Brain Pickings

Artist Francis Bacon on the Role of Suffering and Self-Knowledge in Creative Expression

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“An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs.”

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden,” Viktor Frankl wrote in his spectacular 1946 treatise on the human search for meaning. We’re immersed in a great deal of cultural mythology regarding spiritual and psychoemotional suffering, but nowhere is it more dangerously romanticized than in the “tortured genius” myth of creative destiny — a myth whose patron saints include tragic heroes like Vincent van Gogh, David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath. It’s a formulation of creative pathology that I’ve always found toxic, and yet beneath it lies a deeper conversation about the role of suffering in human life and creative expression.

From The Artist Observed: 28 Interviews with Contemporary Artists (public library) by the prominent dance and art critic John Gruen — the magnificent out-of-print tome fifteen years in the making that also gave us Agnes Martin on art, happiness, pride and failure — comes a wide-ranging conversation with artist Francis Bacon, known for his highly graphic, emotionally charged imagery with strong undertones of anxiety, terror, and turmoil. Considered Britain’s greatest living painter at the time of the interview in 1972, Bacon was as reviled for his violent themes as he was revered for creative vision. In 2013, eleven years after his death, his painting Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, amassing a formidable $142,405,000.

Portrait of Francis Bacon by Irving Penn

Bacon, whom Gruen describes as seemingly enveloped in a time vacuum, presenting “the image of an awkward teenager, aged 62,” reflects with remarkable self-awareness on what he calls his “gilded gutter life” and contemplates the broader role of suffering in the creative experience:

I think that life is violent and most people turn away from that side of it in an attempt to live a life that is screened. But I think they are merely fooling themselves. I mean, the act of birth is a violent thing, and the act of death is a violent thing. And, as you surely have observed, the very act of living is violent. For example, there is self-violence in the fact that I drink much too much. But I feel ever so strongly that an artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or for the better or the worse. It must alter him. The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.

Three Studies of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, 1969

After offering Gruen another round of drink, Bacon revisits the subject of suffering, offering an alternative interpretation of — or, rather, a confound at the heart of — the “tortured genius” mythology:

Of course I suffer. Who doesn’t? But I don’t feel I’ve become a better artist because of my suffering, but because of my willpower, and the way I worked on myself. There is a connection between one’s life and one’s work — and yet, at the same time, there isn’t. Because, after all, art is artifice, which one tends to forget. If one could make out of one’s life one’s work, then the connection has been achieved. In a sense, I could say that I have painted my own life. I’ve painted my own life’s story in my own work — but only in a sense. I think very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that the painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.

This osmosis of suffering and creative flow, according to Bacon, is rooted in a deep and necessary self-knowledge:

You must understand, life is nothing unless you make something of it. I’ve learned, as life progresses, to become more cunning. I know where I would automatically go wrong, which I wouldn’t have known when I was younger. Anyway, I’ve become more cunning both in my work and in my relationships. When I say cunning, perhaps it’s the wrong word. I think knowledgeable is a better word, because, in fact, I don’t like cunning people.

Ultimately, the creative process itself springs from that self-knowledge and remains a private experience, independent of external validation:

When one is right inside the work … it’s very stimulating and exciting, because that’s when you bring things nearer to the nervous system. you must understand that I don’t paint for anybody except myself. I’m always very surprised that anybody wants to have a picture of mine. I paint to excite myself, and make something for myself. I can’t tell you how amazed I was when my work started selling!

The Artist Observed, should you be able to find a surviving copy, is a treasure trove in its entirety, featuring conversations with such creative icons as Saul Steinberg, Agnes Martin, and Roy Lichtenstein. For more archival interview goodness, see Jackson Pollock on art, labels, and morality and Frank Lloyd Wright on his famous peers, education, and New York City’s skyline.

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What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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Visionary Neurologist Oliver Sacks on What Hallucinations Reveal about How the Mind Works

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“We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well.”

While our delusions may keep us sane, hallucinations — defined as perceptions that arise independently of external reality, as when we see, hear, or sense things that aren’t really there — are an entirely different beast, a cognitive phenomenon that mimics mysticism and has no doubt inspired mystical tales over the millennia. In the 18th century, Swiss lawyer-turned-naturalist Charles Bonnet, the first scientist to use the term evolution in a biological context, turned to philosophy after deteriorating vision rendered him unable to perform the necessary observations of science. Blindness eventually gave him a special form of complex visual hallucinations, known today as Charles Bonnet syndrome, but he was otherwise fully lucid and marveled, as a cognitive scientist might, at “how the theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain.”

Some 250 years later, pioneering neurologist Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933) — who has previously explored the necessary forgettings of creativity and how music impacts the mind — picked up Bonnet’s inquiry in his immeasurably fascinating book Hallucinations (public library). In this TED talk based on the book, Sacks draws on his extensive clinical experience of working with patients, illuminating that astounding “theater of the mind” to shed light on what hallucinations reveal about how the mind works.

We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination. And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.

In the book, Sacks offers a detailed definition of hallucinations, contrasting them with regular perception and peering into their promise for better understanding the brain and the human mind:

When the word “hallucination” first came into use, in the early sixteenth century, it denoted only “a wandering mind.” It was not until the 1830s that Jean-Étienne Esquirol, a French psychiatrist, gave the term its present meaning — prior to that, what we now call hallucinations were referred to simply as “apparitions.” Precise definitions of the word “hallucination” still vary considerably, considerably, chiefly because it is not always easy to discern where the boundary lies between hallucination, misperception, and illusion. But generally, hallucinations are defined as percepts arising in the absence of any external reality— seeing things or hearing things that are not there.

Perceptions are, to some extent, shareable — you and I can agree that there is a tree; but if I say, “I see a tree there,” and you see nothing of the sort, you will regard my “tree” as a hallucination, something concocted by my brain or mind, and imperceptible to you or anyone else. To the hallucinator, though, hallucinations seem very real; they can mimic perception in every respect, starting with the way they are projected into the external world.

[…]

When you conjure up ordinary images— of a rectangle, or a friend’s face, or the Eiffel Tower —the images stay in your head. They are not projected into external space like a hallucination, and they lack the detailed quality of a percept or a hallucination. You actively create such voluntary images and can revise them as you please. In contrast, you are passive and helpless in the face of hallucinations: they happen to you, autonomously — they appear and disappear when they please, not when you please.

[…]

Hallucinations are “positive” phenomena, as opposed to the negative symptoms, the deficits or losses caused by accident or disease, which neurology is classically based on. The phenomenology of hallucinations often points to the brain structures and mechanisms involved and can therefore, potentially, provide more direct insight into the workings of the brain.

Hallucinations, which goes on to explore how advances in neuroimagining in the last few decades have greatly enhanced our understanding of hallucinations and the brain, is a mind-bending read in its entirety. Complement it with Sacks on the psychology of plagiarism.

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