed up and spit back out at us in packaged forms that we pay for. Eventually, it can be hard to distinguish between the content we provide and the content we’re invited to buy.

What’s more, by identifying ourselves through the “content” we “share”, we’re also allowing ourselves to be separated into demographic “silos” (to use another favorite buzzword of today) that have done as much as anything else in American life to divide us further from each other—again there’s that loss of the midrange. The purpose of art is communion, to bring people closer, and to find what we share in the vastness of what we don’t—a vastly different form of “sharing”. We’ve been seduced into confusing the production and exposure of self with the creation and presentation of art.

To be sure, self-expression is important for everyone, whether we’re artists or not, but it isn’t the same as the creative act. It’s a long way from uploading a video to Tik Tok to making and distributing a film. We may not all be artists, after all, and even if we are, not everything we make needs to or should be broadcast to confirm its value. It may be worth more if it isn’t. “Telling your story” is big these days. It’s important to feel seen and heard, but as The Creative Act acknowledges, once our story is public, it’s in some way no longer ours.

At one point in The Creative Act, Rubin invokes the physician’s prime directive, “First, do no harm,” which is a way of saying that it is often best to do nothing at all. We must remember that the first person we mustn’t harm is ourselves. Under that oath, the first rule of the creative act might be to ensure that by sharing each new seed that grows out of those selves, we aren’t putting ourselves in danger.

RATING 7 / 10