Monday, 23 August 2010


The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
                                                                      Carl Jung

Nachmanovitch talks about even the 'highest' forms of creativity as play.

Improvisation, composition, writing, painting, theatre, invention, all creative acts are forms of play, the starting place of creativity in the human growth cycle, and one of the great primal life functions. Without play, learning and evolution are impossible. Play is the taproot from which original art springs; it is the raw stuff that the artist channels and organises with all his learning and technique.

Creative work is play; it is free speculation using the materials of one's chosen form. Artists play with colour and space. Musicians play with sound and silence. Eros plays with lovers. Gods play with the universe. Children play with everything they can get their hands on.

'Play' is different from 'game'. Play is the free spirit of exploration, doing and being for its own pure joy. Game is an activity defined by a set of rules.... Play is an attitude, a spirit, a  way of doing things, whereas game is a defined activity with rules and a playing field and participants (1990, 42-43).

As I write this out, I think of the the spontaneous, instinctive response to the flat colour and sweeping lines of a Japanese print, or the sight of brilliant blue seeping across a wet page. I contrast this with the activities and concerns involved in being a professional contemporary artist.

There is a German word, funktionlust, which means the pleasure of doing, of producing an effect, as distinct from the pleasure of attaining the effect or having something. Creativity exists in the searching even more than in the finding or being found. We take pleasure in energetic repetition, practice, ritual. As play, the act is its own destination. The focus is on process, not product. Play is intrinsically satisfying. It is not conditioned on anything else. Play, creativity, art, spontaneity, all these experiences are their own rewards and are blocked when we perform for reward or punishment, profit or loss.

This makes me think of Oliver Burkeman's column in the Saturday Guardian two weeks ago, where he discussed the difference between 'doing what you love', 'work, and 'paid employment'. Perhaps we're asking too much, he argues, to expect that what we do to earn money should also be 'deeply fulfilling'. This separation seems to provide food for thought. I can't see how you can ignore the rules of the public creative game if you choose to play it for a living. And I also can't really see how you can create in the spontaneous, open way that Nachmanovitch is talking about if you need your creation to pay for your groceries.

Play is without 'why'. It is self-existent.... Play is done that it is done. (45)


  1. That’s funny – I use that Jung quote at the end of the first project brief that students get in 2nd Year! Jung’s previous sentence is also interesting:

    “Out of a playful movement of elements whose interrelations are not immediately apparent, patterns arise which an observant and critical intellect can only evaluate afterwards.”

    So, play alone can sometimes simply be a case of what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “happy hands”.

    Johan Huizinga had a lot of interesting stuff to say about play too and in some senses differs from Nachmanovitch by not drawing the same line between game and play:

    "Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order, absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it `spoils the game', robs it of its character, and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play ... seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects."

    I’ve been reading a fair bit about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation recently especially in relation to the “over-justification effect” in which people loose interest in activities when they become associated with rewards. I wrote about this here:
    Your post seems to raise some similar issues. I wonder though – is this a case of Play, creativity, art, spontaneity being “blocked when we perform for reward or punishment, profit or loss” or something else? – or even that they aren’t so much as blocked as distorted, corrupted or transformed? Some artists seem to be able to function very well creatively despite rewards, punishments, profit or loss. Perhaps this has more to do with what pulls them than it does with what pushes.



  2. There's so much we could talk about here. I'm going to start with push and pull, which is something I've been thinking about. Is the pull intrinsic or extrinsic?? You're probably thinking differently, but my recent thought was about the difference between an edgy, obsessive drive that is a response to external pressure, and a gentle recurrent pull back to the work which comes when there is sufficent room to breathe, and the work is gathering its own momentum.

    You certainly must be right about block being too strong a word, because, as you say, plenty of artists seem to be able to produce in a commercial or competitive context.

    I was struck reading the Jung quote again by his mention of inner necessity, which is exactly the word Kandinsky uses, isn't it?

    'As a last conclusion it must be established that it is not more important whether the form is personal, national or has style; whether or not it is in accordance with major contemporary movements; whether or not it is related to many or few other forms; whether or not it stands completely by itself: but rather the most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of inner necessity'.

    The footnote to this quote reads: 'That is, one may not make a uniform out of a form. Works of art are not soldiers. With a given artist, a given form can be the best at one time and the worst at another. In the first case, it has grown out of the soil of inner necessity; in the second, in the soil of outer necessity: out of ambition and greed'.

    Not sure where I'm going with this, but I'm interested in the idea of work coming out somehow differently according to whether or not it is driven by 'inner necessity', or in response to other kinds of inner-driven motivation that are a response to the external....

  3. Actually this really helps clarify the issues for me. I’m not really one for schematics but it seems we could almost lay the different motivations out in some kind of matrix:

    First: there’s the drive to DO something. To make something or create order or sense out of raw formlessness. We could probably define this as a Push from “inner necessity”.

    Second: there’s the attraction, encouragement or Pull of adding to an already existing discourse, oeuvre or piece to complete it, refine it or simply continue WITH it.

    Third: there’s the all too familiar drive to succeed. Clearly this is an extrinsically motivated Pull but is nonetheless closely related to –

    Fourth: the desire to be valued and to feel one is making a contribution. Push? Pull?



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