Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

22 JUNE, 2012

What Is Art? Favorite Famous Definitions, from Antiquity to Today

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“Art is not a thing — it is a way.”

After the recent omnibus of definitions of science by some of history’s greatest minds and definitions of philosophy by some of today’s most prominent philosophers, why not turn to an arguably even more nebulous domain of humanity? Gathered here are some of my favorite definitions of art, from antiquity to today.

Henry James in his short story The Middle Years:

We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.

Leo Tolstoy, in his essay “What Is Art?”:

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

Frank Lloyd Wright, writing in 1957, as cited in Frank Lloyd Wright on Architecture, Nature, and the Human Spirit: A Collection of Quotations:

Art is a discovery and development of elementary principles of nature into beautiful forms suitable for human use.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art, one of 5 essential books on fear and the creative process:

To labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution.

Charles Eames, cited in the fantastic 100 Quotes by Charles Eames:

Art resides in the quality of doing; process is not magic.

Elbert Hubbard in a 1908 volume of Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers:

Art is not a thing — it is a way.

Oscar Wilde in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.

Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island:

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Francis Ford Coppola in a recent interview:

An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk.

André Gide in Poétique:

Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.

Friedrich Nietzsche, made famous all over again by Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing:

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.

Michelangelo Pistoletto in Art’s Responsibility:

Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level.

Federico Fellini in a December 1965 piece in The Atlantic, not currently online:

All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.

Hugh MacLeod in Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity:

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it.

The Greek philosopher Aristophanes, writing in the 4th century B.C.:

Let each man exercise the art he knows.

And, lastly, my own take in a recent piece I wrote for the National Endowment for the Arts:

This is the power of art: The power to transcend our own self-interest, our solipsistic zoom-lens on life, and relate to the world and each other with more integrity, more curiosity, more wholeheartedness.

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21 JUNE, 2012

Sartre on Why “Being-in-the-World-Ness” is the Key to the Imagination

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On the figure-ground relationship between the real and the irreal.

Though French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre remains best-known for shaping much of 20th-century sociology, political ideology, and critical theory, some of his most interesting work deals with the imagination. In The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination (public library), originally published in 1940, he examines the concepts of nothingness and freedom to argue that, contrary to popular conceptions of imagining as a kind of internal perception, the two stand in stark contrast — perception is incomplete (you only see one side of a chair, the rest obscured from that point of view) whereas the imaginary is complete (when you imagine a chair, it arrives whole, known from all directions). What enables the imagination is consciousness and the totality of our experience — everything we know, everything we’ve seen and heard and read, everything we’ve accumulated in the course of being fully awake to the world. The imagination, in other words, is a combinatorial phenomenon — something artists, designers, writers, and scientists understand.

This particular excerpt crystallizes this “being-in-the-world-ness” as the necessary condition for the imagination:

I will call the different immediate modes of apprehension of the real as a world ‘situations’. We can then say that the essential condition for a consciousness to imagine is that it be ‘situated in the world’ or more briefly that it ‘be-in-the-world’. It is the situation-in-the-world, grasped as a concrete and individual reality of consciousness, that is the motivation for the constitution of any irreal object whatever and the nature of that irreal object is circumscribed by this motivation. Thus the situation of consciousness must appear not as a pure and abstract condition of possibility for all of the imaginary, but as the concrete and precise motivation for the appearance of a certain particular imaginary.

From this point of view, we can finally grasp the connection of the irreal to the real. First of all, even if no image is produced at the moment, every apprehension of the real as a world tends of its own accord to end up with the production of irreal objects since it is always, in a sense, free nihilation of the world and this always from a particular point of view. So, if consciousness is free, the noematic correlate of its freedom should be the world that carries in itself its possibility of negation, at each moment and from each point of view, by means of an image, even while the image must as yet be constituted by a particular intention of consciousness. But, reciprocally, an image, being a negation of the world from a particular point of view, can appear only on the ground of the world and in connection with that ground. Of course, the appearance of the image requires that the particular perceptions be diluted in the syncretic wholeness world and that this whole withdraws. But it is precisely the withdrawal of the whole that constitutes it as ground, that ground on which the irreal form must stand out. So although, by means of the production of the irreal, consciousness can momentarily appear delivered from its ‘being-in-the-world’, on the contrary this ‘being-in-the-world’ is the necessary condition of imagination.

For a fine complement to , see this 1957 meditation on the role of intuition and the imagination in scientific discovery and creativity.

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20 JUNE, 2012

We Got Merge: Noam Chomsky on the Cognitive Function that Made Language Evolve

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“You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects … already constructed … and make bigger mental objects out of them.”

In 2004, Noam Chomsky — pioneering MIT linguist, cognitive scientist, education guru, Occupy pamphleteer — sat down with McGill University professor James McGilvray to talk about the origin and purpose of language. In 2009, the two reconvened to discuss how half a decade of scientific progress, including developments like “biolinguistics” and computational linguistics, has altered our understanding of the subject. Their fascinating conversations have now been gathered in The Science of Language (public library) — a fine addition to these essential books on language.

Rather than a gradual evolutionary progression, language, says Chomsky, developed incredibly rapidly somewhere between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago — an occurrence he calls “just an outburst of creative energy that somehow takes place in an instant of evolutionary time.” And even though we now know that there is no such thing as a first human being, this cognitive growth spurt could only be explained by some genetic modification that resulted from a small mutation that happened in a single person.

It looks as if — given the time involved — there was a sudden ‘great leap forward.’ Some small genetic modification somehow that rewired the brain slightly [and] made this human capacity available. And with it came an entire range of creative options that are available to humans within a theory of mind — a second-order theory of mind, so you know that somebody is trying to make you think what somebody else wants you to think.

[…]

Well, mutations take place in a person, not in a a group. We know, incidentally, that this was a very small breeding group — some little group of hominids in some corner of Africa, apparently. Somewhere in that group, some small mutation took place, leading to the great leap forward. It had to have happened in a single person.

But what, exactly, happened in our great linguistic grandmother or grandfather? Chomsky calls it Merge — a basic cognitive function that, in its simplest form, enables you to take two things and construct a thing that is the set of the two things.

You got an operation that enables you to take mental objects [or concepts of some sort], already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. That’s Merge. As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.

Sound familiar? The origin of language appears to have much in common with the origin of creativity, both operating as combinatorial forces that hinge on synthesizing existing ideas into new combinations. There is a reason, perhaps, that we speak of “creative expression” — how we express ourselves creatively is just another form of language, driven by the same Merge function that sparked language itself.

Photo by Brendan Lynch

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