Brain Pickings

William S. Burroughs on Creativity


“The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.”

“What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t,” cultural critic and Rolling Stone writer Greil Marcus observed in his fantastic 2013 commencement address. But he wasn’t the first to recognize art’s capacity for opening our eyes by blinding us, for expanding our understanding of the world by illuminating our ignorance.

In this short clip from the altogether excellent 1991 documentary Commissioner of Sewers, William S. Burroughs, born 100 years ago today, articulates the same sentiment and adds to history’s greatest definitions of art as he considers the value of creative pioneers, from Galileo to Cézanne to Joyce, in propelling human culture forward:

The word “should” should never arise — there is no such concept as “should” with regard to art. . . .

One very important aspect of art is that it makes people aware of what they know and don’t know they know. . . . Once the breakthrough is made, there is a permanent expansion of awareness. But there is always a reaction of rage, of outrage, at the first breakthrough. . . . So the artist, then, expands awareness. And once the breakthrough is made, this becomes part of the general awareness.

(Burroughs wasn’t the first to articulate this notion, either. Forty years earlier, Bertrand Russell famously advised, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”)

Burroughs revisits the subject of creativity towards the end of his life in Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs (public library) — which also gave us his daily routine and his deep love for his feline companions — in a diary entry from January of 1997:

An artist must be open to the muse. The greater the artist, the more he is open to “cosmic currents.” He has to behave as he does. If he has “the courage to be an artist,” he is committed to behave as the mood possesses him. . . .

The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it.

Pair with Patti Smith’s account of Burroughs’s advice to the young and his cameo in the love letters of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

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