Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

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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23 AUGUST, 2012

The Creative Act: Marcel Duchamp’s 1957 Classic, Read by the Artist Himself

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“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone.”

In 1964, Arthur Koestler penned his celebrated classic The Act of Creation, a fine addition to other notable hypotheses on how creativity works and where good ideas come from. Seven years prior, in April of 1957, French Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp spoke at the Convention of the American Federation of Arts in Houston, Texas, addressing the same subject in a short paper he presented, entitled The Creative Act. The session included two university professors, an anthropologist, and Duchamp himself, listed in the program as “mere artist.”

A decade later, Aspen Magazine recorded Duchamp reading the paper, and the audio is now available as part of a fantastic compilation featuring several Duchamp readings and interviews. The full transcript, found in Robert Lebel’s 1959 tome Marcel Duchamp (public library, can be read below, with highlights.

Let us consider two important factors, the two poles of the creation of art: the artist on the one hand, and on the other the spectator who later becomes the posterity.

To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing.

If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the esthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.

T.S. Eliot, in his essay on ‘Tradition and Individual Talent,’ writes: ‘The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.’

Millions of artists create; only a few thousands are discussed or accepted by the spectator and many less again are consecrated by posterity.

In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Artist History.

I know that this statement will not meet with the approval of many artists who refuse this mediumistic role and insist on the validity of their awareness in the creative act — yet, art history has consistently decided upon the virtues of a work of art thorough considerations completely divorced from the rationalized explanations of the artist.

If the artist, as a human being, full of the best intentions toward himself and the whole world, plays no role at all in the judgment of his own work, how can one describe the phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically to the work of art? In other words, how does this reaction come about?

This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an esthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.

But before we go further, I want to clarify our understanding of the word ‘art’ — to be sure, without any attempt at a definition.

What I have in mind is that art may be bad, good or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way that a bad emotion is still an emotion.

Therefore, when I refer to ‘art coefficient’, it will be understood that I refer not only to great art, but I am trying to describe the subjective mechanism which produces art in the raw state — à l’état brut — bad, good or indifferent.

In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane.

The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of.

Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work.

In other works, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like a arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

To avoid a misunderstanding, we must remember that this ‘art coefficient’ is a personal expression of art à l’état brut, that is, still in a raw state, which must be ‘refined’ as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator; the digit of this coefficient has no bearing whatsoever on his verdict. The creative act takes another aspect when the spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation: through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubtantiation has taken place, and the role of the spectator is to determine the weight of the work on the esthetic scale.

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.

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14 AUGUST, 2012

How Remix Culture Fuels Creativity & Invention: Kirby Ferguson at TED

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From Bob Dylan to Steve Jobs, or how copyright law came to hinder the very thing it set out to protect.

Remix culture is something I think about a great deal in the context of combinatorial creativity, and no one has done more to champion the popular understanding of remix as central to creativity than my friend and documentarian extraordinaire Kirby Ferguson. So I’m enormously proud of Kirby’s recent TED talk about his Everything is a Remix project, exploring remix culture, copyright and creativity — watch and take notes:

The Grey Album is a remix. It is new media created from old media. It was made using these three techniques: copy, transform and combine. It’s how you remix. You take existing songs, you chop them up, you transform the pieces, you combine them back together again, and you’ve got a new song, but that new song is clearly comprised of old songs.

But I think these aren’t just the components of remixing. I think these are the basic elements of all creativity. I think everything is a remix, and I think this is a better way to conceive of creativity.

[...]

American copyright and patent laws run counter to this notion that we build on the work of others. Instead, these laws and laws around the world use the rather awkward analogy of property. Now, creative works may indeed be kind of like property, but it’s property that we’re all building on, and creations can only take root and grow once that ground has been prepared.

One thing to pay particularly close attention to are the many examples of how liberally and broadly Bob Dylan borrowed from other creators, appropriating, modifying, and building upon their work:

It’s been estimated that two thirds of the melodies Dylan used in his early songs were borrowed — this is pretty typical among folk singers.

Kirby gave his talk shortly before Dylan entered the news not as the perpetrator but as the subject of fabulism, by science writer Jonah Lehrer — a pseudo-scandal on which NPR offered perhaps the only truly thoughtful commentary amidst a sea of blood-thirsty sensationalism:

This is the essence of the popular arts in America: Be a magpie, take from everywhere, but assemble the scraps and shiny things you’ve lifted in ways that not only seem inventive, but really do make new meanings. Fabrication is elemental to this process — not fakery, exactly, but the careful construction of a series of masks through which the artist can not only speak for himself, but channel and transform the vast and complicated past that bears him or her forward.

Certainly, the integrity standards of science journalism and the popular arts can, and likely should, be very different. Nonetheless, this parallel — in which Dylan so clearly build his voice by borrowing and appropriating the ideas of others to his own ends of creative expression — is enough to give one pause.

The additive nature of creativity and innovation is, of course, something both history in general and individual inventors in particular can speak to. Kirby cites Henry Ford, who echoes the story of Marconi and the invention of radio:

Mark Twain, unapologetic as ever, put it best: “All ideas are second-hand.”

For more on remix culture and combinatorial creativity, see Dancing About Architecture: A Little Book of Creativity and the 1939 gem A Technique for Producing Ideas.

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