And is there something better we could be doing with our time? Harry Hitchens, a film director from London, has spent two years travelling across the world speaking to creative people of all disciplines and notoriety exploring the obstacles to a creative life and how to overcome them. His film has been launched on Kickstarter and achieved funding, but you can still support it here. Here, Harry shares his motivations for exploring the topic.
Breakthrough is a film I’ve been making for nearly two years: I’ve poured my heart into it. Two years is a long time for someone as young as me – a tenth of my life at the time I started the project. I’m 22 now, which means I neatly fit into Gen Z. Apparently we’re the generation that are going to fix the world and there are some inspiring people growing up to do just that. But the vast majority of the people my age have more questions than answers – I doubt that’s exclusive to my generation, though. As someone with so many questions, it seemed right for me to start making documentaries and, furthermore, as a passionate maker-of-things I was delighted to be offered the chance to make a feature length documentary about art and creativity.
When tasked with making a movie on such a subject I had to ask myself what qualifies me to do so, especially at my age – what qualifies me to do anything? Doubting one’s own qualification, ability and knowledge is a common thing for anyone in any industry. That unsureness feels more acute in a creative discipline because your profession is linked to your very soul. Bit dramatic? Perhaps. But one of the biggest hurdles the artists I interviewed overcame was believing that they were good enough.
The contributors to the film are professional artists from a variety of disciplines and levels of fame and fortune. I visited three major cities and the areas that surround it: Los Angeles, London and Shanghai. I spoke to graffiti artists, poets, painters, musicians, ceramicists and more. All of them had some level of self-doubt – some framed it as a positive thing, it helps them improve and never settle. Others wish they’d appreciated the level of work they were capable of earlier on and I think there’s a lesson to be learned from both interpretations. It seems to me that there is a difference between doubt and constructive self-criticism. I want to learn the ability to look at a piece of my work, understand its flaws and appreciate the progress I’ve made since my last creation. The question is not how we eradicate self-doubt, it’s about how we evolve doubt into effective and constructive lessons about ourselves so that we continually improve our output.
There’s one rather large elephant in the room, though. Regardless of whether I think I’m good enough, how am I actually supposed to make a living? On this meaningful quest of artful endeavour, how could I ever charge for my services? When something is so enjoyable and fulfilling to me, it’s scary to ask to be paid for it. But there’s another really important distinction to be made here. More often than not, when we’re being paid to create something there’s a difference in the output from the work we do independently. The difference is mostly due to the shared interest that is established as a result of that financial exchange. I met artist and designer, Robbie Simon, and he put it perfectly: “If I slap someone’s name on it, it’s design. If I don’t, it’s art. People can have their opinions but at the end of it all it’s me who decides.” Robbie has crafted his style and it’s recognisable from a 100 metres away. Sure, there’s a difference between his commissioned work and the artworks he makes independently but he’s able to separate the two and he isn’t shy of making money from his art.
Success often seems to correlate with persistence; you’ve just got to stick around and hang in there. The best way to do that is to appreciate the commercial value of your work, rather than be scared or ashamed by it. Within reason, selling out shouldn’t be so frowned upon – if it’s fitting with their belief system and is genuinely good work we should be proud of any artist who’s able to turn inner expression into a commercially viable piece of work. I want to identify how my film work can make money so that I can use those funds to finance the independent creation of things that fulfil me.
The most challenging part of my journey turned out to be the pivotal moment of the film. I won’t spoil it for you with names or details but suddenly a very ugly, scary question rose its head: why should we do this? Why should we express ourselves? I found myself thinking about all the other things I could be making a film about. All the other things these creative people could be doing. Poets, painters, musicians, makers of all kinds embarking on a creative mission to save the world. I had to ask myself whether this was a worthy profession, or should we put down the paintbrushes and start taking life a little more seriously? That question was crushed when I met people and groups that proved the difference creativity and art can make.
Whether it’s an arts program that’s instrumental in keeping at-risk kids out of gangs in L.A. or a suicidal rape victim saving herself through the repetitive, cathartic act of ceramics and textiles, I saw how creations of all kinds can have a truly meaningful impact on the world. From the smallest personal affect to a global initiative, art can and will continue to enable our societies to reflect, criticise, explore and evolve themselves. I had always hoped that’d be the case, but the journey I’ve been on making this film has enabled me to truly believe it.
There are so many obstacles to a creative life and it can be overwhelming. I’m at the start of what I hope will be a long career where, with any luck, I’ll get to collaborate and create with wonderful passionate people. Self-doubt will almost certainly hold me back, financial struggle will always be lurking over me and every now and again I may question why I’m really doing this. However, having made this film, I know that the sweat will be worth it. I’ll do it for my own contentment and hope that there are other people in the world who benefit too. Collective growth is something that excites me just as much as my own. I believe everyone should express themselves in some way. Whether that’s professionally or not is up to them, but the benefits are there to be reaped regardless.