Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

10 JULY, 2014

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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09 JULY, 2014

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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07 JULY, 2014

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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