5 min read

The Creative Act by Rick Rubin – no prisoners taken

Imogen Stokes is a musician and member of Voka Gentle. She is also part of P.S. a missional community of multidisciplinary artists supporting and encouraging each other to cultivate a biblical culture of worship and fellowship in the heart of industry.

A biography lacking in personal anecdotes, makes up for it with a profound understanding of the creative process. Imogen Stokes recommends an essential read on art’s transformative power.
Rick Rubin | The Creative Act: A Way of Being

From Johnny Cash to Kanye West, Rick Rubin has worked with some of the biggest names in music. Notably titled ‘the most important producer of the last 20 years’ by MTV, the famously bearded founder of Def Jam records has nine Grammy awards under his belt and is one of the most sought-after producers working today. 

Written over the course of four years, a period that saw Rubin work with bands such as The Strokes and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Creative Act: A Way of Being might promise a memoir yet assumes the form of something more like a self-help guide. Rubin distils what he has learned throughout his illustrious 40-year career into a series of short chapters that read somewhat like meditations, contemplating the meaning of art in general; how to make it well and why it matters to keep trying. While its dearth of personal anecdotes may be disappointing to fans hoping to gain insight into some of the producer’s many exploits, this book requires little to no contextual knowledge of Rubin’s life and work to enjoy. 

“There was a version of the book three years ago,” Rubin told The Bookseller magazine last October. “The content was similar but the feeling of it... it did not feel like a call to action. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t inspirational.” If inspiring artists to create meaningful art is Rubin’s primary aim, suffice to say The Creative Act: A Way of Being largely succeeds.  

Happily, this book is not just for musicians; for any working artist in search of practical guidance, Rubin offers encouragements and hands-on suggestions for how to cultivate discipline, maintain creative perspective and successfully finish work. His tips are, in many cases, refreshingly rudimentary. Set up a daily schedule of practice and stick to it. Level up your taste in the medium you are working in. Allow yourself to be distracted sometimes. Such instructions immediately reminded me of Oblique Strategies, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s tarot-like deck of pithy creative prompts, conceived in 1975 as a work of art and designed to stimulate creativity. And the advice is sage. As an artist myself, I had barely gotten halfway through when my highlighter began to run out of ink.  

Rubin’s thesis on art-making is full of self-aware contradiction. It is a serious matter, he says, but it’s also reliant on play. One should employ a rigorous schedule yet embrace rest and spontaneity. Practise your craft but be aware of the value in naivety;  

‘often the most innovative ideas come from those who master the rules to such a degree that they can see past them or from those who never learned them at all’,  

and remember that both years of artistic toil and a five-minute flash of inspiration can both produce a valuable result.  

[It] does an excellent job of meeting the creative in their tiredness while celebrating their bravery.  

It is this ability to understand and speak to the tensions faced by an overwhelming majority of artists that is a real strength of this book and a testament to Rubin’s experience as a producer. The creative process is rarely straightforward; success can be difficult to define and inspiration elusive. However, he admits, in the pursuit of great art ‘there are no shortcuts.’ The Creative Act: A Way of Being does an excellent job of meeting the creative in their tiredness while celebrating their bravery. It exists, at the end of the day, to remind them why it’s important to make art at all. I can corroborate this with my own experience: as a reader I brought all the baggage of any working artist. I felt understood and reassured, both by Rubin’s reverence for art-making and by his admission that art is rarely straightforward, and that artists can be hard to understand. This, for Rubin, is by no means an indictment. It’s part of the journey, and an important one at that.   

Rubin’s reverence for the power of art and the significance of the artist is without question. This can sometimes, though, verge on the eulogising of unhealthy behaviour— an issue, I can’t help but feel, is endemic to the music industry at large.  

'The great artists in history… are protective of their art in a way that is not always co-operative. Their needs as a creator come first. Often at the expense of their personal lives and relationships',  

writes Rubin, excusing selfishness as a ‘childlike spirit’ to be aspired to. Surely, while singular focus is key, this doesn’t need to override a generosity of spirit, does it? Van Gogh certainly didn’t think so, famously writing: 

 ‘there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.’ 

There’s an evident undercurrent of divine inspiration woven throughout the book, too. Rubin acknowledges and explores the cosmic thread that runs through all things, the energy of which the artist both observes and channels through their work. The artist without this spiritual viewpoint, he posits, is at a crucial disadvantage. For Rubin, the spiritual world provides a crucial sense of wonder and a degree of open-mindedness rarely found within the confines of science. A dedication towards a deeper connection with and understanding of the ‘Source’ (the creative force of the universe) will inevitably merit a greater artistic encounter. Rubin therefore encourages artists to be disciplined in their spiritual practice in order to ‘build up the musculature of the psyche to more acutely tune in and receive from the divine’.  

Rick Rubin with Neil Diamond, 2006. Photo by MusicLoverDiamond. 

Rick Rubin with Neil Diamond

As a believer, of course I perceived Rubin’s ‘Source’ to be a metonym for the God of the Bible, and while occasionally Rubin’s universalism strays into abstraction— perhaps even cliché— there is genuine substance here; many of his spiritual encouragements overlap significantly with Christian teachings, for instance his appeal to artists to be ‘in’ currents of culture, not ‘of’ them, and the assertion that ‘it is better to follow the universe than those around you’. He admires the biblical attitudes of patience, discipline and child-likeness, and even quotes directly from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, ‘for everything there is a season... ’,  when illustrating the rhythms of nature. 

Although it might be viewed as a simple guide to creative rules and rhythms, at the heart of this book the challenge is set.  

You are either living as an artist, or you’re not. You are either adopting this way of being, or you aren’t.  

Rubin takes no prisoners. The Creative Act: A Way of Being is an essential read for anyone looking to explore the importance of art or to remind themselves why they shouldn’t give up. For Rubin, a facilitator and a collaborator, the transformational powers of art are undeniable and artists themselves are almost magical creatures who need understanding and care. This book is both about, and for them.  

4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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