Still from Saul and Elaine Bass's "Why Man Creates" (1968) (screenshot via YouTube)

Still from Saul and Elaine Bass’s “Why Man Creates” (1968) (screenshot via YouTube)

Why do we make art? Why does anyone create anything?

These are timeless questions, which also means they’re timeless topics for the makers of art. Creative people are often fascinated by their own creativity, probably because they don’t entirely understand it.

In 1968, graphic designer Saul Bass and his wife Elaine made a short film called “Why Man Creates.” Commissioned by the Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical company, the nearly 25-minute video outlines a trajectory of creativity, aka the process of turning ideas into something more tangible, through illustration, documentary footage, image collages, acted bits, voiceover, and more. The film won an Oscar for best documentary short, but calling it a documentary seems not quite right — “Why Man Creates” is an essay more than anything else.

At times today the film can be a little hokey; some of the music feels dated, and the narrator’s words and tone often seem to come straight from a bland educational video about (Western) Art. It’s also impossibly male-centric (all of the celebrated creators are men). But there are wonderfully whimsical moments, as when a crowd of people crossing the street unanimously turns and start doing jumping jacks; when a creator must confront his heckling public face-to-face (“what a piece of garbage that is”); and, my favorite, when one cartoon snail asks another, “Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions and in turn reject radical ideas, which threaten institutions?” The other snail says, “no.”

For another point it gets just right, here’s Hyperallergic contributing editor Lyra Kilston writing in the LA Review of Books:

When a voice asks “Where do ideas come from?” the answer is: “from looking at one thing and seeing another,” which [writer Pat] Kirkham points out is a recurrent theme in the work of the Basses. It’s a remarkably simple answer, yet it underpins the essence of both creativity and effective design.

YouTube video
YouTube video

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art and politics but has also been known to write at length about cats. She won the 2014 Best...

One reply on “Saul Bass Gets to the Heart of Creativity”

  1. Despite dated aspects (and I list it as Why Man [sic] Creates), I’ve loved and admired that film since 1968. And I still use in in a college class called Creative Process: Inspiration and Sweat.

    Another favorite: “Allah be praised, I’ve invented the zero.” What? “Nothing, nothing.”

    Derrick Te Paske

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