Thursday, November 05, 2009

Art As A Way: Lighting Out

Most books on creativity end up being how-to manuals, full of exercises and prompts, tips and tricks, designed to get you going, to trigger some creative work. I find most of these unsatisfying, because no recipe for creativity will ever be entirely useful. It's not a logical process, it's not rational or reasonable, and it's not left-brain managed. Sometimes creativity happens in spite of the exercise of craft, rather than because of it. It's like when I was in music school: all they could really teach us was theory, not inspiration; so even though I was a composer, most of my coursework was logical and narrative, music theory, music history, analysis and study. Very little of it was directly creative. Most of it was technical. All anyone can teach is craft.

There are few books or seminars that focus on the psychology and/or spirituality of the creative process itself. Very few want to get into this aspect of creativity, in part because it's so hard to talk about, but also because we've all been taught for so long to equate art-making with technique and craft, that we've forgotten, many of us, that craft's only purpose is to serve the art, and not the other way around. Most artists, even, just assume that if their craft is good enough, inspiration will follow—and that's one reason so much unmemorable art is made, from the head alone, and not from the whole being. Books on creativity that address the whole being are few and far between.

One of the few good books that addresses the entire creative process, and approaches its topic from an avowedly spiritual direction, is The Artist's Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity, by Julia Cameron. Originally published in 1992, and now in use by many artists and creatives, the book remains fresh each time I pick it up. I worked through the book, which is a structured process of self-learning that takes several weeks, around 15 years ago. A few days ago, I found a pristine copy of the book at a thrift store, and decided to get it, and work through it again.

One of the most useful aspects of this book is the marginal notes. Many pages in each chapter have inspirational quotes from artists, psychologists, and spiritual leaders, in the margins, next to the main body of text. The running quotes comment on the topic at hand, and also amplify it, and add to it. I've known some of the quotes from their original sources, from long before. Nonetheless, the running quotations add another layer of contemplative usefulness to the book; they deepen it and broaden it.

The Artist's Way is not your usual how-to manual, as a result. It is particularly useful, I believe, for artists who are at stages of their career when they're thinking about starting over again: when they want to revitalize their art, and their selves. (The two are connected.) The book overtly builds on the psychological insight that most of what blocks us is ourselves, and our feelings about what has gone before. In short, the way to increase one's own creativity is by unblocking oneself where life has created blocks, and by recovering our own sense of self-confidence, empowerment, and self-actualization in our creative work. Recovering our creativity is about recovering ourselves.

A few of the marginal quotes from the book are worth repeating here, as instigation. I present them at random, from where the book's pages chose to fall open. many of these are worth writing out and posting near one's workspace, as constant reminders of what matters.

The most important truth to remember, though—which the book states and re-states in several different ways—is that creative work is work. There is no result if you don't work at it, and bring your effort and time to doing the work. It won't happen magically all by itself: it's up to you, the artist, to get busy and get to work. Nothing but action leads to product.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.

Truly, it is in the darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest to all of us.
—Meister Eckhart

Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things.
—Edgar Degas

How often—even before we begin—have we declared a task "impossible"? And how often have we construed a picture of ourselves as being inadequate? . . . A great deal depends upon the thought patterns we choose and on the persistence with which we affirm them.
—Piero Ferrucci

Art happens—no hovel is safe from it, no prince can depend on it, the vastest intelligence cannot bring it about.
—James McNeill Whistler

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.
—Francis Bacon

The function of the creative artist consists of making laws, not in following laws already made.
—Ferruccio Busoni

This makes me think of my attraction to making new forms, new especially in writing poems, rather than using existing or well-known forms. With the notable exception of haiku, when I use a form in my poems, when I use a form in more than one poem, it's usually a form I've invented, or discovered accidentally, or developed. I'm quite conscious of this, even paradoxically I almost never know what form a poem is going to take when I first start writing it. Again, with the notable exception of haiku. And sometimes making a new form is a process of revelation, as in sculpture, of shaping the space around the work by removing what is not the sculpture.

No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination.
—Edward Hopper

You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.
—Juan Gris

Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes it visible.
—Norma Jean Harris

The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.
—Jackson Pollock

Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.
—Henry Miller

Miller, that great baby, never lost his wonder at the world. A great deal of his best writing is observational: putting things into words, as though painting them, things seen as often as imagined. Miller had beginner's mind, that sees without expectation or judgment what is actually there, rather than what we think is there. His curiosity and joy about life made him explore life beyond the usual limits, from which he brought us back numerous reports. The controversy was about what he had reported, not about his reporting: so-called taboo or forbidden topics. Bad critics say that writers are bad because they don't like what the writer is writing about; good critics, and they are few, recognize that something can be well-written even if you don't like the subject matter. Miller has largely suffered at the hands of bad critics, even now. Miller at his best reminds me of what the poet William Meredith once said, that the worst thing you could say about a man was that "he did not pay attention." Miller was one who did pay attention. The quote above tells us how he did it.

No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.
—Minor White

Painting is an attempt to come to terms with life. There are as many solutions as there are human beings.
—George Tooker

This is something painter Mark Rothko could have said: painting is an attempt to come to terms with life. Still misunderstood by shallow viewers who see only surfaces, Rothko is often dismissed by superficial people for superficial reasons. For me, standing for long minutes in front of a large Rothko color-field painting can become a spiritual experience: and it is explicitly clear that Rothko intended this. It's in his journals and essays, many of which have been recovered, and now published for the first time, in the last decade. It's clear to me that Rothko's intentions as a painter were primarily spiritual. It may be that a rabbi may be a better viewer of a Rothko painting, may see it more clearly, than a horde of art critics bound up in histories and -isms. There's a timelessness to the floating panels of translucent color that reminds one of nothing so much as stories from the Kabbalah tradition. Rothko, like Miller, still suffers from misunderstanding and superficial evaluation.

A neophyte critic once tried to claim to me that he could judge (and dismiss) a Rothko painting from viewing it as a small reproduction online, at a size approximately one one-hundredth of its actual scale, and with no detail providing nuance of color. This neophyte claimed he didn't have to go see a Rothko in person, in a museum, but could make his critical assessments merely from viewing a (probably inaccurately color-balanced) thumbnail. This remains one of the most idiotic critical statements I have ever encountered. It's equivalent to saying that you've climbed a mountain by looking at its picture in a book. But the experience of climbing a mountain isn't something one can download.

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
—Joseph Chilton Pearce

We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic.
—Susan Jeffers

Which is one more reason that critics miss the boat about Miller, and also about Rothko. They think that Hemingway is more realistic because it's more grim, more violent, more arbitrary in who dies. Once again, the superficial critic looks at the contents rather than the quality of the writing, and makes judgments about the quality based on the contents. That we have for several generations equated "realism" with grim can be traced to the social-realist novelists and poets of the Depression era, actually to that entire period between the (first two) World Wars, both the boom and bust. Fitzgerald wrote about superficiality and doom while the boom period was still going on, in the 20s; in the 30s, it was the social realism of Dos Passos and others who taught us that all things dour are more realistic than all things party-oriented.

Well, I can truly say that growing up the child of parents who could remember the Depression left that mark on me, too: I have fought all my adult life against the assumption that life is mean, hard, and doomed. This isn't existentialism, although some people equate existentialism with nihilism; but then, some other people equate Buddhism with nihilism, which is a classically superficial Western misunderstanding of the lessons of Emptiness. I was raised by characters more familiar from novels such as O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth than from Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. One of the core dilemmas of my childhood was that I could not help but perceive the world as magical, while my birth tribe insisted on stoicism, even beyond reason. I have spent much of adult life recovering that sense of joy, beauty, fun, and adventure that schooling and church usually beat out of us.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
—Pablo Picasso

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.
—C.G. Jung

The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
—Oscar Wilde

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

That book's been recommended to me before. I've thought to buy it but I doubt I'd ever read it. Maybe someone will send me a review copy one day and I'll feel duty bound to read it.

I've always tried to avoid artificiality in my work. I've done what I felt like doing. On occasion I've responded to a writing prompt but usually the results aren't very good.

This is not to say I pooh-pooh all technique because I most certainly don't and my writing has improved by discovering these but the basis of my writing, where my writing originates from, has always been something I've never been able to put my finger on and, in case I somehow damage it, I've been reluctant to poke around to see how it works. It works and that's enough for me.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I don't know that you would need this book at all, Jim. It's process-oriented, and it's geared towards increasing one's existing creativity, and I don't know that you need that.

Your comments do remind me of Rilke's famous response to when he was offered therapy from one of Freud's own pupils. Rilke said, "I'm sure that therapy would do wonders towards dealing with my demons, but I am also afraid that it might offend my angels."

I agree about artificiality. I almost never do writing exercises or prompts. That's stuff that's good to have available, if you need it; and after a certain level of experience, it's not very helpful. I almost never respond to writing prompts; I used to, just for fun, when I was still engaged with an online writing community or two, and I used to when I liked the people involved. In my case, one or two eventual poems did come out of it, after some other revision, and in one case a radical re-write of the basic idea. But I've always written "in response" to something, typically. I would say that most writing exercises didn't lead to real good work, however, in my experience.

And writing exercises are like five-finger exercises or etudes on piano: they're very helpful for improving one's technique, but they're not very musical.

11:11 AM  

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