Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

02 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Psychology of Why Creative Work Hinges on Memory and Connecting the Unrelated

By:

“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”

Literature is the original internet — an endless rabbit hole of discoveries, with each citation, footnote, and allusion essentially a “hyperlink” to another text, another idea. I was recently reminded of this by a passing mention in Ronald Kellogg’s 1994 book on the psychology of writing, which led me to a fantastic 1985 volume titled Notebooks of the Mind: Explorations of Thinking (public library). In this masterwork of insight, psycholinguist Vera John-Steiner cracks open the minds of 100 different creative individuals — writers, artists, composers, choreographers — via original interviews and an analysis of their existing notebooks, journals, letters, and scientific records, shedding light on the central elements and essential patterns of creative thought.

While John-Steiner expanded on seminal work like Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner’s model of creativity and Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences, she pioneered a new framework for understanding creativity based on qualitative research and interdisciplinary perspective. An early champion of an idea now ubiquitous in today’s ever-growing catalog of books on creativity, John-Steiner approached her research with visionary clarity of conviction: “That ‘creativity’ is beyond analysis is a romantic illusion we must now outgrow.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One of the most important and enduring of John-Steiner’s insights on the “invisible tools” that propel a life of creative work and set artists apart from the rest is the concept of memory and how it empowers us to connect seemingly unrelated ideas — one of the defining characteristics of the creative mind and the basis of combinatorial creativity. She writes:

Among the invisible tools of creative individuals is their ability to hold on to the specific texture of their past. Their skill is akin to that of a rural family who lives through the winter on food stored in their root cellar… The creative use of one’s past, however, requires a memory that is both powerful and selective.

Mozart, she notes, called this his “bag of memories” — a mental reservoir of experiences and impressions “accumulated during the childhood years of intense wonder, a source to which many creative people return again and again.” Similarly, Ingmar Bergman wrote that “to make films is also to plunge again by its deepest roots down to the world of childhood.” She cites author Judy Blume, for whom this mental library of memories is especially dependent on sensory impressions:

I remember smells, feelings. I will walk in a house and say, this is B. N.’s home. This is the way his house smelled on a winter morning. All the sensations are there to be brought back.

This highly selective nature of creative memory is a supreme testament to the fact that memory is not a recording device and that, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks would put it decades later, “memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust’s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and recategorized with every act of recollection.” John-Steiner quotes the English poet Stephen Spender, who captured this beautifully:

Memory is not exactly memory. It is more like a prong, upon which a calendar of similar experiences happening throughout the years, collect. A memory once clearly stated ceases to be a memory, it becomes perpetually present, because every time we experience something which recalls it, the clear and lucid original experience imposes its formal beauty on the new experiences. It is thus no longer memory but an experience lived through again and again.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But certain domains of creativity, like science or the sort of writing that relies on a heavy use of research and historical facts, demand that the creator’s access to memory be a lot less abstract and a lot more methodical. Indeed, this need explains the odd strategies many famous authors employed in organizing their ideas. John-Steiner points to Darwin’s particularly obsessive organization strategy, possibly one of his techniques for alleviating his chronic anxiety — he “carefully indexed all the books he had read and organized the material into portfolios that he consulted at the beginning of each new project.” Reviewing other examples of similar practices, John-Steiner puts it in no uncertain terms:

A powerful and personally developed structuring of information — an active and selective memory — is as necessary for scientists as it is for poets.

But perhaps the most potent use of memory in the creative mind is the cross-pollination of accumulated ideas and the fusing together of seemingly unrelated concepts into novel configurations — something Stephen Jay Gould, arguably the greatest science essayist of all time, captured when he said that his sole talent is “making connections.” John-Steiner quotes a similar sentiment by the Polish-born mathematician Stan Ulam:

It seems to me that good memory — at least for mathematicians and physicists — forms a large part of their talent. And what we call talent or perhaps genius itself depends to a large extent on the ability to use one’s memory properly to find analogies, past, present and future, which [are] essential to the development of new ideas.

Returning to Judy Blume’s approach to writing, which includes writing manuscript pages and taping them into a notebook for later use while the author’s mind “races head to this or to that,” John-Steiner points out how this technique bespeaks the fact that “the human mind is multi-channeled not only in the way in which we record experience … but also in the way in which writers, poets, and composers think while engaged in a new work”:

While Blume composes her narrative in a focused forward movement on her typewriter, she is also aware of the more diffuse associations that accompany her writing.

She cites her interview with the legendary composer Aaron Copland, who remarked that when this associative process works in an optimal state of flow, “all different musical materials run to their proper places.”

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

This utilization of remembered ideas and their combination into new concepts, John-Steiner argues, can occur both consciously and unconsciously — the latter best evidenced in the unconscious incubation stage present in just about every formal model of the creative process. This is powered by our multiple modes of analyzing and retaining information — sensory, perceptual, semantic, and episodic. She explains:

An experience is processed in multiple ways, as each type of memory “storage” has its own special characteristic. The stories of one’s life are recorded in episodic memory, and these are tagged according to the time and place of their occurrence. More abstract knowledge lacks such coding; instead it is recorded in a more formal structure such as biological taxonomies or other facts, which are organized according to hierarchical concepts.

Each domain of creativity prioritizes a different mode of memory as a primary source of raw material. Citing painter Paul Gauguin’s self-admitted “remarkable memory,” John-Steiner notes the importance of “a precise visual imagination that activates the exceptional abilities of this artist-designer”:

Mental images are an important resource for the working artist’s talent.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Noting that memory is a crucial resource in “keeping one’s knowledge current by linking the known to new ideas and insights,” she adds:

In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding. This process is demanding; it calls upon all the inner resources of the individual — active memory, openness to experience, creative intensity, and emotional courage. It demands self-knowledge in the use of expansion of one’s talents.

In the remainder of Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner explores the many “invisible tools” of creative work, including the role of revision, the interplay of anxiety and ambition, the power of finding the right mentors, and the importance of working from a place of love while remaining open to all your feelings. Complement it with Jerome Bruner on the six essential conditions of creativity and the psychology of optimizing your brain by honing emotional memory.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 AUGUST, 2014

Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Letter of Gratitude to His Mentor and a Prescient 1943 Manifesto for Crowdfunding the Arts

By:

Decades before Kickstarter, a vision for how micro-patronage can help creators “ascend to new heights” and “gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.”

As a great proponent of the mutual gift of gratitude to those who touch our lives in a meaningful way and a joyful practitioner of sending regular notes of appreciation to these generous people in my own life, I was extraordinarily moved by a letter of gratitude that legendary composer Leonard Bernstein sent to one of his big heroes and mentors, the Russian-born conductor, composer, and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. Found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library | IndieBound) — the same volume that cracked open Bernstein’s dreams — the missive is second only to Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron.

Shortly after taking Koussevitzky’s conducting classes at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer institute in 1940, Bernstein writes:

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,

Words are a remote enough medium of expression for any musician, but it is especially difficult for me to find words for this letter. Let it be brief.

This summer to me was beauty — beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.

It was a renaissance for me — a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined Weltanschauung [worldview] with which I came to you.

For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.

[…]

In devotion, and in gratitude,

Leonard Bernstein

The first page of Bernstein's letter to Koussevitzky (Library of Congress)

Bernstein eventually became Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant, later dedicating the 1948 Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety to his beloved mentor.

But gratitude alone doesn’t keep a roof over one’s head. In addition to his creative influence, Koussevitzky would also come to impact Bernstein with his convictions about the more tangible ways in which culture at large shows its appreciation to musicians. On May 29, 1943, Bernstein writes in another letter to Koussevitzky:

Reading your letter to the Times … I became inspired all over again; and I was very happy to find that the general reaction to your idea is so favorable and understanding. But who can resist an idea at once so bold and so simple?

The idea he is referring to had appeared in The New York Times thirteen days earlier, in an open letter by Koussevitzky titled “Justice to Composers” — a passionate plea to support creative musicians. Koussevitzky writes:

It is hardly necessary to stress the preeminent place that music holds in our world today — not alone in the world of culture, not alone in the art history of mankind, but also in the daily life of the average man.

[…]

What is being done for the composer of our day?

[…]

With the turn of centuries, how much has been done for the creative artist to whom millions of past and present musicians owe their true place in life, their happiness and their welfare? Very little — by far not enough. If the present-day composer is not dying of heartbreak and hunger, he has, nevertheless, to struggle along and to earn his living through other ways and sources than his God-given gift: as a composer he cannot make a living. He is forced to go out and teach, lecture, and crowd his days with trifling obligations which kill his time, his energies, his creative art. If his present-day life is less tragic, it is none the less hard, unfair and maladjusted.

[…]

Therefore I say the time is ripe to act.

It is no surprise that the plea stirred Bernstein, for he was living the very predicament his mentor had described: Bernstein, who had given up his apartment and was residing at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, confessed in his letter to Koussevitzky:

I go on doing my horrible chores for Warner Brothers in order to live. It is dull beyond belief, and takes much too much time; but I feel that somehow better things must be coming for me.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony in 1945

In fact, Koussevitzky was vehemently opposed to the notion of talented, “serious” composers compromising their creative integrity by doing commercial work catering to popular taste. He actively discouraged Bernstein’s activities as a Broadway composer — indeed, after his 1945 musical On the Town, Bernstein wrote no more Broadway shows until after Koussevitzky’s death.

But what is most extraordinary about Koussevitzky’s letter is that several decades before Kickstarter, Patreon, and other micro-patronage platforms that formalized the art of asking to help support independent creators — the very concept that helps me keep Brain Pickings going — he advocated a crowdfunding solution to the predicament, calling not only on music-lovers but on the community of musicians themselves to chip in:

The appeal for the composer must embrace the whole musical world, reach the musician in every field, the music lover and sponsor, far and wide. It will be a timely and major step forward.

[…]

In this great country alone there are many thousands of performing musicians. A small annual donation of $1 each will bring in a substantial permanent income and, with the joint co-operation and contributions of other groups and organizations, will go a long way toward establishing a composers’ fund… Whatever action we take now will lay the groundwork for the impelling and just cause of the composer. Embracing that cause, we shall ascend to new heights, we shall gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.

What a beautiful and prescient testament to the idea that “donating = loving.”

Complement the immeasurably absorbing The Leonard Bernstein Letters with Bernstein on motivation and why we create, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s eloquent modern-day counterpart to Koussevitzky’s plea.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

27 AUGUST, 2014

Anne Truitt on Resisting the Label “Artist” and the Difference Between Doing Art and Being an Artist

By:

“Artists have no choice but to express their lives.”

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the Corcoran Gallery of Art had just staged one of Truitt’s. A retrospective, she felt, forces upon the artist a finite definition — this is what your work is, this who you are. It attempts to make visible and static those invisible, ever-fluid forces that compel an artist to make art.

To tease out her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. It was eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) — an extraordinary, soul-stretching collection of meditations on the trials, triumphs, and self-transcendence of the creative life.

Truitt once described her art as concerned “with the limen of consciousness, with the threshold at which experience becomes just perceptible,” but it is in the privacy of the diary that she ventures past that threshold and into the furthest frontiers of the psyche — her psyche, the artist’s psyche, the universal human psyche. Trained as a psychologist and with only one year of formal education in art, Truitt made a decision to “ride out the jeopardy of art with as much courage and faith” as possible. From this unusual standpoint, she reaches depths of insight and self-awareness inaccessible to most artists — to most human beings — and pulls out of them luminous wisdom on the love, labor, and life of art.

In one particularly poignant series of journal entries from the summer of 1974, Truitt exorcises the chronic resistance many artists have to the label of “artist” and the perils of letting others define you. On July 2 that year, she writes:

I do not understand why I seem able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don’t even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I’m an artist, being an artist isn’t so fancy because it’s just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems to be more to it than that. It isn’t “just me.” A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist’s individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists’ egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.

This dilemma, Truitt cautions, is compounded by the contradictions of commercial art and the conflicting forces of authenticity and pragmatism that often force upon artists the choice between creative authenticity and commercial success:

The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.

But Truitt soon sees another angle of this living-out of the artist — living out not one’s role of being an “artist,” a performance of sorts, but living out one’s immutable experience of doing art:

The terms of the experience and the terms of the work itself are totally different. But if the work is successful — I cannot ever know whether it is or not — the experience becomes the work and, through the work, is accessible to others with its original force.

For me, this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.

A few days later, in an entry reflecting on the work of the celebrated sculptor David Smith and, by extension, on all great art, Truitt writes:

He seemed never to forget that he was an artist. He just plain chose not to.

[…]

Artists have no choice but to express their lives. They have only, and that not always, a choice of process. This process does not change the essential content of their work in art, which can only be their life.

A month after her original resistant contemplation of the label “artist,” Truitt revisits the subject, exercising the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s mind with an acknowledgment that in order to unblock the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow, one must begin with a submission to the role of artist. On August 6, she writes:

In skirting the role of the artist, I now begin to think that I have made too wide a curve, that I have deprived myself of a certain strength. Indeed, I am not sure that I can grow as an artist until I can bring myself to accept that I am one.

Part of my intense discomfort this past year has been that I was pried out of my place there. I was attached to my secret burrow, which now begins to feel a little stale.

And also egotistic, confined, even imprisoning. I begin to see that by clinging to this position I was limiting what I had to handle in the world to what I could rationalize. As long as I stayed within my own definition of myself, I could control what I admitted into that definition. By insisting that I was “just me,” I held myself aloof. Let others claim to be artists, I said to myself, holding my life separate and unique, beyond all definition but my own.

[…]

The open being: I am an artist. Even to write it makes me feel deeply uneasy. I am, I feel, not good enough to be an artist. And this leads me to wonder whether my distaste for the inflated social definition of the artist is not an inverse reflection of secret pride. Have I haughtily rejected the inflation on the outside while entertaining it on the inside? In my passion for learning how to make true for others what I felt to be true for myself (and I cannot remember, except very, very early on, ever not having had this passion), I think I may have fallen into idolatry of those who were able to communicate this way. Artists.

So to think myself an artist was self-idolatry. In a clear wind of the company of artists this summer, I am gently disarmed. We are artists because we are ourselves.

Daybook is a spectacular read in its entirety, with wisdom on everything from the role of daily routine and environment to the relationship between mental health and creativity. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Anna Deavere Smith’s superb Letters to a Young Artist.

Thanks, Dani

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.