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Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

28 AUGUST, 2015

Goethe on Beginner’s Mind and the Discipline of Discernment in Your Media Diet

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“One must be something in order to do something.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.

In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Eckermann writes in the introduction

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.

Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:

A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!

Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:

On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:

Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.

But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:

The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.

Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:

One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.

Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.

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18 AUGUST, 2015

The Inner Light of Creativity: Vivian Gornick on How One Blossoms into Being an Artist

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“I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it.”

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe wrote in her exquisite letter to Sherwood Anderson, adding: “Making your unknown known is the important thing.” Over the years, I’ve kept coming back to this as the most piercing and perfect definition of what it means to be an artist — an idea E.E. Cummings echoed in asserting that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” During a recent walk with a cellist friend, I was reminded of this sentiment and the immutable inquiry at its heart — when the banality of exterior metrics falls away, what is that singular interior orientation that sets the artist apart from the rest?

That’s what Vivian Gornick explores in a portion of her superb 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments (public library).

'Red and yellow sunflowers' (1920) by German-Danish painter and printmaker Emil Nolde (Courtesy of Nolde Foundation)

Gornick describes her first brush with the throbbing contour of the creative impulse during an impromptu visit to the Whitney Museum:

I walk through the door, turn to the wall nearest me, and come face to face with two large Nolde watercolors, the famous flowers. I’ve looked often at Nolde’s flowers, but now it’s as though I am seeing them for the first time: that hot lush diffusion of his outlined, I suddenly realize, in intent. I see the burning quality of Nolde’s intention, the serious patience with which the flowers absorb him, the clear, stubborn concentration of the artist on his subject. I see it. And I think, It’s the concentration that gives the work its power. The space inside me enlarges. That rectangle of light and air inside, where thought clarifies and language grows and response is made intelligent, that famous space surrounded by loneliness, anxiety, self-pity, it opens wide as I look at Nolde’s flowers.

That rectangle of air and light — an interior space wholly different from the illusory fetishes of exterior space against which Bukowski admonished when he wrote “baby, air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for” — becomes Gornick’s recurring companion during the most electrifying moments of creative flow. She recounts a particularly formative period of her life, “a true beginning,” during which the rectangle took shape in her own art:

In the second year of my marriage the rectangular space made its first appearance inside me. I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought, radiant shapely thought. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly. The sentences were trying to fill in the shape. The image was the wholeness of my thought. In that instant I felt myself open wide. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space, that began in my forehead and ended in my groin. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else would ever equal. Not an “I love you” in the world could touch it. Inside that joy I was safe and erotic, excited and at peace, beyond threat or influence. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

The metaphor of this image-animating rectangle of creative electricity is astonishingly poignant today, nearly three decades later, in an era where we’ve grown transfixed by a very different — and in many ways opposite — kind of luminous rectangle. One is left to wonder, not without wistfulness, how the glowing screens into which we stare day and night, and through which we both consume and communicate so much of our experience of life, might be dimming the inner light of that interior rectangle where the wholeness of thought takes shape.

But the romance of this exultant rectangle, Gornick reminds us, coexists with the reality of the negative space surrounding it — a space rife with the artist’s atmospheric self-doubt, which animated Virginia Woolf and filled John Steinbeck’s diary. Reflecting on an especially intense period of work, Gornick captures the ebb and flow of these two states, always in an osmotic relationship:

I sat at the desk and I concentrated. I didn’t glaze over looking at the words, or stumble about in my chair reeling with fog and fatigue. Rather, I sat down each morning with a clear mind and hour after hour I worked. The rectangle had opened wide and remained open: in the middle stood an idea. A great excitement formed itself around this idea, and took hold of me. I began fantasizing over the idea, rushing ahead of it, envisioning its full and particular strength and power long before it had clarified. Out of this fantasizing came images, and out of the images a wholeness of thought and language that amazed me each time it repeated itself. At the end of the week I had a large amount of manuscript on my desk. On Friday afternoon I put away the work. On Monday morning I looked at it, and I saw that the pages contained merit but the idea was ill-conceived. It didn’t work at all. I’d have to abandon all that I had done. I felt deflated. The period of inspired labor was at an end. The murk and the vapor closed in on me again, the rectangle shriveled and I was back to eking out painfully small moments of clarity, as usual and as always. Still, it was absorbing to remember the hours I had put in while under the spell of my vision. I felt strengthened by the sustained effort of work the fantasizing had led to.

Fierce Attachments is a rich and deeply rewarding read in its totality. Complement it with Gornick on how to own your story and some of today’s most celebrated artists on what it means to be a great artist.

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04 AUGUST, 2015

Nobel Laureate André Gide on What It Really Means to Be Original and Goethe’s Paradoxical Model of Creativity

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“If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it…”

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own,” Montaigne wrote in pondering the illusion of originality half a millennium before our contemporary theories of how creativity works. Mark Twain was equally derisive of the conceit that anything we create is truly original, while Henry Miller bluntly asked, “And your way, is it really your way?” And yet there exists in the human spirit a strange and immutable impulse to answer with a wholehearted, indignant “YES!” as we continue holding the nebulous notion of creative originality as one of our highest ideals.

That nebulous notion is what the great French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951), who received the Nobel Prize for his “fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” explores with precisely such keen psychological insight throughout The Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the same indispensable volume that gave us Gide on the vital balance of freedom and restraint and what it really means to be yourself.

Gide was one of history’s many celebrators of the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but what makes his journals particularly compelling is his dedicated discourse with the nature of the mind itself, constantly contemplating the inner workings of our highest human faculties — originality, the imagination, and the machinery of the creative process.

In a diary entry from September of 1893, under the heading “Rule of Conduct,” 24-year-old Gide writes:

RULE OF CONDUCT

Originality; first degree.

I omit the lower degree, which is mere banality; in which man is merely gregarious (he constitutes the crowd).

Therefore: originality consists in depriving oneself of certain things. Personality asserts itself by its limitations.

But, above this, there is still a higher state, to which Goethe achieves, the Olympian. He understands that originality limits, that by being personal he is simply anyone. And by letting himself live in things, like Pan, everywhere, he thrusts aside all limits until he no longer has any but those of the world itself. He becomes banal, but in a superior way.

It is dangerous to achieve too early that superior banality. If one does not absorb everything, one loses oneself completely. The mind must be greater than the world and contain it, or else it is pitifully dissolved and is no longer even original.

Whence the two states: first the state of struggle, in which the world is a temptation; one must not yield to things. Then the superior state … which Goethe entered at once and hence, refusing himself nothing, could write: I felt myself god enough to descent to the daughters of men.

Complement this particular passage from the wholly excellent The Journals of André Gide with legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks on the curious psychology of originality and poet Mark Strand on the heartbeat of creativity.

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31 JULY, 2015

Michelangelo on Struggle and Creative Integrity

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“I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms.”

Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, poet, architect, and engineer Michelangelo (March 6, 1475–February 18, 1564) is celebrated as one of the greatest and most influential artists of all time. In 1505, thirty-year-old Michelangelo was commissioned to build a tomb for the newly elected Pope Julius II in Rome. It was an arduous process marred by constant interruption and interference by the pope, a bona fide micro-manager. Today, as scientists are finding that it takes our brains 23 minutes to recover from an interruption, Michelangelo’s tenacity and his ability to carry out his creative vision despite the maddening meddling seems triply worthy of awe.

Indeed, he knew value of undisturbed creative labor and protected it fiercely, unafraid to stand up to the most powerful man in Europe. Unable to bear the interruptions any longer and determined to do his work on his own terms, he left Rome and returned to Florence, where he could work on his sketches and sculptures for the project in peace. In one of the missives collected in Poems and Letters: Selections, with the 1550 Vasari Life (public library) — an invaluable glimpse of the inner workings of Michelangelo’s genius, from his daily struggles to his most elemental creative credos — he writes to the pope’s head architect, defending his departure:

If I stayed in Rome, my own tomb would be made before the pope’s. And this was why I left so suddenly.

Now you write to me on the pope’s behalf, so you can read the pope this: let His Holiness understand that I am more willing than ever to carry on with the work; and if he wants the tomb come what may, he shouldn’t be bothered about where I work on it, provided that, at the end of the five years we agreed on, it is set up in St Peter’s, wherever he likes; and that it is something beautiful, as I have promised it will be: for I’m sure that if it’s completed, there will be nothing like it in the world.

Michelangelo makes an impassioned, even indignant, case for what we now call remote work, half a millennium before cars and commuter rail and Skype:

Now if His Holiness wants to go on with it, he should place the deposit for me here in Florence and I’ll write to tell him where. And I have many marbles on order in Carrara which I shall have brought here along with those I have in Rome. Even if it meant a serious loss to me, I shouldn’t mind so long as I could do the work here; and I would forward the finished pieces one by one so that His Holiness would enjoy them just as much as if I were working in Rome — or even more, because he would just see the finished pieces without having any other bother. For the money and for the work I shall pledge myself as His Holiness desires and give him whatever security he requires here in Florence. Whatever it is, I’ll give him that security before all Florence. Enough.

Although the project was scheduled to last five years, Michelangelo labored at it for four decades and never completed the tomb to his satisfaction — no doubt in large part due to the pope’s unrelenting meddling. But as is often the case in creative culture, a small side project assigned to him shortly after the original tomb commission ended up becoming Michelangelo’s most timeless legacy and one of the greatest works of art ever created: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, on which he worked almost incessantly between 1508 and 1512. And as is also often the case in art, Michelangelo’s compensation was a pittance compared to the magnitude of his enduring gift to humanity.

In a letter to his father penned in September of 1512, as the Sistine Chapel project was drawing to a close, he writes:

I must warn you that I don’t have a penny and that I’m barefoot and naked, so to speak, and I can’t get the balance owed to me until I’ve finished the work; and I suffer the worst of hardships and toil. So, when you have to put up with some hardship yourself, don’t be distressed, and as long as you can help yourself with your own money.

A month later, he sends his father a most understated, matter-of-fact, even wistful report on what is substantially one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art:

I have finished the chapel I was painting: the pope is very happy with it, but other things haven’t turned out as well as I hoped. I blame the times, which are so unfavorable to our art… I don’t have what I need in order to do what I want to do.

Later that month, he writes to his father again:

I live in penury and think nothing of life or honors, that is of the world; and I live with immense toil and a thousand cares. And I have been like this for about fifteen years, without an hour of joy… I’m ready to do the same again for as long as I live or as long as I can.

It should be noted that Michelangelo tended to dramatize his poverty — he was actually made quite a lot by the era’s standards. The Pope agreed to pay him 3,000 ducats for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even though Michelangelo was to buy his own materials, which cost about 1,000 ducats, the remaining 2,000 was a substantial amount — historians equate it to about $52,000 in today’s money. (For a comparative reference point, his contemporary Leonardo — who died with 600 ducats in the bank — kept a careful log of expenditures in his notebooks and often listed the prices of common commodities: 11 ducats for a haircut, 13 for a shirt, 20 for a pair of glasses, 1 for a salad.)

Still, in the relative context of his cultural contribution, Michelangelo was practically robbed — consider, for instance, the exorbitantly greater sums contemporary architects are paid to build, say, a World Cup stadium where a very different form of modern worship takes place.

Separation of Light from Darkness: Michelangelo's fresco of The First Day of Creation, located above the altar of the Sistine Chapel

In a supreme twist of irony, Pope Julius II died just a few months later and was succeeded by a pope from the Medici family, history’s greatest patrons of the arts — and yet Michelangelo’s most enduring and beautiful work was done under financial strain and creative limitation. One is reminded of Kierkegaard, who observed that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” Indeed, despite his complaints, Michelangelo was unperturbed by practical constraints and was carried forward by the truth of his creative vision, an “agent of transcendent power.” He captured this universal credo of creative geniuses with simple sincerity in another letter:

What counts is that I shall do what I promised, come what may, and with God’s help, I shall create the finest work ever made in Italy.

To be able to do that, Michelangelo continued to defend his creative autonomy. In 1524, while still working on the tomb, he wrote directly to the Medici pope Clement VII. However piously and humbly worded, his letter is essentially a telling-off, insisting on freedom from interference and interruption in his creative process:

Since intermediaries often cause serious misunderstandings, I make bold to write directly to Your Holiness about the tombs here in San Lorenzo. I must say I do not know which is better, the ill that helps or the good that harms. Witless and unworthy I may be, but I am certain that if I had been allowed to carry on as I started, all the marbles for these works would be in Florence today, blocked out as I need them and costing much less than they have so far; and they would be of admirable quality like the others I brought here.

Now I see that it is set to be a long business and I do not know how it will go on. If, therefore, something happens that displeases Your Holiness, I beg pardon, for I do not feel that I can be guilty where I have no authority. And if Your Holiness wants me to achieve something, I beg that you should not set other men over me in my own art, but have faith in me and give me a free hand; then Your Holiness will see what I can do and what account of myself I shall render.

That power of the artist’s free hand, and the resoluteness with which Michelangelo defended it all his life, remains his greatest legacy. Befittingly, he depicted God separating light from darkness with his hands on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — and what is the artist’s role in human life if not to separate, with his free hand, light from darkness?

Michelangelo’s Poems and Letters is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement it with the illustrated life of Leonardo, Picasso on not compromising in your art, Jane Austen on defending your creative vision against commercial pressures, and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson on creative integrity.

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