Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

29 AUGUST, 2012

The Forms of Things Unknown: A Timeless 1963 Meditation on the Role of the Creative Arts in Society

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“Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.”

In 1963, English anarchist, poet, and culture critic Herbert Read penned The Forms of Things Unknown: An Essay on the Impact of the Technological Revolution on the Creative Arts (public library; public domain), exploring the role of art in society, both in relation to science and philosophy and as a singular expression of the human creative spirit, and offering a meditation on wonder and the difference between wisdom and knowledge.

Read begins with a historical lament:

A distinction which runs through the whole development of human thought has become blurred during the past two hundred years. Implicit in all ancient philosophy, acknowledged by medieval scholastics and the natural philosophers of the Renaissance, and even by Locke and Newton, is a difference of kind, if not of value, between wisdom and understanding. By wisdom was meant an intuitive apprehension of truth, and the attitude involved was receptive or contemplative. Intellectus was the name given to this faculty in the Middle Ages. Understanding, on the other hand, was always a practical or constructive activity, and ratio was its name — the power by means of which we perceive, know, remember and judge sensible phenomena. Philosophy was conceived as an endeavour to perfect this constructive power of the mind as an aid to wisdom. To clarify perception, excluding all distortions due to emotion and prejudice; to analyse statements so that our knowledge is consistent; to establish facts, so that our memory is consolidated; to bring the inquiring will into harmony with the intuitive intellect, so that our judgment is true and constant — such have been the aims of all who called themselves philosophers.

Read echoes Abraham Flexner’s fantastic insights on the usefulness of “useless” knowledge:

We may admit, with the logical scientist, that it is an illusion to assume that the human mind can have any direct access to truth — truth in Plato’s sense of a pre-established harmony waiting for our intuitive understanding. But what we must not admit is that knowledge is only knowledge when it is based on those elements of perception that can be reduced to measurements and verified in a laboratory — so-called functional knowledge. Science functions within the limits of its sign-system — that is to say, it must confine itself to the cognitive content of its particular kind of language; but beyond this scientific sign-system, quite apart from it, is the symbolic system of art, which is also a particular kind of language with a cognitive content.

On the logic of art:

I can think of no criteria of truth in science that do not apply with equal force to art. Art has its language of symbols whilst science has a language of signs, but a symbolic language also has its strict system of rules, based on convention. The creative imagination has a logic no less strict than the logic of scientific reasoning, and the same ideal of clarity is held by both activities. Further, there is no sense in which verifiability is a necessary constituent of scientific method in which it is not also a necessary constituent of artistic creation. Great works of art do not survive through the centuries as expressions of desire or as valuations of behaviour. They state such universal truths as the artist is capable of creating; they search for no certainty and express no ideal. They are constructions, concretely physical. Emotions may be inserted into them: they may be clothed in appearances of good and evil, of tragedy and joy; but these expressive functions are not the verifiable content of the work of art. What is verifiable is a perceptible form which communicates a notion of being, a man-made piece of reality.

Some of Read’s points, however, fall short of a necessary understanding of how art and science complement one another: He considers the sense of wonder an exclusive property of art and philosophy, one nearly destroyed by “intellectualism,” but we’ve heard such great scientific minds as Richard Feynman (“The purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more.”) and Robert Sapolsky (We will never have our flames extinguished by knowledge. The purpose of science is not to cure us of our sense of mystery and wonder, but to constantly reinvent and reinvigorate it.) eloquently claim it as the heart of science:

Philosophy, according to Plato, is based on wonder. ‘The sense of wonder,’ he said, ‘is the mark of the philosopher.’ ‘It is through wonder,’ explained Aristotle, ‘that men now begin and originally began to philosophize; wondering in the first place at obvious perplexities, and then by gradual progression raising questions about the greater matters too, e.g. about the changes of the moon and the sun, about the stars and the origin of the universe.’ We are all perhaps ready to admit the historical independence of philosophy, but what we forget is that philosophy must be continually renewed by this sense of wonder, and that wonder itself is what I would call a liminal awareness — that is to say, sensation stretched to its physical limits. The arts are the exercises by means of which we stretch the intelligence to these limits, and at these limits renew the sense of wonder.

If this sense of wonder is not renewed we get a mental cancer which might be called conceptualism or intellectualism.

(For a related meditation, see Milton Glaser on the arts and the capacity for astonishment.)

Still, Read adds beautifully to some of history’s most memorable definitions of art and of science:

Art is the composition of perceptual experience into meaningful or significant patterns, and all knowledge and intelligence is a reading or interpretation of such patterns. A myth is a reading of ritualistic patterns, and from myth arises all religion and philosophy. Magic is a reading of animistic symbols, and from magic arises all knowledge of the external world, all science.

He then makes a case for creativity as a kind of social glue:

To be able to break down the barrier of space between self and other, yet at the same time to be able to maintain it, this seems to be the paradox of creativity.

[…]

A society in which every man would be an artist of some sort would necessarily be a society united in concrete creative enterprises: in a single creative enterprise, because in such a society the arts are unified.

Further:

Art must lead beyond the arts, to an awareness and a share of mutuality.

[…]

A culture is a creation of time, of a time in which the icons made by the artist so work on the imagination of man that they precipitate ideas, communicate feelings, establish human bonds.

Read speaks to the contemplative value of the arts in the face of “the absurdity of existence”:

It is difficult to conceive a humanism that is not a literary and retrospective humanism, litterae humaniores, and by definition culture implies calm, withdrawal from distractions, leisure, contemplation. A work of art is something we can contemplate, and we contemplate it not to escape from ourselves, nor to escape from the world in the contemplation … of an autonomous or independent world, but to be reconciled with ourselves and with the absurdity of existence. The greatest works of art, as I have already said, have always been images or myths of reconciliation.

[…]

The great artist is not the one who unites mankind on a basis of feeling — that is a recipe for the rabble-rouser — but the one who by transcending personal feelings discovers symbols for the universal archetypes of the psyche. These are no doubt residues of the emotional experiences of the human race, forged into shape and significance by mankind’s sufferings and longings for peace of mind and immortality.

He concludes with a sentiment about culture, shared by other creators — including Brian Eno, who argues culture is created as “we confer value on things” and it is “the act of conferring that makes things valuable,” and Frank Lloyd Wright, for whom “culture is developed from within”:

One dogma is implicit in all I have said. A culture must rise spontaneously from the collective unconscious through the fiery hands of our lame Vulcans. Culture is a created work, not an idea. It is the patient accumulation of many works, and responsible for each work is a Vulcan, beating the constituent metals on his anvil. The instinct that guides his hand is a sure one, the movement not consciously calculated, but responsive to intimations that are beneath all sensations, primordial.

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24 AUGUST, 2012

How to Be an Explorer of the World

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“Every morning when we wake up, we have twenty-four brand-new hours to live. What a precious gift!”

As a longtime fan of guerrilla artist and illustrator Keri Smith’s Wreck This Box set of interactive journals, part of these 7 favorite activity books for grown-ups, I was delighted to discover her How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (public library) — a wonderful compendium of 59 ideas for how to get creatively unstuck by engaging with everyday objects and your surroundings in novel ways. From mapping found sounds to learning the language of trees to turning time observation into art, these playful and poetic micro-projects aren’t just a simple creativity booster — they’re potent training for what Buddhism would call “living from presence” and inhabiting your life more fully.

It all began with this simple list, which Smith scribbled on a piece of paper in the middle a sleepless night in 2007:

Eventually, it became the book.

Smith says of the book’s curious choice of subtitle:

I am interested in the idea of taking art (or museum shows/collections) out of the realm of ‘institution’ and into the hands of the individual, one does not need a formal space to put things in, in order for it to be valid. A museum is what YOU make it. You decide what goes in it, what is interesting, why it is interesting, how it could be displayed. It gives the reader permission to create their own portable (or not portable) show. It doesn’t have to be a public show either, it could just be your own private collections of whatever YOU find interesting. Think of it as a kind of “Sim Museum”, except in the real world. The book begins with ideas about what and how to collect things you find in the world (found objects, thoughts, ideas, stories, things from nature, etc.), a section on various ways of displaying the things you collect, and how to set up a showing.

Especially delightful — and not only because of the Anaïs Nin reference — is this author’s note in the preface, a nod to Mark Twain’s conviction that “all ideas are second-hand” and Henry Miller’s contention that most of what we create is composed of “hand-me-down ideas”:

Alongside the micro-projects are hand-written quotes by great creative minds of yore, including Brain Pickings favorites Italo Calvino, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Corita Kent:

Both daring and meditative, How to Be an Explorer of the World is part Maira Kalman, part Wendy MacNaughton, part its very own kind of whimsy, delivering — beautifully — exactly what it says on the tin, with an invitation to be just a little bit more alive each day.

Spread photos via Geek Dad

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24 AUGUST, 2012

Tchaikovsky on the Paradox of Patronage and Creative Purpose vs. Commissioned Work

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“I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.”

The origin of altruism has long intrigued scientists and philosophers alike, and one of its most enduring manifestations is the practice of patronage, from the Medici to Kickstarter. From The Life & Letters of Pete Ilich Tchaikovsky (public domain), the same 1905 tome that gave us Tchaikovsky’s priceless insight on work ethic vs. inspiration, comes the celebrated composer’s meditation on the paradoxes of patronage and the timeless tension between creative purpose and commissioned work.

On May 1st, 1877, he sent his lifelong benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, the following letter, bespeaking so many of the modern-day maladies of work-for-hire, the flawed on-demand paradigm of inspiration, and the enormous psychological barriers many of us erect against accepting financial help:

HONOURED NADEJDA FILARETOVNA,

In spite of obstinate denials on the part of a friend who is well known to both of us, I have good reason to suppose that your letter, which I received early this morning, is due to a well-intentioned ruse on his part. Even your earlier commissions awoke in me a suspicion that you had more than one reason for suggesting them: on the one hand, you really wished to possess arrangements of some of my works; on the other knowing my material difficulties you desired to help me through them. The very high fees you sent me for my easy tasks forced me to this conclusion. This time I am convinced that the second reason is almost wholly answerable for your latest commission. Between the lines of your letter I read your delicacy of feeling and your kindness, and was touched by your way of approaching me. At the same time, in the depths of my heart, I felt such an intense unwillingness to comply with your request that I cannot answer you in the affirmative. I could not bear any insincerity or falsehood to creep into our mutual relations. This would undoubtedly have been the case had I disregarded my inward promptings, manufactured a composition for you without pleasure or inspiration, and received from you an unsuitable fee in return. Would not the thought have passed through your mind that I was ready to undertake any kind of musical work provided the fee was high enough? Would you not have had some grounds for supposing that, had you been poor, I should not have complied with your requests?

Finally, our intercourse is marred by one painful circumstance in almost all our letters the question of money crops up. Of course it is not a degradation for an artist to accept money for his trouble; but, besides labour, a work such as you now wish me to undertake demands a certain degree of what is called inspiration, and at the present moment this is not at my disposal. I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.

But Von Meek’s response, exuding the poetic faux-solipsism of altruism, reveals that the paradox of patronage is no paradox at all — what’s at stake is not a transaction but, as Henry Miller has eloquently argued, an exchange of mutual gratification:

I am looking after you for my own sake. My most precious beliefs and sympathies are in your keeping; your very existence gives me so much enjoyment, for life is the better for your letters and your music; finally, I want to keep you for the service of the art I adore, so that it may have no better or worthier acolyte than yourself. So, you see, my thought for your welfare is purely egotistical and, so long as I can satisfy this wish, I am happy and grateful to you for accepting my help.

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