Monday, 29 November 2010


Snow covers the world, bringing everyone back to themselves. We're so used to being stretched out, pulled in multiple directions out there in social space and then suddenly we're forced to settle back within ourselves.  Elaine Aron talks about some people being too 'in', and others being too 'out'. Literally - spending too much time 'out', running around, always with people, not taking time to settle quietly. Or too much 'in', wrapped up in an internal world, forgetting to reference and open to the outside.

It seems to me that creative pursuits, whatever they may be, help to bring those of us with a tendency to be too 'out' back to ourselves. When I've been too dispersed, spending all my time on work, on chores, on meeting obligations, even socialising, something starts to feel wrong in my body. But as soon as I go back to painting, or reading about painting, or drawing, or otherwise working with the colours and forms, that something starts to relax. As it relaxes, it begins to grow, to flourish. Whatever 'it' is, it isn't  internal; it takes in the world, flows into the world, taking me out of myself, and connecting me to it in a completely different way.

Self-consciousness seems to work in the same way. It stretches you out of yourself, until you're standing on the other side of the room, watching yourself, criticising, finding fault. Barry Green in  The inner game of music talks about self 1 and self 2. If I remember correctly, self 2 is the one that sits on the other side of the room, making judgements, pulling you out of yourself, and preventing you from being able to connect to what self 1 is trying to do. Self 1, if you can allow it to breathe, is not 'selfish' or isolated. It's a portal; a deep root tapping into the endless sea that is music, a sea which anyone can swim into, whatever their level, if they can only learn how to get rid of self 2.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


Why do I not have anything to say on my blog for over ten days, and then find myself with an idea every day for a week (three came this morning...)? This is an example, to me, of the workings of human consciousness - in the Indian philosophical sense of mind, body and emotion; the whole of experience - as a complex adaptive system.

When there's been no blog posting for a while, certain pathways begin to decay, or perhaps only to function on some level below conscious awareness. Different aspects of life - internal, external, distributed, focussed, self-organising, accidental - weave in and out of each other, and for whatever reason, the blog is not part of that changing landscape.

But once a post has occurred, suddenly the blog becomes a part of all those shifting, emerging patterns. A thought, instead of occurring and decaying almost instantly, or perhaps being written down in a private notebook, starts to build itself like a snowball. The sense of the blog becomes part of a set of active constraints, which mould and shape various events and interactions as they occur through the day. Eventually, a post appears, seemingly of its own accord, as it's never forced, or crafted from a starting point of intention....

Friday, 26 November 2010

exactitude is not truth

Jim raised an issue about realism a while back, which is something I think about a lot, and Matisse's phrase 'exactitude is not truth' seems to have planted itself in my mind. What Matisse said is this:
Among these drawings, which I have chosen with the greatest of care for this exhibition, there are four - portraits perhaps - done from my face as seen in a mirror. I should parrticularly like to draw these to the visitor's attention.
These drawings seem to sum up observations that I have been making for many years on the characteristics of a drawing, characteristics that do not depend on the exact copying of natural forms, nor on the patient assembling of exact details, but on the profound feeling of the artist before the objects which he has chosen, on which his attention has focussed, and the spirit of which he has penetrated.
My convictions on these matters crystallised after I had verified the fact that, for example, in the leaves of a tree - a fig tree, particularly - the great difference of form that exists among them does not keep them from being united by  common quality...
Thus there is an inherent truth which must be disengaged from the outward appearance of the object to be represented. This is the only truth that matters.
I struggle with the idea of truth, anywhere, and yet a philosopher friend of mine also has me almost convinced that, actually, and perhaps especially after postmodernism, something called truth matters a great deal. I don't like it as it's being used here, because it seems to suggest that things have an essence, one that's waiting to be 'discovered', or, in this case, perceived by the artist. This passage also makes me think of Plato's forms, which of course I don't understand, but I retain an uncomfortable impression of an argument for the existence of something Real-which-we-cannot-see; which in turn makes me think of all the Hindu and Buddhist arguments for a Real behind appearances. Those based in Hindu and Buddhist traditions tend to say that those schooled in Anglophone traditions can't begin to get what this means (for example, the translation of the Sanskrit term maya as illusion is arguably a red herring for an Anglophone mind...).
But Matisse is trying to say something important about drawing, and all those obsessions about 'getting a likeness' etc.
The four drawings in question are of the same subject, yet the calligraphy of each one of them shows a seeming liberty of line, of contour, and of volume expressed. Indeed, no one of these drawings can be superimposed on another, for all have completely different outlines..... Nevertheless, the different elements which go to make up these four drawings give in the same measure the organic makeup of the subject. These elements, if they are not always indicated in the same way, are still always wedded in each drawing with the same feeling - the way in which the nose is rooted in the face - the ear screwed into the skull - the lower jaw hung....even though the shade of expression varies in each one.
It is quite clear that this sum total of elements describes the same man, as to his character and his personality, his way of looking at things and his reactions to life, and as to the reserve with which he faces it and which keeps him from uncontrolled surrender to it.
It is thus evident that the anatomical, organic inexactitude in these drawings, has not harmed the expression of the intimate character and inherent truth of the personality, but on the contrary has helped to clarify it.

...Each of these drawings, as I see it, has its own individual invention which comes from the artist's penetration of his subject, going so far that he identifies himself with it, so that its essential truth makes the drawing. It is not changed by the different conditions under which the drawing is made; on the contrary, the expression of this truth by the elasticity of its line and by its freedom lends itself to the demands of the composition; it takes on light and shade and even life, byt the turn of the spirit of the artist whose expression it is.
L'exactitude n'est pas la verite.

Do we buy this? I can't decide. I do agree that the line doesn't have to accurately represent the three dimensional object. However, if the artist is going to draw a figurative element that calls to mind something that can be seen in the visual world, and that is likely to be familiar to the viewer, then it seems to me that the line has to be convincing in some way. Convincing doesn't mean accurate to nature. But it means that the mind of the viewer accepts the image, however distorted, rather than tries to reject it (which I have to say my mind does with quite a bit of Matisse's work...).

Perhaps Klee said something a bit more subtle:
Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.
This seems to leave space for exactitude or not - what matters isn't how accurate, but perhaps whether the drawing brings an object to attention; arresting the tendency of normal vision to sweep past something miraculous that it doesn't bother to stop to see??

All quotes from Chipp, 1968, Theories of Modern Art UCP

Thursday, 25 November 2010

can't steer without a centre

Stephen Nachmanovitch always has something to say about whatever I'm thinking about. Thinking yesterday about life decisions, about getting caught up in endless cycles of instrumentalism and strain, I open his book this morning and read the following:

As living beings, we are naturally self-regulating and self-balancing, but in addition we have consciousness, with its attendant functions of pride, selective awareness, linear thinking, and ego maintenance. The profound difference between these two tendencies involves us in certain contradictions and difficulties.... In a healthy feedback system, trial and error have an easy, flowing relationship, and we correct ourselves without a thought. Most of the body's feedback loops are unconscious, for the very good reason that continuous judgements of value must take effect without delay, interference, or clenching caused by ego attachment.

...The extra piece that consciousness puts in is the attachment of ego to one side or the other. The ego wants to be right, but in the dynamics of life and art we are never right, we are always changing and cycling. This attachment to one pole of a dynamic cycle sets us up for all the afflictive emotions: anger, pride, envy. If one pole or the other exerts an inordinate pull on us, we can't steer because we have no centre.... On the other hand, if one pole holds something we fear, we will run in circles around ourselves to avoid it.This prolongs the fear endlessly. If I am obsessed by a thought or a pain, the only way out is to go right to the sources of the pain and find out what piece of information is dying to express itself.

...Underneath procrastination and fidgeting lies self-doubt. Self-doubt appends a litte superscripted 'but on the other hand, maybe not'  to every impulse we have. We then find ourselves gnawing on each decision, changing course, retracing our steps again and again.

Consciousness may interfere with a naturally self-guiding system not only through pride but through desperation as well. It can be profoundly depressing to seem to be off-course all the time. Blake said, 'If the sun and the moon should doubt, they'd immediately go out!'

...The fundamental thing about vicious circles, by definition, is that there is no logical way out.... Fortunately, there are a number of non-logical ways out. Before we look at these we need to look at what underlies the vicious circles - fear.

 Nachmanovitch 129-130, 131-132

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


I remember when I started my thinkpic site, a friend suggested that there might be something going on there in terms of what he called 'legitimacy'. As in, not feeling that it was legitimate to simply do painting without any particular focus in terms of reward or ambition. I thought about this, but rejected it at the time, because at that point I was loving the simplicity and unpretentiousness of just playing with colour and form, and also the focus provided by the challenge of trying to make an image that articulated someone else's words or idea. Thinkpic work seemed to cut through all the problems of 'the art world'; the questions I had found so intractable (like, what's art? what's not art? why is that art and not this?), and the impossibility of finding a reason for such an apparently useless pursuit.

But as time has gone on, I've found myself needing a break from that kind of exploration. It is, after all, still a form of work. I'll come back to it.  But however interesting such challenges may be, and however preferable to endless preparation and marking, they're still aligned to other people's agendas. As I've calmed down from needing to see evidence that a new life was possible if I gave up my academic career, I've begun to see that you can't just replace an old set of demands with a new set, however much better that new one might align with long-suppressed feelings and desires.

Two people have said to me recently that if things seem to be all over the place, sometimes you just have to stop and start again. I've never given myself permission to do that. When one type of work came to its natural conclusion, I never said, hang on, what do you really want to do here? Instead I looked back over what I'd done, and tried to work out how I could create something new from the starting point of those skills and experiences. And fast, in a kind of panic, as if I had to earn a full salary every month (or at least be enrolled on a new degree), without taking a breath. No wonder that after some 30 odd years of this breathless instrumentalism I was eventually forced, by my neglected and abused soul, in the guise of my physical body, to stop and start again....

It's hard to stop, once you've got a momentum. But stop I have. And today I had a conversation with a musician about how work tries to fit in with being an artist or being a musician, and I suddenly saw it all a bit differently. It doesn't matter what progress you make, how hard it is, what the hell you think you're doing in your art or your music, what matters is that you have to live it. We both started off doing that, so what changes? He pointed out that the life of an artist or a musician is chaotic, and unstable. After a while of that, you can feel drawn towards something more stable, something with an income, something that isn't quite so hard. And then, once you've had a taste of a stable life, as he put it, you become seduced by it. Then he said something that really struck a chord - 'you enter into that stable life with a feeling of resentment, that you then suppress and re-channel into your work'. Ha! Why do I recognise this so immediately??

His solution was to find a job that didn't engage that creative energy and commitment (burning as resentment, re-ignited as passion and involvement in that work) but to keep the two clearly separate. To find something relatively interesting and rewarding, but something that you left at the door at five o'clock. And, crucially, given that you have to find something that at least seems worthwhile, not to get too involved in micro-managing your work environment, trying to improve things, generally being gung-ho. The micro-managment and improving you save for 'your artform'.

Of course I've heard versions of this before. But there were some subtle details in here that made it a much more nuanced plan than the usual advice about work that funds your creativity. This view takes account of all sorts of internal energies and tendencies, and suggests how they might be better separated and directed.

What has this got to do with legitimacy? I suppose that the discussion affirmed my 'right' to need to make my images; it acknowledged that it may be the case that some people actually have to do their art, or their music, in order to live their life in a state of balance and health. Even though I've been send this message so clearly by my physical body, I still somehow struggle to make mental and physical space for the legitimacy of my activity. It's bloody weird.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

artist's way group

About the time I started this blog, I also circulated this flier to a few friends and aquaintances. To my amazement, eight people, including one unknown person via the local library, responded.

At our first group, we decided not to work our way through Julia Cameron's book, as apparently many groups do, but to find our own way a bit more freely (though a number of us were reading her book). Within a couple of meetings, we decided that we wanted to do something together, not just talk about our own private projects.

For the first session of this, we played with inks and paints, watching how colours ran together on different kinds of paper. Next time we stabbed needles and coloured wool into polystyrene balls, finding out about a particular kind of felting. Then we did poetry - one member of the group offered to find poems on a theme submitted by each of us, and the next time we met, we read and talked about these poems. Then we tried learning to write haiku, over a couple more sessions. And, after that, we learnt to draw cartoons.

Buy this time, everyone had been prised out of their comfort zone at least once. Some people had bad memories of art teachers sighing, or scrawling all over their attempts. Others felt at sea with words, and even more at sea expressing private, personal feelings.

Our next project was to take a month to produce something, anything, on the theme of 'Autumn'. Ta da! (as they say in annoying girly bloggy things). The Stirling Artist's Way collective proudly presents.....

Monday, 8 November 2010

habit, repetition and novelty

I've been thinking about what Jim said a couple of posts ago about habit...

With 4 office moves in 5 years I'm getting pretty tired of shifting the furniture around. The thing with these suggestions which are supposed to make us all more creative and keep our minds flexible is that they take up time and attention. If we go on holiday we have all the time the holiday provides to do all kinds of new and stimulating things. But I'm sure you've noticed what happens when you go to stay in a foreign country for a while: you don't try to keep everything up in the air all the time, that would be exhausting. We seek routines and stability to make us feel secure and to allow us to focus on what really matters. In many ways it's habits that make a home not bricks and mortar. Maybe I'm wrong, perhaps creativity is all about making a habit of having no habits... sounds like a recipe for madness to me though!

There seems to me to be something very important in here about habit, repetition, actually narrowing constraints, your field of vision, which is the opposite of the equally interesting idea about forcing yourself into the new. McNiff talks about the value of working on a series, doing some small, contained thing, over and over, and about the surprises that can come out of working in this way.

This idea links to something else that's been in my mind for a long time, which is the idea of repetition and novelty. My father first suggested this to me as his theory of art, of what appeals to the human brain aesthetically. I've since discovered that someone like Derrida talks about something very similar. With my fascination for forms in nature, I realised that this is exactly what's so arresting about many natural forms - that there's a rhythm, a repetition of some basic idea, over and over, and yet each bit of the recurring pattern is just slightly different from any of the others. You can see this  in this photo from the New Scientist of ice:

Or in the patterns on a shell, or inside a cabbage...

Saturday, 6 November 2010

challenge or arena?

Someone suggested to me recently that I had perceived the challenges of the art world so acutely when I was younger that they had overwhelmed me to the point of being unable to work. In contrast to now, where I can read about the life of someone like Matisse, and simply find it interesting (and, actually, somewhat bizarre)...

This remark seemed to contain something of wider relevance, particularly in relation to one of the key focuses of this blog, which is exploring the nature of blocks to productivity. A number of the people I know seem, secretly, and at a very deep, important level of themselves, to want to make music, draw, write poetry, weave colours etc. And yet mostly, we haven't done these things. Not only have we not done them, but the not doing seems to have done nothing to banish the instinct, the yearning, even over many, many years.

We talked yesterday at our Artist's Way group (report on which to follow soon) about the link between how you think about what you're about to do and what then happens. Not in the sense of becoming embroiled in an intellectual discussion as an excuse for not getting round to actually doing something, but in the way that Betty Edwards describes in Drawing on the right side of the brain. She suggests that people who are not experienced tend to draw what they think a nose or an eye or a vase looks like, rather than properly looking and actually seeing the way that a nose is formed by the falling of light and shadow. Similarly, does the way we see or think about what we want to do creatively actually determine the outcome?

The shift from seeing art as an insurmountable challenge to seeing it as an arena for exploration seems to have changed everything for me. I don't think I've made the shift with music, though, which is equally important to me, and which I'm currently unable to handle....

Thursday, 4 November 2010

'secrets' again

Article in the Saturday Guardian, 30.10.10, entitled: 'The secret to being creative' (Work section).

Although you might believe certainty and control over your circumstances brings you pleasure, it is often uncertainty and challenge that bring the longest-lasting benefits...

And a series of bullet points:

1. seek out the new
Kashdan's dawn-till-dusk challenge involve inserting novel experiences into the daily routine to open the mind. You could listen to a new kind of music over breakfast, swap your usual newspaper for a different perspective, lunch with someone you don't usually speak to, visit an exhibition you would normally steer clear of and learn a language  or cook an exotic meal instead of turning on the tele when you fall through your front door

2. embrace new views
talk to people who may have a completely different way of thinking about an issue... instead of automatically looking at a situation from your usual stand, take a look from a different perspective whether its an unwelcome comment from a colleague or the war in Afghanistan

3. reinvent your desk
rearrange your worktop, adding an inspirational montage or motto or anything else that might shake up your apathy. 'The key is to changing your usual surroundings to find the unfamiliar in the familiar..' 

4. escape your confines
those lightbulb moments require a mulling period and that playful, rebellious spirit, and your unlikely to manage that in the office with phones and blackberries pulsing all around you. 'Find a space that works... going for a walk is a  proven way of changing your mindset to a positive and playful one'

5. stick to the here and now
if you're haunted by a pile of unanswered letters of agonising over a cock-up in conference, sort things out before you start mulling. 'Creativity is impossible if you're focussed on the past or the future...believe it or not, breathing properly, steadily, rhythmically, deeply, is a great way of focussing on the moment. Watch any athlete doing it'

6. help yourself
if your brain declines to play along, kick-start it with strategies as brainstorming or De Bono's lateral thinking. 'Find the ones that work for you.. but don't get hung up on them. Creativity is not completely conscious, rational process. Daydreaming is surprisingly effective'

You don't say! We've heard it all before, but perhaps we need to keep hearing it....

It seems to be remarkably easy to lose novelty from your life. Humans seem programmed to fall into recurring patterns and habits, safeties, securities, knowns. When did you last change the furniture round?!


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