I’ve always believed that provoking your audience was something to strive for as a creative person. Provoking means standing out. Challenging social norms. Making a difference. But with the desire to provoke comes fear. The word “provoke” has negative connotations for a reason. To provoke is to incite a feeling, and often that feeling is anger.
Many great artists provoked society. Édouard Manet with his nude paintings, Pablo Picasso with his artistic condemnation of fascism, Jackson Pollock with his painting style itself. These artists are remembered for their controversial works of art. They upset a lot of people during their time. It’s what set them apart.
But I’m curious if Manat, Picasso and Pollock anticipated the response they received. Surely they knew their work was challenging the status quo. But did they fear their audience’s response? Did they wonder if it might harm their career or reputation, or if people might misinterpret their intentions? Did that fear ever stifle their voice and creativity?
To provoke is to stimulate or draw something forth. You can provoke laughter or outrage, positive and negative responses. But when you want to make an impact or disrupt an accepted way of doing things, a purely positive response is impossible. It contradicts the goal itself. As a creative person, doing provoking work means you will inevitably upset people. The question is whether you accept and embrace that, or let your desire for acceptance stifle you.
"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music." Friedrich Nietzsche
Tim Raue is a German chef whose unapologetic effort to provoke earned him two Michelin stars. Raue had a rough upbringing and roamed the streets of Berlin as a gang member when he was a teen. Now he’s running one of the greatest restaurants in the world from the same city. But his attitude toward food and life is one that many find abrasive.
“At the beginning of my career, I made the decision that it’s better to provoke and to overdo it than to be average,” Raue says in an episode of the Netflix series, Chef’s Table. “Sometimes I over-flavor because I want to provoke. I want to awake the people.”
His philosophy is demonstrated not only in his food but in his kitchen. Raue prides himself on being straightforward with his staff, sparing no feelings to share his own. He flings demands and curses across the kitchen, gives harsh feedback without hesitation. He’s provoking in every sense of the word.
“His Wasabi Langoustine displays his ability to surprise you,” says food critic Julien Walther. When you eat the Langoustine the flavors are so spicy, it’s like Tim punching you in the face.”
Ursula Heinzelmann, author of “History of Food Culture in Germany,” struggles to describe Tim as a chef, dancing around words until finally admitting he can be an “arrogant bastard.” Being provocative doesn’t make you the most popular chef, she explains, but the Berlin food scene would not exist without him.
Now, there’s an obvious difference between provoking and intentionally causing harm. You can challenge or make people uncomfortable without hurling insults and being harsh. Provocation is an art, and different people approach it differently. Most choose to package it into their work or art, to provoke passively. Meaning: It’s typically not the artist that provokes, it’s their work.
But I appreciate Raue’s blatant pursuit of provocation. He makes it resoundingly clear that he wants to create a response in people. And he does. Two Michelin stars aside, Raue is fulfilled by his work. He’s the first one to say he’s expressing himself and living out his purpose.
“Of course I want to provoke, Raue says. “It is my personality. I’m not the one who’s sitting in the corner silent.”
I believe the greatest and most effective creative minds approach their work like Tim Raue. Whether they consciously aim to provoke or not, they accept that potential response. They welcome it.
Whether I’m designing or writing, I want to do provoking work rather than sit in the corner silent. If everyone’s nodding their heads and agreeing with me, I’m not trying hard enough. And I’m certainly not being honest.