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Questlove and Tom Sachs: "Creativity Is the Enemy"

At the Brooklyn Museum, Questlove and Tom Sachs discussed the point at which creativity begins to harm art.

by Mike Steyels
Jun 30 2016, 4:05pm

Photo by Brittney Najar. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

When two artist-powerhouses come together for a conversation, the last thing you'd expect is for the main theme to veer into something akin to denouncing creativity altogether. But that was exactly what happened on June 16 when the Brooklyn Museum had Questlove and Tom Sachs over for an informal, but very public chat.

As the two sat under spotlights before a packed and inviting crowd, they waffled over subjects for a bit, jumping from their parents, to their past, to their shared love for music, before settling on the salient point of what exactly a positive artistic temperament is.

Questlove is a drummer and DJ who has become the face of The Roots; Sachs is a sculptor who, amongst other things, makes functional sound systems out of unexpected objects like refrigerators and newsstands. Both have proven histories as artists who bring new and unique forms to the masses. The Roots, for instance, brought the live band into a rap world context; Sachs’ sculptures bridge the divide between the visual and the auditory in the gallery setting. But they're also both extremely successful in their respective fields, and these days have adopted business-oriented approaches to their crafts.

"Creativity is the enemy": This is the quote that really sparked the tangent, an actual piece of text art that Sachs created in 2008. But it isn't ironic—at least not entirely. Sachs very much works to avoid wanton experimentation in his studio. “Incremental change” is his motto. In a sense, it's a way to create some stability; avoiding planned obsolescence so as to keep prior pieces relevant. When there's an evolving thread that holds a body of work together, in his view, each piece retains value, rather than jumps between stages that render previous works irrelevant.

Questlove definitely had some words on the subject: "Creatives have a tendency to sabotage themselves," he posited, where they actively begin to work against something once it's successful. He places himself in that category—once upon a time, at least—where he and The Roots would purposefully move against what worked. This may have had something to do with the times, however: in the late 90s, hip-hop was becoming exclusionary for the first time, and this was opposed by many, like himself, who wanted to hold onto the culture's anti-establishment roots.

It's not as though either has stopped evolving, though. Sachs’ Boombox Retrospective, currently on exhibit at the museum, is a testament to his artistic development over time. Just a few weeks ago, Questlove was considered to be pushing up hard against borders with his Usher collaboration at The Roots' picnic. Instead, they've taken a more pragmatic approach in their latter years.

Or, maybe more importantly, there are a lot of other people's jobs on the line for them, too. "I've got pretty much 12 people on my team," Sachs points out, "And the economics are pretty much feast or famine with them." Quest, likewise, says he's constantly looking to make payroll for the dozens of people under his employ as well. "Once [I] decide to be a business," he says, for better or worse, "I become responsible for these people. Their livelihoods depend on me." At that point, what becomes most important? Artistic experimentation? Rebellion? Or feeding your dependents?

Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

Although they might not be attempting to disrupt expectations, both seem to have found their balance. Even if, as Questlove says, he has to "kinda stick to the script after 20 years."

Watch the full discussion below:

Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

In Conversation: Tom Sachs and Questlove took place at the Brooklyn Museum on June 16, 2016. Click here for more information. 


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