The Bus Station Theory, or, Why You Should Stick to Your Own Pursuit of Creativity

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.

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