Provocations on Art: Reading Seth Godin’s _The Icarus Deception_ . . . Part Two (Portfolio Penguin, 2012)

In my last posting, I introduced Seth Godin’s theory that we need to work in ways subversive to the status quo. In The Icarus Deception, he discusses comfort and safety zones. He says that for centuries, we have equated the concept of a “comfort zone” with a “safety zone.” We navigate our lives between these two zones, learning when to go and when to stop, and backing off when danger feels near. But because in the 21st century, we lack the time to re-evaluate the “safety zone” each time we make a decision, we forget it and focus on “its sister, the comfort zone.” We “assume that what makes us comfortable also makes us safe” (3).

Godin argues that the safety zone has changed, but the comfort zone hasn’t, so we are lulled into accepting a day-job, occupying the corner office, attending a famous college—all safe places. In the face of life’s challenges, “We hold back, waiting for a return to ‘normal,’ but in the new normal you can’t be resistant to change. . . . We settled for a safety zone that wasn’t bold enough, that adhered to authority and compliance. And we built a comfort zone around being obedient and invisible, so that,” to refer to the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus, “we’re far too close to the waves” (4). This is the outcome of the death of the Industrial Age.

Godin’s title refers to the Greek myth of Icarus, who was instructed by his inventor father (and prison escapee) Daedalus, not to fly too high, too close to the sun, or his wax wings would melt. Both knew that it also wasn’t safe to fly too close to the sea, “because the water would ruin the lift to his wings.” Godin’s central provocation here is that it’s more dangerous to fly too low than it is to fly too high, because the “low” feels safe and something to “settle” for. What we settle for is small dreams, so that we shortchange ourselves and others, who “depend upon or could benefit from our work.” Godin argues that the path forward is to “be human,” to do art and “fly higher than we’ve been taught is possible.”

In this context, Godin says that there’s still a “safety zone,” but that it is no longer where you feel comfortable. Instead, it’s the place “where art and innovation and destruction and rebirth occur. The safety zone is the never-ending creation of ever-deeper personal connection” (4). The Industrial age should give way to the “art of connection” (which I’ll discuss in a later posting).

To become “comfortable with the behaviours that make you safe as you progress, you need to create change, be restless with what stands still and disappointed when you haven’t failed recently” (5). There must be room to fail, as writers Smith and Kuipers and Slaunwhite suggest, from their very different perspectives (see my last post, “part one” of this series). Since artists are never invulnerable (we necessarily take things “personally”), the “new safety zone isn’t as comfortable as the last one was.”

Godin calls “art” our “new safety zone,” where you create ideas that catch on and “connect the disconnected” regularly, and freely, recognizing that fighting to comply and maintain the status quo no longer work in our culture and economy.

He warns against the view of a magnum opus or rarefied process or product: contrary to popular understanding, “Art isn’t something that’s made by artists. Artists are people who make art” (6). Art isn’t something sold in a gallery or performed on stage, but is “the unique work of a human being, work that touches another” (6). Art will take over new ground and build connections between people or ideas:

Godin challenges us: “Have you ever performed a generous, unexpected act? Solved a problem in a new and interesting way? Seen something others didn’t see? Spoken up when something needed to be said?” (52). If so, you’re an artist. You’ve done it, even if not often, and you can do it again, and even create habits so that you do it more often.

We’ve endured 100 years of  “brainwashing to accept the Industrial system as normal and safe, when it isn’t either.”

You can read all the cutting edge theory you wish, Godin adds, but if you don’t commit to doing work that frightens you, nothing much will happen (7). “Ideas aren’t enough without commitment,” he says. The books and gurus seem to promise a “pain-free way to achieve your goals. But there’s no pain-free way”: “strategy is empty without change, empty without passion, and empty without people willing to confront the void” (7).

People too easily give in to fear, and miss opportunities because they aren’t willing to take action. We seek comfort rather than safety.

Artists daily wrestle with intersecting comfort, danger and safety, and with balancing between vulnerability and shame. “Moving your comfort zone when the safety zone changes isn’t easy, but it’s better than being a victim” (69). And better than being a dry husk left behind, when the creative power of our culture moves beyond us.

How can you work, today, within the limits of safety, but free from “comfort,” to write, experiment, sing, dance, or otherwise make art that changes the lives of those who listen?

Next time, I’ll discuss further provocations on art in Godin’s The Icarus Deception. To be continued . . . .

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