Corporate Creativity vs. Cultural Appropriation

Whenever I start a new job, I have one consistent fear: that my employer will find out all the things I enjoy and/or that I’m good at. Doesn’t matter if it’s my writing or my drawing, my music or my award-winning haircut, there’s always one reaction when an employer discovers some hidden skill — how can we make money off this employee’s skill or hobby?

It’s a challenge for any employer to not reduce their employees to mere resource figures, but that doesn’t make it any less degrading. It’s understandable that an employer wants to utilize their employees’ skills, but there’s a fine line between putting your creativity to work in a corporate setting and allowing an employer to exploit your culture and even your hobbies.

According to Wikipedia – Cultural appropriation is the adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity. This can be controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures.

Last time I wrote, I discussed the challenges facing an artist surviving in the corporate world. Since that time, I’ve had a little time to reflect, and while I still stand by that article and the simple steps outlined to survive — I wonder if maybe survival isn’t enough?

The relentless march of capitalism has been crushing people’s spirits and cultures for decades in pursuit of the mighty dollar — so why should my culture be any different?

For any of this to make sense, I have to take a step back and explain — my native-born culture is the mixed blend of Midwestern milquetoast bland with a splash of Southern down-home deep-fried nothing. This isn’t to say that those cultures in and of themselves are boring – but the little bits of culture that dripped down to me were so watered down that I couldn’t even pretend to care.

So I did what all the other bland white kids at my school did — dug hard into pop culture. When I was engulfed in the lore of Star Wars, the depth of my first Pokemon journey, or seven chapters deep into my first read of Watchmen, I was engaged with other people who loved the same things, even if I might not have known it at the time.

But over the years, we all grew up loving the same stories and myths, feeling the same elation and defeat, developing a common series of ethics, languages, and relationships around a culture of movies, books, and video games.

We learned the same lessons: be yourself, always do what’s right, try your hardest, and protect the innocent. These basic lessons imprinted something in us all — and clearly it’s a culture that’s here to stay.

In 2016, San Diego Comic Con drew in an estimated 130k attendees from all over the globe — it netted the nonprofit organization over $20 million in ticket sales, and dumped an estimated $135 million into the local economy — in a weekend.

The members of this culture extend beyond race or generation or upbringing because it’s based on a love for the stories that united us in the first place. And the culture is a force — not unlike a storm — unstoppable, unpredictable, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but they’re not going anywhere.

So when I refer to cultural appropriation, this is the only culture I am qualified to comment on. I have read far more qualified views on corporate culture appropriation, and would simply refer you here for Cresta E. Cavanaugh’s incredible take on the subject.

Per the above article:

Pornographic Cultural Appropriation (PCA): an explicit mimicking of a sub-culture by an in-power majority intended to display or enhance one’s coolness, desirability, connectedness, or worthiness rather than a genuine desire to empathize with a subculture’s journey as an outsider; unintentional ridicule of someone’s culture via emulation.

Cresta’s definition here is spot on and, at the risk of some level of appropriation myself, I feel it applies equally to the appropriation of pop culture. After a decade in corporate offices, I’ve seen misused memes taped to the water cooler, attended company-sponsored film events and “happy hours” in a tie, and been drawn into conversations over my “nerdiness” with employers and colleagues so often that I wonder if they’ve noticed a person still in there — not just a culturally hip dude with killer hair.

Does this mean companies should stop trying to engage us? Of course not! We desperately want to find some common ground to relate to our employers and colleagues — and attempting to speak our language is usually awesome, if for nothing else than a shared chuckle to get the conversation started.

But it’s worth examining why you’re trying – are you trying to get me and my skills in your pocket? Are you trying to manipulate me by emulating my culture? Are you genuinely interested in me and who I am?

It’s impossible to tell from this angle. Only you can know your true intentions — if you’re helping or just using my culture.

I am currently engaged in an art project for my company — one that engages all of my artistic skills and the lessons I’ve learned. Like all art projects, it demands a bit of my heart and soul. As someone who grew up in the era of grunge and post-punk, I am extremely wary of “selling out” my skills.

If one of my past employers had asked me to undertake this level of emotional and artistic complexity, I would have laughed. Even now, I know there are very few companies I respect enough to allow them to utilize me like this.

But I know my employer. I know his heart, his company, his intentions. Everything boils down to these ideas for me, artistically. Intent is everything when it comes to creativity — when I see my culture being used by a company, it feels disingenuous, false, and insulting.

For the first time, I feel like a company has asked me for my skills, because they genuinely share a passion for the same culture, and because there is opportunity for true mutual success. It is a rare sentiment from any company to its employees.

But perhaps if we keep trying to bridge the gap between employer and employee, some of the artists wouldn’t struggle just to survive — they might even start to prosper.

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Surviving The Corporate World as an Artist

If you’re anything like me, you’re in your mid-30’s, struggling to make rent and you can’t figure out where you left your stupid wallet, let alone your childhood…

But fear not! You’ve finally accepted something intrinsic about yourself – you are an artist! You have a strong need to express your creative side, something you can’t fight or repress – at least not without sacrificing your happiness and sanity.

Now, while most of my managers in the past have politely informed me that the symptoms of “creativity” are counterproductive, distracting, or even hurtful to the company and corporate world, I would argue that nothing could be further from the truth.

Over the course of my next few blogs, I’ll be exploring what it takes to survive the corporate world while maintaining your own well being. There’s nothing quite as soul-crushing as fluorescent light bulbs, cubicle walls and hovering micro-managers.

Well, except maybe for trying to survive solely on your art income – which feels like a staggeringly monumental task.

The corporate world feels to me like a way to crush true creativity in the name of the almighty dollar. It offends me to my core, not just my principles as an artist, but as a person. However, it’s the necessary evil that’s here to stay, and we’ve all got to make friends with the beast in some form or another.

So here’s how I’m doing it.

Step 1 – Know Thyself

This is the first – and easily the hardest – step in just about any truly fulfilling venture. Taking the time to learn what makes you happy, what makes you angry, what you can and can’t make your peace with or even ignore…

You’ve made huge leaps in this category already, just by admitting you’re a creative soul – that alone will help you on your way. Even if you’re not, I can offer no better advice than was found inscribed on The Temple of Apollo at Delphi – γνῶθι σεαυτόν – know thyself.

Artistically, this will mean not just knowing that you’re a creative, or even what you want to create, but what you want from your creative output.

Fame? Fortune? Personal gratification? To create for creativity’s sake?

These answers, and any others you might find, are perfectly acceptable. But you must take the time to know yourself and know what you want. If you don’t, there’s no chance of actually making yourself happy when you have no idea what brings you joy.

Practical steps

  • Meditate – find quiet time to center yourself, and ask yourself the hard questions.
    “Who are you, and what do YOU want?” -Uncle Iroh
  • Take notes – it’s easy to find yourself in the quiet moments, it’s hard when life gets loud. Keep track of the answers you find.
    “When you think you are at your limit; remember why you clench your fist – where you came from… your origin. That’ll bring you just a little past your limit.” -Nana Shimura
  • Keep creating – there’s nothing more telling of what you are inside than what you create. As an artist, it’s your most dangerous tool.
    “It is easy to write. Just sit down at your typewriter and bleed.” -Ernest Hemingway

Step 2 – Get a Job!

Alright, this seems like the same advice you’ve been hearing from the older generations for your whole life, the mantra of the baby boomers, the consistent berating barrage of degradation that implies what you do isn’t a “real job.”

But hear me out.

Your creative work is your own, no matter what you decide to do with it after. If you sell it, great! If you keep it, awesome! If you utilize your creative skills with an employer who understands what you’re capable of? Amazing!

While it sounds far-fetched, the truth is that many managers appreciate their employees’ creative talent. While there are always going to be bad managers, bad employers, and low-creativity jobs, that doesn’t mean you’re reduced exclusively to them.

Yes, maybe your sci-fi novella doesn’t look good on the average resume – then make your resume above average. Maybe your ability to blow glass or draw cats or play ukulele isn’t beneficial to your current job… so keep looking!

The skills you have dedicated time to honing and sharpening are valuable. Full stop.

While keeping in mind that you don’t ever have to give your creativity to an employer you don’t want to, explore your options. If your current employer isn’t willing to utilize the creative skills you want to offer, then see step 3.

Practical steps

  • Make a list – this is just for your eyes. Make a truly honest list of what you want from your art – why you do what you do.
    “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” -Carl Jung
  • Research employers – it seems simple advice, but it’s beyond invaluable to know the people who are offering money for you and your time – and why.
    “Her father had always said that a man could be fairly judged by the quality of his allies and that of his enemies.” -Jim Butcher
  • Hone your resume – utilize your skills to sell yourself. It gives your employer a chance to know who they’re getting, and what you’re capable of.
    “The worst financial transaction you will ever make is selling yourself short.” -Greg Gilbert

Step 3 – Never Settle

There’s a certain restlessness that exists in creative people. They are never content, never satisfied (especially by their own work), and see the world for what it could be, rather than what it is. It’s that sort of artistic drive that you must harness.

The idea of “settling” for a career or employer is something that’s always bothered me. Every job I’ve taken that I knew was beneath me, every skill I’ve set aside to make a paycheck, every manager and teacher who yelled at me for doodling on my notebooks… they all taught me something I desperately needed to know;

Settling is a state of mind, not an act.

When an artist knows themselves, knows what they want, what they’re willing to accept and what they’re willing to offer, then they will never settle. They will never give up the internal struggle to create, the need for their personal freedom, the drive that pushes them forward.

Settling for an employer is a long-term comfort, where an artist drops into a rhythm and lets their skills die out. Even an artist who practices as a hobby or their own sanity hasn’t settled – but one who has given up and let those skills deteriorate can no longer be called an artist.

Let that discomfort and desire for better guide you. It can show you even more about yourself, your art, and even open doors you didn’t know existed.

Keep pushing, keep searching. Wander eternal, if you must. But never settle for someone else’s dream – yours are valid, and the world needs them.

Practical steps

  • Keep creating – the worst thing you can do is let your skills fade. Even if it’s just for your own personal joy, never stop the artistic flow.
    “The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul.” -Dieter F. Ucktdorf
  • Open up communication – talk to the people in your life about ways to utilize your skills – employers, family, friends, anyone who knows you.
    “I found that with depression, one of the most important things you could realize is that you’re not alone.” –Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
  • Keep searching – remember that artistic drive? Let that push you to search – for new jobs, new opportunities, new artistic outputs.
    “Seriously, if you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else; it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being… There are NO limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you. A man must constantly exceed his level.” –Bruce Lee

This corporate game is not easy to survive, and it’s particularly ruthless on creatives. This is why I think it’s all the more imperative to keep supporting each other – otherwise, we all drown and we’re left in a very boring dystopia.

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