The Creative Asshole
There are as many types of creative people as there are… types of people. It might be fun to take a glance at a few different types. Though no one should be reduced to a type, exploring a generality can help us understand a specific example and vice versa. I started thinking about this type of person after reading about a certain Texas whisky maker (see below). Reflecting on his description, as observed by others, opened up a way of thinking about all strong-willed, stubborn people. Meditating on this subset of creatives helped me to understand myself better and some of the people in my life.
What an asshole!
Working with others and collaborating is a necessary challenge of the creative life. It can be a pleasant challenge, an exercise in vulnerability and learning from each other. Sometimes, though, working with other people is the worst. This is especially so when paired with someone who does not play well with others, someone who seems oblivious to the thoughts and existence of anyone else. Someone who cares about her vision only. Someone who is...an asshole.
Creative assholes are as common as a cold, and they plague every sector and level of success. Chances are you have worked with one before, or you will come in contact with one soon. What do these people have in common and why do they irritate us?
I talked to a few friends who are involved in creative work via an Instagram group message about assholes they had worked with. I was surprised that one of the gracious people I know stuck the label on herself.
It’s probably true that we all pull asshole moves from time to time to protect ourselves, but then there are the people who are all about themselves/their vision all day every day. There’s Kanye. Steve Jobs. Trump (empire building as an art, anyone?). Assholery doesn’t break down along gender lines, although it’s tough to find females with the label. Lea Michele and my last tattoo artist come to mind. Women usually get more fem-ified words like “bitch” and “diva.” The term lumps together the arrogant, selfish, and rude. They would rather speak “the truth” than be nice. Above all, they prioritize their wants, needs, and ideas.
Assholes are easy to vilify and tempting to dismiss. But should we?
Chip Tate, the passionate asshole
Since we moved, I’ve been reading Texas Monthly to keep up with the goings-on in the Republic. In the October ’15 issue there is a captivating article by Eric Benson about Chip Tate, the founder and master distiller behind Balcones Distilling. After winning awards and recognition for his adventurous, artisanal spirits, Tate was forced out of his company by his investors in late 2014. Although his former employees attest to his talent, depth of knowledge, and drive, he is depicted as an unbearable tyrant: berating people for mistakes, lecturing over minutiae, wracking up innumerable scars from welding his own stills instead of just buying them or having a welder make them, having violent outbursts of rage, and doing everything “the hard way.” He is the epitome of the passionate asshole.
In some ways, Tate’s behavior is tolerable because what he produces is good enough to justify the warpath on which it is made. In other ways, it isn’t—he was squeezed out of Balcones when he refused to reel in his craft to conform to the budget and goals of the other shareholders. He refuses to take the conservative route because he isn’t that type of maker. Tate knows himself and he knows what he knows, everything else be damned. Even being bucked off his prize-winning pony didn’t cause him to sulk in the mud. He immediately started a new distillery, this time naming it after himself to assert that it’s his company, his methods, his art.
Who needs ’em?
Chip Tate is a wholly different kind of person and creator than I am: the loud, opinionated, stubborn type—the type that gets labeled as an eccentric artist, a mad scientist, or yep, an asshole. But this is also the type that gets things done. The type that work and build and work and produce and work some more. They steamroll the world and do not back down from what they think is best. To them, their work is not just important, it’s critical. Their passion is matched by their drive and fueled by their confidence. Making enemies and being portrayed as the bad guy doesn’t seem to matter in the face of pursuing their goals.
The asshole artist is still an artist, and chances are they’re working harder than you and I at this moment. When you first meet them, at the center of a party, they seem like social giants—kings or queens of wit and cleverness—but I have known them to be lonely, to alienate their listeners and fans with their dire need to speak their mind and do things their way. So they get things done: they write books, and paint, and make whiskey—often alone, a natural consequence for having a polarizing personality.
We ostracize them because they make us feel insecure about our own experiences and ideas. In our comparative silence, we feel unheard and unimportant. To insulate ourselves, we turn hardworking, ambitious artists into unpleasant oddballs to be avoided at all cost. Over time, we come to read their strength as weakness and neglect to develop that type of boldness in ourselves.
I could stand to be more of an asshole. I could learn to advocate for my work wholeheartedly like Tate or Kanye, no matter how awkward the idea is as it hatches, or how big of a mess it makes. I could channel the confidence that Steve Jobs had, raise my voice to match his volume: advocate, shoulders back, chest out, for myself, my work, and my experiences in the face of criticism from myself and others, like Trump. What would happen if I took my ideas that seriously? What if I weren’t afraid of criticism?
Assholes aren’t only good to learn from. They are good, period. They are makers worthy of respect even if their antics don’t earn it.
We benefit from what they do and how they do it. You can’t have Tate’s product (delicious whiskey) without his process (hammering the shit out of sheets of copper and cursing you for your ignorance).
It’s hard to love these people, which makes it hard to learn from them. This misstep runs the risk of limiting all of us as artists.
We need creative assholes because they shine a light on our timidity and self-doubt. They need people who will support them, as well as fight with them, prod them into listening to others, occasionally bring them back down to earth, and yes, even applaud their brilliance.
Can you think of examples of notoriously difficult creatives that we should profile or read up on? What do you think we can learn from these creative assholes? Chime in with your comment, and let us know what you think.