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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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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.