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At home with art and technology

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Me as a digital Deep Dream Vision Quest painting.

I grew up on a military base in the wide open Indian Wells Valley of California’s Mojave Desert. With a fantasy-prone mind and a peace loving heart, I felt a sublime fascination with the technology that powered jets up to speeds that broke the sound barrier and left trails in the skies above the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Yet, my life primarily evolved around home, church, and school, where I learned to color and write, think about God, sing, and dance. My father was a computer programmer, educated as an aeronautical engineer and gifted as a musician and poet. He would play the guitar with pens in his pocket. My mother worked as an accountant and could tap at a mean pace on an adding machine. At home her fingers were more often crocheting elaborate hanging planters, cooking homemade meals, or feeding material through her sewing machine. She was so adept at growing things that she actually made tulips come up in the hard, dry dirt of our backyard. Great with numbers, my mother still writes them with extra beautiful curves.

Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

Coming from this home of engineers and artists, I always felt they were naturally parts of one whole. It wasn’t until I ventured into the wider world as an adult that I understood the cultural divide that I now feel compelled to challenge in my work as a science communicator and in my education and experience in the arts.

Fortunately many others are attempting to join what C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” Yesterday, I visited the Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose, originally conceived by author and historian Piero Scaruffi and organized by the Thymos Foundation. As described on the LAST Festival website, the event combines and fuses these disciplines “to help reshape the cultural environment of the 21st century towards a multidimensional form of individual and social creativity.”

LAST overview

Life Art Science Tech (LAST) Festival in San Jose April 7-8, 2017.

The art exhibit, curated by Joel Slayton, playfully meandered across the art-science divide. Scientific concepts and technology were brought to bear on aesthetic concepts and displays that teased the mind and delighted the senses. Many were interactive pieces that operated on the viewer’s physical presence, movements, or sounds. Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest took images of viewers standing in front of a large screen and turned them into a rich dreamscape digital painting of layered familiar shapes, ceaselessly morphing. The piece uses videogames and machine learning to generate what Boodhoo calls “interactive science fiction” that “turns dreaming into a shared experience.”

Gary Boodhoo’s Deep Dream Vision Quest

Cere Davis’ Water Organ looked like a Dr. Seuss laboratory experiment: funny tin vessels moved on water via sound waves and magnets. The ambient sound composition coming from these curious components could be silenced by placing a finger on a strip of tin foil just in front of the sculpture. The softly shifting, goldfish colored sculpture with its dreamy sound patterns had a trance-like effect – all the while, I wondered what invisible forces were at work. According to her bio, sculptor, engineer, musician and dancer Davis plays at the boundaries of “engineering, soulful expression, and laboratory experimentation.”

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Water Organ, a kinetic sound sculpture by Cere Davis.

As Daniel H. Pink writes in A Whole New Mind, “Human beings sometimes seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting pairs.” Science is exact, disciplined, factual, logical, and analytical. Art is open, meandering, and based in emotion. Art is atmospheric; it appeals to our senses. Science is specific; it tells us about reality and enables useful inventions. Yet, even as I write these descriptions in order to place art and science on opposite poles, I see traces of each on the other side of human experience. Science is certainly open to new discoveries, and great artists are precise and rigorously trained. A beautiful equation can give scientists goose bumps, and art has contributed real power to civilizations. Since the beginning of human history, the making of things has involved both aesthetics and engineering.

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More than Love on the Horizon hologram at LAST Festival.

 


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Art and aesthetic character

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Isadora Duncan (Wikimedia Commons)

Art is popularly conceived of as a finished work: the art object. People look at a painting or sculpture, read a poem or hear a piece of music and call it art. The products of artistic activities are indeed valuable independent entities in the spirit of Friedrich Schiller’s “art for art’s sake.” However, in order to understand and appreciate art broadly, one must go beyond the art object to consider the process of artistic creation that brought the artwork into being. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Martin Heidegger argues that the artwork conveys the world from which it was born. That world—the inspiration, passion, hopes, and fears of a particular time, place, and condition—provides the emotional kindling for aesthetic activity, which is a distinct enterprise requiring certain qualities in order to engage in it. The world is constantly offering up inspiration, but human capacity to interact aesthetically with it varies from one person to the next and one moment to the next. What is the nature of this interaction between woman or man and the world that engenders art? By looking at the aesthetic character—the dispositions or ways of being that foster the pursuit of aesthetic activities—one can more fully understand the nature of art. Three key aesthetic qualities are openness and seeking, dedication, and expressiveness.

Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden.

Many philosophers have defined art as a medium through which man is connected to a higher truth. In Enneads, Plotinus characterizes beauty as the soul recognizing the “higher realm of being” in earthly forms. Clive Bell describes the state that art arouses as “aesthetic emotion,” an ecstatic response that is unearthly and sublime. Leo Tolstoy, who argues for moral aesthetic judgment, insists that art originates in honest inspiration, new and “dimly-perceived feelings,” which are directly connected to the artist’s heart. Whatever the source of aesthetic insight—the soul, truth, love, or genius—people must be open, receptive and seeking in order to connect to it.

The first dispositions required in the process of art are perceptiveness and reflectiveness, through which the artist or the viewer of art must search for something beyond the material, the obvious, and the everyday. Art often results from a momentary lucidness—an answer to a question of the soul. The open and seeking aesthetic character finds something in the world that resonates, often in a frequency that is beyond logic or reason. Plotinus describes how “sense-perception … gathers into one that which appears dispersed and brings it back and takes it in, now without parts, to the soul’s interior.” Man’s aesthetic eyes, heart, and lungs must be open, beating, and breathing in order to “gather” inspiration from the world.

The second challenge of art then follows: The artist takes that tenuous insight and makes with it something real. Therein lies the next important aesthetic disposition—dedication. In Art as Experience, John Dewey asserts that aesthetic value is directly correlated to the magnitude of vitality with which any object is made. In her autobiography, Isadora Duncan, one of the founders of modern dance, describes how she stood in an empty and silent dance studio with her eyes closed, perfectly still, waiting for an answer to the question: What moves me? When the answer came, she didn’t stop questioning. She worked for years to find, sculpt, and perfect her own dance facing down significant obstacles. Every artist acquires the skills of his trade, and he goes to work each day to turn inspiration into substance, to make the intangible tangible. Artworks may be described as divine, but they do not drop from the heavens. They are the result of human work done creatively and passionately. R. G. Collingwood argues that art lives in complete form in the mind, but art is never realized without physical effort. Art is a process and product of the mind, soul and body working in the material world—using matter to bridge the immaterial world of thought, emotion, and being. Art may well be connected to the higher-self—the soul—but it is more than prayer; it is creation.

To truly appreciate art, the art enthusiast must also invest her time and attention in a manner that requires devotion. She, too, must have an open, seeking mind and heart to embrace the worlds that art open to her—and while many people are content to appreciate art in the manner of Kant’s “free play,” making the effort to contemplate the artwork over time and learn about the artist, culture, and time period it was created in gives the beholder of art a deeper understanding and a richer experience. In “Of the Standard of Taste,” David Hume expresses the importance of exercise in the art experience: “In a word, the same address and dexterity, which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” It is one thing to fall in love with an artwork and another to do the hard work of seeking understanding and discovering unseen nuances in the familiar.

What begins inside the artist’s heart, mind, and soul and develops in her studio is ultimately meant to be shared. The final aim of artistic creation is communication. Therefore, the third essential disposition of aesthetic character is expressiveness. Only through expression is the artist able to fully realize her work. Tolstoy frames the creative act of art as a struggle in which the artist attempts to build a bridge of understanding to his fellow man. For Tolstoy, successful art reveals the artist’s inner awakening sufficiently enough to bring about a similar feeling in all who receive his message. In Poetics, Aristotle proposes that drama serves man in his efforts to learn through affinity with tragedy, which imitates life. Art is essentially a cycle of giving and receiving: The artist gains insight through receptivity; he gives his time, talent, and effort to creation; he presents his work to his fellow man; the viewer receives and interacts with the work; and the artist gains new knowledge through the synergy. Without expression, the circle of art is broken.

Through receptivity, engagement and interaction with the world, aesthetic character facilitates perpetual discovery, development, and achievement. Heidegger argues that by bringing to light the constancy of being surrounding and inherent in substance, art illuminates the world in the entire context of its being. Art has the power to reveal truth, even the mutating truth of changing constants, because it is a creative act. Knowledge is a constant process of building understanding and letting go of old ideas to make room for new.

Art is a human activity and occupation. It demands certain human qualities. Art defines humanity broadly to include the mysterious, lush interior life, the unspeakable, the illusive, and the forbidden. It struggles to bring knowledge from the murky depths of being to the surface, so that man can understand himself and others. The fact that artists and art enthusiasts exist and share a common aesthetic character demonstrates that human beings are intrigued, impassioned and propelled by self-examination. Through art man learns about his spirit and its connection to the material world.

In his Berlin lectures published in Introduction to Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel emphasizes that self-reflection is the essence of the human spirit. Art philosophy approaches man’s contemporary sacred needs and allows art to maintain its spiritual relevance, he argues. Through self-reflection, aesthetic experience provides what Aristotle refers to as catharsis: feeling, sensing, but also knowing about the self and the world. By understanding and nurturing aesthetic character, man can secure and augment the important endeavor of art, the value of artworks, and the interactions of art maker and viewer—a worthy conversation toward understanding and appreciation of the precious subtleties of life.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. S.H. Butcher. Liberty Online. Jawaid Bazyar. 1995-1999. Web. 20 January 2013. http://libertyonline.hypermall.com/Aristotle/Poetics.htm.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” Art. New York: Chatto & Windus, 1981. 15-34.

Collingwood, Robin George. The Principles of Art. Chap. 7. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1938. 125-152.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980. Chap. 1-2. 3-27.

Duncan, Isadora. My Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1927.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. “Chapters 1-3.” Introduction to Aesthetics (Berlin Aesthetics Lectures of 1820s). Trans. T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. ”The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. A. Hofstader. Lectures 1 & 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 32-48.

Hume, David. “Of the Standard of Taste.” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. 231-255.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Trans. J. C. Meredith. Sections 1-14, 16, 23-24, 28. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952.

Plotinus. Enneads. Trans. A. H. Armstrong. Vol. I. Section 6. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1996. 229-263.

Schiller, Friedrich. “Letters.” On the Aesthetic Education of Man. 26-27. Trans. E. Wilkinson & L. Willoughby. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. 191-219.

Tolstoy, Leo. “On Art.” What is Art? and Essays on Art. Trans. A. Maude. London: Oxford University Press, 1930. 46-61.

 


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Dancing with uncertainty

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is dependent on the limitations of human existence: it is the confrontation with borders that inspires people to push against them. “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem,” he writes (114). The partners in this tension can be envisioned as imagination and trepidation, energy and lethargy, life and death. May describes them as freedom and restriction—the infinite possibility of the imagination and the unyielding reality of mortality and all the lesser restraints (115). At the meeting of these unlikely consorts emerges the struggle that bears the most beautiful fruits of human activity: art, science, design, and all other occupations that generate new directions in the way we think, express ourselves, and live our lives.

For psychologist Carl Jung this struggle operates on a societal level: the artist is a conduit for the vision of mankind, which rebalances the collective psyche. He describes this as an enormous and difficult task: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (230). Creativity is the harder choice, but it’s also the more rewarding path for the individual and for society at large. To deny creativity is to go to the eight-grade dance and stand against the wall. To practice “creative courage,” as May calls it, is to navigate an awkward body under the lights and eyes of our peers to the groove of life—to dance with uncertainty. All people experience pain due to their limits; the artist transforms pain into joy. The dancer creates grace through movement; he defies gravity with his own volition; he smiles in the face of his own immortality.

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Me dancing in a park in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2007 with my group beebop-n-butoh.

But the dance of creativity is not a dance of chaos. It requires a frame, a practice, the daring of disclosure, and the willingness to express. In other words, creativity demands the contributions of both partners in the dance: discipline and freedom. The four elements above are key to the creative process: the artist must begin with a dedicated space, fill it with a structure that nurtures openness and intention, take the real risk of exposing her deepest and most honest impressions, and offer the resulting creation to the world that gives it a life beyond the inventor.

By frame, I refer to the practical, physical aspects of the creative space. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Implied in Woolf’s political statement about creativity as opportunity, is the fact that the creative act requires time (money) and space. More specifically, space represents solitude and silence, which are imperative as a basis for creative inspiration. Mozart writes, “Where I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly” (34). A writer’s frame may be a room, as Woolf suggests, or a laptop on a table for a dedicated hour. While writing poetry for my creative project this semester, I found the space I needed by opening my computer, setting my intention to write, and tuning into my own body. Even at busy times in a home with children, I found a quiet corner and projected an air of solitude that kept distractions at bay. In Fearless Creating Eric Maisel calls “hushing” the most critical exercise in his book. “Find a quiet place,” he advises. “If there is no quiet place in your environment, that’s your first task, to make a haven in which silence is available” (5).

I propose that this quiet place is both the physical space the artist occupies, as well as her own body, which houses all the psychic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of creativity. As Yeats implies in his poem “Long-Legged Fly,” creativity must originate in the individual: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (109). The silence from which creativity is born requires a physical frame of space and time that is dedicated to the creative act and has multiple layers, beginning with a quiet mind, a still body and a calm haven—a room, a table, a yoga mat, or an open road. With practice of internal silence, a skilled creator can find solitude wherever she roams.

“Hushing,” as Maisel calls the kind of silent, meditative state that opens a channel of reflection and inspiration, is one of the disciplines or methods of creativity that fill the creative space. Silencing the mind and tuning into the body, allows the artist to sample fuller dimensions of experience that encompass all the senses. In “Three Pieces on the Creative Process,” Yeats reflects on “The Thinking of the Body” and his own response to two paintings in his house: “Neither painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art” (106). Art demands a physical presence and a physical response, which requires less emphasis on thinking and more focus on feeling and sensing. For most modern people, this is not a natural state of being, but one that must be sought and practiced.

Silence allows creative inspiration to emerge from the subconscious: the words of poetry come through the physical senses, the deep gut feelings into the quiet mind. As I practiced silence of mind and sensation of body in writing poetry, I thought about the poet A.E. Housman’s description of the process of poetry making as a “bubbling up” of sensation: “…so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss…the pit of the stomach” (91).

But listening is just one half of the practice of creativity. As writer and artist Jean Cocteau suggests in “The Process of Inspiration,” it is all too easy for inspiration to remain in the half-shadows of sense perception: it’s the work of the artist to drag the vague beginnings of creation from the dark into the light. “To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying around the dream of a play or a book,” he writes (80). This is why the artist must fill the creative space with tools and techniques for acting on what he senses. In the case of poetry, the active half of writing requires putting down words; arranging, rearranging and substituting them; reading them aloud, acting them out, drawing them in shapes on paper, or typing them. Conscious effort must add the spirit of “whatever it takes” to give birth to art from the deep amorphous pool of subconscious experience. Passive listening and active articulation make up the two aspects of practice required in the creative process.

The frame and practice elements of creativity relate to the discipline side of the dance – they are the banks of the river, to use May’s metaphor. They are the tools an artist uses to tame and shape the wild rush of imagination and inspiration. But without the spark of spontaneity, the daring of uncovering the less civilized impetus of art, creativity would not produce its many splendid things. Maisel addresses “wildness” as a fundamental element of creating without fear. It’s “many faces,” according to Maisel, are “passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions” (12). He literally encourages artists to create while naked the way Georgia O’Keeffe was found painting in the nude. Getting naked in the creative process is a way of tapping into the reality of who you are. It’s about allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of yourself to be revealed in your work. The artist who dares to expose her authentic truths must confront and move through the anxiety of uncertainty. She must ask tough questions: what will I find out about myself; will it be accepted and understood by others? True creativity cannot skirt these questions without denying its products the power they deserve. Poetry often taps into those unsaid thoughts and intimate feelings that are too frightening to express in everyday conversation. It challenges the poet and the world he lives in, by pushing at the borders of the mundane and acceptable. As I worked on my collection of poems, I found that their entire force was aimed at dredging up, exposing, examining and crafting the perceptions that I otherwise carry silently in a secret part of myself. As May writes in The Courage to Create, the essential element of creativity “is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play” (76).

Yet, it’s not enough to put the most beautiful and honest revelation in a frame and hang it in a basement. Creativity is not complete until it is shared. As Valéry writes in “The Course in Poetics,” art is the very exchange of voices—“It is the performance of the poem which is the poem” (99). One of the biggest revelations this semester came from sharing my poetry collection and receiving the responses of readers. How could so many different interpretations, impressions and meanings be evoked from one poem? What sprang from a deeply personal experience of a single individual grew exponentially as it was experienced and processed by those who were on the receiving end of this sharing.

Both these last elements—exposing yourself honestly and sharing the inspiration you have crafted with the world—take a lot of courage. They are the elements that require freedom despite our uncertainty.

I return to the significance of May’s statement about limits and creativity to define a few parameters of the human condition related to creativity. People are emotional creatures: they love deeply and feel strongly despite the fact that nothing in life is permanent. Furthermore, humans have limited knowledge and free will but limited powers—they act but cannot know if their choices are right and cannot control the outcome of their actions. As people move through life they gain knowledge and experience, but if they are open, they also become more acutely aware of how little they know or control as they move steadily toward the ultimate limit of life. The question emerges: what will a person do with her finite time on earth?

To live creatively is to embrace these margins, to live passionately knowing the value of time, health, love, and giving. Experience tells us the difference between love and hate, warmth and aloofness, kindness and greed. As people age they get harder or softer; they brace themselves to avoid pain, or they open themselves up to the experience. Grandparents shower their grandchildren with love; they express their love more easily because they know how precious it is. Creativity is expression—it’s action, but it’s also receptivity. Like breath itself, creativity is taking in and giving out. It’s being open to the unknown, to the spontaneous, the unpredictable—embracing the unforeseen. It’s dancing with the limits of life and the fears those limits evoke. But the dance of creativity is more like ballroom than a rave: you have trained all the moves in the studio and know your partner well, but you must let the passion guide you into unknown territory to be great. You have to dance on the edge.

Works Cited

Cocteau, Jean. “The Process of Inspiration.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 79-80.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychology and Literature.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 217-232.

Maisel, Eric. Fearless Creating. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “A Letter.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 34-35.

Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 92-105.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The University of Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/index.html&gt;

Yeats, William Butler. “Three Pieces on the Creative Process.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 106-109.


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Creating meaning from madness: the poetry of Maya Angelou

My_Heroes_-_Maya_Angelou_connected_with_countless_people_through_her_powerful_poetryMaya Angelou was known as a poet of integrity who was not afraid of tough topics and real language that pushes the boundaries of social sensibilities. Out of a difficult childhood she grew strong, using art to become sane and whole. Eventually she served as a role model and mentor to people across the globe. Yet, her poetry demonstrates qualities that A.E. Housman attributes to the “mad” poets in his essay “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not,” he writes (85). For Housman, the best poetry speaks to emotion and not to reason because it is produced from the gut and not from the brain (90). With her own anger, joy, and pain, Angelou writes from and speaks to the “pit of the stomach”—for Housman the “seat” of the poetic sensation (90).

However, through her poetry the celebrated author, educator, and activist also gave meaning to her struggles and sent ripples of significance out to generations of people who identify with her courage, her sense of justice, and her compassion. In many ways, the poetry of Maya Angelou makes meaning from madness by creating insight and understanding of the most senseless of human conditions: slavery, hunger, violence, and love. While Housman sees the intellect as a hindrance to pure poetic expression, Angelou demonstrates the power of “mad poetry” as significant social action. The sense of her poetic rants and rhapsodies is to create a bond of understanding on an emotional level—in her own words, to show people that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike” (Collected Poems 224).

In his essay, Housman recalls the words of Plato: “He who without the Muses’ madness in his soul comes knocking at the door of poesy and thinks that art will make him anything fit to be called a poet, finds that the poetry which he indites in his sober senses is beaten hollow by the poetry of madmen” (85). For Housman, the “muses’ madness” is characterized by language that “answers to nothing real” and is best demonstrated by the English poets of the eighteenth century who were insane in the “age of sanity and intelligence” (86). Of these poets Blake is the most “poetic,” according to Housman, because his poetry weaves exciting threads of language that resist intellectual clarity (87). Housman finds that “nothing except poetic emotion is perceived and matters” in verses such as these from Blake:

Calling the lapsed soul
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew. (qtd. in Housman 87)

Similar emotive lines can be found in Angelou’s poetry. “Brief Innocence” describes a “half-mad city” at dawn: “nuzzling / the breast of morning / crooning” (Collected Poems 213). This use of poetic imagery creates nothing more than the sweet sensation of daybreak similar to the way Blake captures the nostalgia of twilight.

In these lines from “Remembering,” Angelou uses nonsensical, haunting language to illustrate human weakness:

Soft grey ghosts crawl up my sleeve
to peer into my eyes
while I within deny their threats
and answer them with lies. (Collected Poems 14)

Here again, it’s not the mind she engages, but rather the physical senses. Being fooled by one’s own recollections is a universal human predilection. These moments of self-betrayal crawl on the skin as do the “soft grey ghosts” of Angelou’s poem. Once asked to define poetry, Housman could only point to the sensations it evokes: the goose bumps, a shudder, sudden tears, tight throat, or a sensation of being struck as if by lightening. He calls these the physical “symptoms” that poetry provokes (90). The imagery of Angelou’s poetry creates this visceral effect. Yet, the biographical context of her poetry makes those words reach deeper into the reader’s conscience. Themes of guilt and innocence in her poems take on broader significance as they relate to her own experiences of racism and abuse made known through her internationally acclaimed biography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou spent her young years with her grandmother in a small, racially charged Arkansas town. After moving to St. Louis to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted and spent almost five years of her childhood without speaking after the man who abused her was murdered: she was convinced that her words had killed him (Collected Autobiographies 69).

Before she became known as a poet, Angelou’s worked as a dancer and singer in clubs and on Broadway. These experiences—years of listening without speaking, using her body and voice to express herself—no doubt contributed to the physical and emotional sensitivity that makes her poetry “mad,” both in content and in form. Like jazz music, her poems often progress rhythmically and lyrically, only to switch or stop on a sudden beat. In a poem called “Artful Pose” Angelou writes about her own inspiration as a poet:

My pencil halts
and will not go
along that quiet path.
I need to write
of lovers false
and hate
and hateful wrath
quickly. (Collected Poems 90)

This playful and defiant style speaks to the emotional aesthetic pleasure Housman describes. One can imagine the dark led of the pencil etching paper as Angelou scribbles with “wrath.” Housman describes the act of writing poetry as a “bubbling up” of verses after being taken by a “sudden and unaccountable emotion” (90). Similarly, strong emotions seem to be Angelou’s fountain of inspiration: hate and fear, but also hope and determination. Poems like “Chicken-Licken” and “Starvation” move readers with their raw insights into sexual terror and poverty: “When she saw a bed / locks clicked / in her brain,” and “The slack walls of my purse, pulsing / pudenda, await you with / a new bride’s longing” (Collected Poems 97, 200). Other poems turn anger into conviction. One of Angelou’s most popular poems has become an anthem for many people who strive to overcome an onerous past:

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise (Collected Poems 163)

Angelou’s invincible spirit takes up every ill of humankind and turns it into art using the deep, physical poetic sense that Housman promotes as true poetry. “Still I Rise,” contrasts the darkness of hate with the daring of hope: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise” (Collected Poems 163). In a video interview, Angelou once expressed her desire to connect people through truth: “If I tell the truth about a black American situation, a young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in the Bronx, or a middle-class white woman in Des Moines, Iowa, will understand exactly what I mean” (“Dr. Angelou Honored”).

Angelou is a twentieth century poet who recognizes the limits of reason and intelligence that Housman says guided the eighteenth century poets to failed poetry. In interviews after the election of Barack Obama, Angelou says of the America that elected the first black president, “We’re growing up!” (“Dr. Angelou Reflects”) America grew up with the poetic voice of Maya Angelou helping it to confront its deep scars of racism and sexism. She turned ugliness into prose and lent hope to regret through her art. By bringing all the passion and the emotion of a “mad poet” to the darker side of history she offers a creative solution for the future. The triumph of her poetic courage as a distinctly American poet is most clearly illustrated in the inaugural poem she wrote in 1993:

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here. (Collected Poems 270)

For Housman, poetry must spring forth from madness, a non-rational and meaningless lyrical place. This initial compulsory wave of inspiration, even if later crafted with the mind, is the true source and nature of poetry (91). With the force of a mad poet, Angelou gives her readers “no hiding place.” She opens all human wounds and makes them beautiful opportunities for healing. As is evident in her poem “The Lesson,” even death could not dampen her poetic sensibilities:

I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Children.
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live. (Collected Poems 140)

The last two lines of “The Lesson” are symbolic of the unique madness of the poet, who embraces the ultimate paradox of experience—dying because one loves to live. While Housman is correct in observing that sober logic can’t produce a moving poem, poetry such as Angelou’s, which is cast on a backdrop of personal and historical human struggles, failures and triumphs, can give madness meaning on a grander scale.

Works Cited
 Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
 Angelou, Maya. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
 “Dr. Angelou Honored by Oprah and Denzel Washington.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 “Dr. Angelou Reflects on President Obama’s Victory.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 Housman, A.E. “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 85-91.


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Can creativity be taught?

I’m hoping with my heart and soul that the answer to that question is YES. I would like to become a teacher of creativity, and I don’t yet exactly know what that will mean.

I’m currently taking a course called “Creativity and Its Development,” which surveys theories of creativity and personal observations of artists, scientists and other creative people. It also challenges students to become visionary and artistic by better understanding and engaging their own creativity.

Here are some of my initial impressions:

  • Creativity demands a balance between passivity and activity—letting the muse penetrate the normal din of our active minds by becoming quiet, and then grabbing a hold of inspiration and stubbornly shaping it into something tangible.
  • Creativity requires courage. Courage to slow down, courage to feel, courage to run with an idea and not give up when the product doesn’t match the vision, and finally, the courage to share what you’ve created.
  • You can’t become creative just by analyzing creativity. You must try it out. However, there are lots of resources for exploring creativity and becoming inspired. So far the best handbook I’ve been introduced to is a book called Fearless Creating by psychotherapist Eric Maisel. It’s the artist’s boot camp! I’m only on Chapter 3, but I’m pretty sure that anyone who dreams of becoming an artist and follows this book like they go to Starbucks in the morning will become an artist.
  • “Artist” is an approach to any endeavor. But it’s also a discipline, an occupation and a profession. Not everyone can make a living as a painter, but everyone can be an artist of his or her particular trade.

Imagine a world with many more creative people! People paying attention; people focusing attention; people acting on their instincts and people caring deeply about what they produce. Writer and poet D.H. Lawrence observed, “Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness and atonement—meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object.”1

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Art by Carl Gustav Jung, who theorized that “visionary art” is derived from and informs the “collective unconscious.”

1Lawrence, D. H. “Making Pictures.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 62-67.


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Why study art?

I recently went back to school to study art. If I was going to work full-time, raise kids and get a master’s degree, it had to be something that would drive me to the library on a Sunday and keep me awake after 9 p.m. I love art and have dabbled in poetry and dance since I was young, and visual communication is becoming more and more important in my professional life. So I signed up for an M.H. program in Art and Visual Media. M.H. stands for master’s of humanities. “Of all the worthless things!” you might think.

My final paper in one of my first courses was devoted to researching the role of art and humanities education in innovation. You might be surprised to know how much the business and technology world is in need of creativity and humanity! It was an interesting project, but it only scratched the surface of the question “Why study art?” Why an M.H. instead of an M.B.A.?

The humanities offer the perspective of history, the openness of analysis and the expansiveness of art. Among its artists, philosophers, fictional and historical figures, the humanities offer abundant role models for traveling in unexplored territories.  Deep thinking and critical questioning are encouraged. You are taught the good sport of uncertainty with confidence in the journey and a sense of adventure. Our world is full of questions that need exploring beyond dogma and fear, and I’m convinced that art can help us do just that. If nothing else, embracing art and creativity makes us better people. Isn’t that enough?