The New Year is an opportunity to take stock of our lives, whether we are on the ‘right’ path, and for resolutions to improve ourselves in some shape or form.
As 2015 drew to a close, my attention was drawn to a theory for creativity put forth by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkinnen that was news to me, although it apparently has been around for some time; 2004 to be precise, although an article in London’s The Guardian in 2013 gave it “greater exposure” (the Guardian’s pun, not mine).
I’ve never been to Helsinki in my life, but if I do get there, the first place I’d like to check out is its bus station. I am sure there are far more interesting things to see and do in Finland’s capital city, but my desire is motivated by the fact that this theory is based upon the layout of the bus station and the routes that begin from it: the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.
Apparently, the Helsinki bus has some two-dozen platforms laid out in the shape of a square, in the heart of the city. But all the buses that leave the station take an identical route out of the city for about a kilometre or two.
Minkinnen uses this as a metaphor for the creative path of a photographer, but it could apply equally to other creative pursuits.
All along the common route for the buses in that first stretch of a couple of kilometres, the bus stops are the same. Minkinnen asks us to imagine that each bus stop represents a year in the creative life of a photographer. Three bus stops (or years) down the line, you’ve accumulated a body of work, and take it to a curator, who points out that others have been on the same route. Frustrated, you get off the bus, take a cab (“because life is short”) back to the bus station and start over on another route, only to have the same experience repeated over and over, three or four or five bus stops later. You keep trying to be “different”, “original” to set yourself apart, and yet you keep getting compared to others.
But if you stay on the metaphorical bus, the routes soon diverge and branch out into different directions, far removed from each other. And when that happens, much further down the route, critics begin to sit up and take notice, according to Minkinnen, not only of your current work, but of what you were doing even at the beginning, when you were being ignored or overlooked. In effect, “you regain the whole bus route”. This would not have happened if you had got stuck in the vicious cycle of getting off one bus and onto another and yet another, in a desperate bid to somehow be noticed and make your mark.
I couldn’t help thinking how true this was, as I read my friend Vivek Menezes’ passionate article “Another record for Vasudeo Gaitonde and Goan Art” in another section of the press recently. The paintings of Vasudeo Gaitonde and Francis Newton Souza today fetch millions, but as Menezes reminds us, “both died almost penniless, in near-solitary circumstances, almost totally ignored by the same Indian “art” establishment that now feeds greedily off their corpus”.
But even through their “most humiliating travails”, Souza and Gaitonde didn’t “get off the bus”; they stayed the course. And although recognition has come post-humously, the common thread of their unique vision is now readily apparent, even in early works that were panned or worse, overlooked by critics at a time in their careers when they would have needed encouragement the most.
This certainly would have been Minkinnen’s conclusion, and it applies well to Souza and Gaitonde:
“At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision. Why? Because you stayed on the bus.”
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory has been debated, discussed and written about a lot, with many drawing conclusions often almost as diverse as the bus routes that the fleet of buses from the station eventually take. For example, Oliver Burkeman in his 2013 article in the Guardian seems to think that “the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it.” But I would read it differently. I think that the Helsinki Bus Station Theory tells you not to pursue mindless ‘originality’ for all the wrong reasons i.e. just so that some critic or other stake-holder in your art or profession or field will be favourably impressed. I think the take-home message is that if you have a creative idea, a philosophy, a principle that truly motivates you, something you fervently believe in, then you should pursue it fully, regardless of other people’s opinions, helpful or otherwise. Stay on the bus until the end of the line. I wish you a pleasant bus journey this New Year! Shubh yatra!
(An edited version of this article was published on 3 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)