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NEW YORK — Nebulous as it may sound, “Inspiring Creativity” turned out to be a contentious panel discussion topic for four big thinkers Monday night.
Jonas Mekas, Paul Schrader, Karim Rashid and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman spoke about the subject with moderator Joan Juliet Buck at the Crosby Street Hotel here. The Illy-organized event premiered a short film about the creative process that featured Mekas, Schrader, Wurman and Rashid as well as James Franco, Joan Smalls, Karen Elson, Lola Schnabel and others.
The screening started off with Illy chairman and chief executive officer Andrea Illy making an eloquent case for coffee as “the official beverage of culture. Wherever you have creativity, art, literature, theater, cinema — wherever you have knowledge, research, universities — there is always coffee around. Why? Because this is the fuel for our mind.”
Mekas, 92, who is regarded as the father of avant-garde cinema with more than 103 films to his name, repeatedly offered his opinions regardless of who had the floor. From the start, Wurman wanted to air a few grievances. Seated next to Rashid, who was head-to-toe in one of his signature all-white ensembles, Wurman said, “I was told to wear white pants. I had to go out and buy white pants. I don’t wear white pants. They get dirty,” he said, before pleading with attendees seated in the screening room’s last few rows to move to the front rows. “C’mon, if it’s not interesting, you can just get up and leave without any disrespect.”
Schrader added, “But you can also leave with disrespect.”
All in all, Mekas was kind of down on creative types. “All those creative people have ruined everything. You have ruined things over 3,000 times,” Mekas told Rashid, referring to the number of products and environments he has designed. Good-natured about that jibe, Rashid disputed Mekas’ claim that “normal middle-class people cannot produce art. You have to have a nervous breakdown.”
Asked about the difference between creativity and insanity, Mekas said, “This whole conversation is insanity.” To which Rashid added, “That’s because Saul does most of the talking.”
(Wurman wanted guests to know the average blue whale has a tongue the size of a bus, a heart the size of a Volkswagen and an aorta large enough to swim in.)
Aside from asking Wurman to let Buck moderate, Schrader exercised the most restraint. “We are all artists. Some of us are good artists. Most of us are bad artists,” he said. “But really smart artists figure out how to not only save themselves but how to pass some of that information on to someone who is troubled.”
Wurman, who has written 83 books, could not always relate. “I don’t feel that I’m very creative. I get up in the morning and I have one thought — to have an interesting day, not necessarily to have a happy or productive day, just to have an interesting day. And I am trying to lace together a life of interesting days.”
Mekas was also of a noncreative mind-set, looking centuries back to Greece for answers. “Forget creativity,” he said. “The muses tell you, you have and you see. You do exactly what they tell you.”
“This sounds like clients,” Rashid said.
Defining the artist was another area of dispute. “To talk about what is art and who is an artist, the best thing is to go to a bar, have a drink and talk,” Mekas said.
Rashid continued, “I hate this word ‘artist’ because it reeks of this antiquated idea of a struggling person who’s got all kinds of issues. There are all these people who really believe that to be creative you have to be in angst or in poverty. It’s all bulls--t. The reality is what drives creativity is that you feel you have a contribution to bring out to humanity.”
Schrader said, “Just because you’re making money doesn’t mean that you are making anything any good.”
Later, after not speaking for some time, Wurman said, “I would like to say something very quietly. For 18 years, as a sidebar, I ran a meeting called TED. Not once did I have a panel. I deeply believe in conversation. I find half the things Jonas is talking about I believe in and the other half I don’t know what the f--k he is talking about. But if only half of it makes sense, I cannot respond to it when there are other people responding to it.”
Afterward, Schrader sized up the night. “It was an impossible panel to moderate, so it just degenerated. Also, I do not think that Jonas Mekas, as great and storied career as he has had, should ever be on a panel.”