Buses in Helsinki (Image via johnmartintaylor.com)

Buses in Helsinki (Image via johnmartintaylor.com)

There are plenty of ways to think about planning an artistic career. Are you aiming to be the enfant terrible, a young provocateur? Or are you playing the long game, sticking with your work until it gets recognized? In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman outlines a new theory of creative growth that I hadn’t heard of before — the “Helsinki Bus Station Theory.”

The theory was first posed by the Finnish, U.S.-based photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen in a 2004 graduation speech. He explains that Helsinki’s bus map is pretty unique — many of the buses follow the same route out from the city’s central square, but after a while, all of the paths diverge, traveling to different neighborhoods. Minkkinen uses this as a metaphor for developing an artistic practice.

Arno Rafael

Arno Rafael Minkkinen (Image courtesy the artist)

“Let’s say, metaphorically speaking, that each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” he explains. After three years, Minkkinen’s metaphorical photographer has been making platinum prints of nudes, like Irving Penn. He takes the prints to the Museum of Fine Arts to show them to the curators, but the curators show you Penn’s work, and you freak out, “hop off the bus, grab a cab (because life is short) and head straight back to the bus station looking for another platform,” and start over again.

If you don’t take a step back from the cycle, that process of repetition “goes on all your creative life, always showing new work, always being compared to others,” Minkkinen says. What to do instead? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus.” Staying on the bus means staying on your own aesthetic path till the end, following it through to its conclusion and not getting distracted from that pursuit by comparisons with other artists or aesthetic trends.

Philip Guston's "The Line" (1978) (Image via Independent.co.uk)

Philip Guston’s “The Line” (1978) (Image via Independent.co.uk)

The Helsinki Bus Station Theory is a pretty important lesson. Many of the most famous artists in art history have created work that wasn’t initially accepted, or universally panned at the time of its making. Rembrandt’s late work didn’t win him any fans, nor did Picasso’s late brushy expressionism. The Abstract Expressionist crowd thought Philip Guston was crazy for ditching abstraction for doodles of KKK members. Yet each of these artistic strategies ended in career-defining work for the artists.

The Bus Station theory is about working with an eye to the long term rather than instant positive feedback, thinking about what will make a lasting impact and what pleases you personally. It’s a lesson we can all stand to learn. Sadly, the chaotic, convoluted New York City bus system is unlikely to teach you quite as much.

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...

16 replies on “The Bus Station Theory, or, Why You Should Stick to Your Own Pursuit of Creativity”

  1. I have a weird opinion about career motivation as an artist. I always keep a plan of things I would to accomplish and anticipated dates (creepy, I know) in which I would like to accomplish them. But overall I feel as though the best advice for an artist is to always be producing work, be mindful of not being taken advantage of, and be very open to speaking about your work to anyone who asks.

    I could expand on this quite a bit but I would rather get back to the studio!

  2. Interesting… BUT, Guston never “doodled” KKK members. Suggesting he did so is a poor read of the artist, and his history. The drawings and subsequent paintings were as deliberate as can be. AND what’s more they revisit subject matter explored in depth in Guston’s earliest adult works. Nothing does art history (or the would-be young artist) a greater disservice than flip commentary like “The Abstract Expressionist crowd thought Philip Guston was crazy for ditching abstraction for doodles of KKK members.” Read up on your Guston.

    1. Hey David, “Doodle” isn’t meant as a pejorative, I meant it as more referring to the sketchy outlines of his late work. I would still venture to say some people thought he was going against type doing that kind of work.

      1. I didn’t read it as a perjorative, just as grossly inaccurate. Doodling is great, but it doesn’t describe Guston. That said the idea that Guston’s work divides into radically different phases or whatever is really shallow and pedestrian. Study the DRAWINGS (they’re NOT doodles….words do have meaning) and that is clear. And “sketchy outlines”????…..look closer, please.

        1. Clearly there is ample evidence that those who had thrown their hats into the ring of High Modern Abstraction or whatever “didn’t get” the Marlborough show. But the “lyrical” 50’s paintings were ancient history by then anyway, for starters. In any event, none of this backs up the stick on the bus theory….

  3. Let’s not pick on the New York City Transit Authority. the article is a thoughtful one and I am posting it on Facebook and my blog. thank you

  4. Like this theory- although easy to say- so hard to do. When you watch others being rewarded for replicating what has already been done and approved of. As well as persistence, a certain kind of stubborn resistance needs to be cultivated- that, and a lot of alone time!

  5. I have been teaching artists how to create their careers for several years now. I’ve not heard of this theory but it follows that the most powerful art is the most authentic. It is work that comes from someplace deep within, not flitting back and forth as it tries to find an audience. To see how I am connecting with artists through an online program, visit http://www.igg.me/at/theworkingartist

    1. LOL. I love how this comment traverses the notion of “authenticity” as the highest value before veering directly off into careerism and self-promotion without a hint of self-awareness as to its own contradictory construction.

  6. I am on that bus and there are no passengers. There were a few stops in the beginning for self verification (I have no artisic training) but now I just pass by. Thanks for the sign post.

  7. Gosh, I do love this perspective. A counter-thought, though: Is it really possible to separate moments of legitimate, unique artistic evolution from stylistic changes motivated by exterior forces (even crappy, profit-focused ones)? Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew with the explicit goal of cashing in on the rock & roll market, but that didn’t diminish the album’s overall contribution to the evolution of American music. Maybe people-pleasing and formal, self-driven production aren’t mutually exclusive end goals. Perhaps the biographers decide this later on.

  8. What I’ve taught myself as I plow through my work day after day can feel more organic as a learning process than the word of some who’ve been paid to teach me or when I’ve put myself in a position of judgement by art/corporate professionals. On the other hand, without sufficient contact with other artists and people who work with them, the autodidact route can limit my development. I’ve put effort into assessing the judgements of others – including the positive. I’m definitely out of fashion right now and I suspect that I have lots of company.

  9. “We’re all Bozos on this bus” and don’t forget to get off the bust once in a while to live.

  10. I like this inspired analogy but have to wonder… Where are the bus stops for having children? Is that where you get off at the laundromat for a number of years??

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