Saturday, 26 February 2011

'you are an artist'

A member of the creativity group brought along this absolutely wonderful book to our last meeting. It's the best book I've ever seen on doing art. Not that I've seen that many, but it's very different from most of the books readily available, which seem to concentrate mainly on techniques with different materials. It was published in 1965, which, as you can see from the cover, means that 'art' was happily accepted as being about the creation of abstract works. The closest I've seen to this published recently is Painting Abstracts by Rolina van Vliet (2008) but it isn't really a patch on Fred Gettings.

Historically, it's interesting. It's a time when artists were looking at African masks, sculpture from New Guinea; when Paul Klee was still alive (I think), Jackson Pollock was throwing paint around, Rothko was making red squares. Fred Gettings has a wonderful take on the whole thing. I may bore you with excerpts from this book for some time to come. Here's the introduction:

The aim of this book is to show that you are an artist. Art is not merely concerned with great artists, with genious, or with prodigious skills. It is, fundamentally, the outward form of an inward search. To participate in this search, on whatever level and with whatever ability, is to be an artist.

The equipment of the artist is not found in art shops only, but in his attitude of mind, in his vision and in his emotions. It is of supreme unimportance whethere the artist is possessed of some dazzling vision, like Samuel Palmer in the valley of Shoreham, or whether he paints almost as a matter of amusement with whatever materials come to hand, like old Alfred Wallis of St Ives - the important thing, the thing which links all artists together, is the search.

Works of art, sometimes good and sometimes bad, are the outward evidence of this search. But the work of art is really of secondary importance - it is merely the crystallisation of an idea of emotion, and a correct understanding of art must take this fact into account. The true importance of art lies in its alchemical nature, in its strange power to refine the sensibilities, to heighten visual awareness. This evolution of the spirit is the true aim of art, and anyone  who embarks on this spiritual odyssey bears the name of artist. The practice of art is not directed towards producing artists who can paint or sculpt with real ability, nor towards producing more works to fill our homes and galleries: it is directed towards producing human beings with a sense of wonder at life and at that precious ability to enquire into its outward manifestations.

I'm not saying this is right or wrong, but it's interesting, inspiring. Though personally I can't get on with the idea of 'spiritual'. I object to this word pretty much wherever I see it; I've yet to find anyone who can tell me exactly what it means. For myself, I can't see what's 'spiritual' about exploring what's going on when you aren't always directing your attention to the external world. What, for example, is 'spiritual' about meditation? Why is sitting examining what happens when you stop rushing around chasing your tail spiritual? But that's a digression - I love Fred Gettings' description of what he thinks art is....

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

nothing is original

Stunning quote from Jim's blog. We talked about authenticity in the group just the other day. We were wondering whether authenticity (which as an ex-academic I can scarcely write without putting in inverted commas...) was somehow behind creative works that we liked. I started wondering whether you can somehow feel the intention of, say, an artist, in what they produce. I believe that I can see that a lot of work in small galleries around where I live, for example, has been produced 'to sell'. It just screams at me somehow.

Linking Jim's quote here to yesterday's post, how about the idea that people who manage to create things are not necessarily unstable/mad/ill, or even particularly sensitive. What if they are just simply more audacious; having more confidence to steal freely, and perhaps also more connected, in the sense that they are able to, and the take the time to, acknowledge what speaks to their soul?

By the way, if you're getting sick of me referencing Jim all the time, post me a comment!

Monday, 14 February 2011

mad, bad, etc

In the creativity group the other day we finally wandered into the territory of the relationship between creativity and various forms of 'mental instability'. A day or so later, one of the group found this article on the BBC website: Poetry, the creative process, and mental illness.

There are so many cultural myths and fantasies around this idea, which are closely tied up with myths and fantasies about 'genius' and 'talent'. Artists (or poets, or writers), we all seem to agree, are at least a little bit mad (look at Van Gogh...). It's a creativity bodyswerve, too - well, I'm not mad or dysfunctional, so, of course, you can't expect any serious creativity out of me.

The first question that this raises is what is meant by mental illness. I'm not trying to be tricky academic here - it's a serious question. And what is 'mental' about mental illness? It's always seemed strange to me that issues of feeling - of pain, suffering, joy, anxiety etc - are classed as 'mental'. If 'mental' is one half of the mind/body split (strong in our culture, even if critiqued and expanded), why are emotions not classed as 'body'? It's in your body that you feel anxiety, or fear - in your stomach, in the tightening of your chest, suddenly unable to catch your breath.

The next question is about the boundary, the line. At what point does 'normal' anxiety tip over and become pathological, a psychological problem? Everyone feels anxiety, which, like other emotions, is communication - in the case of anxiety, about an impending threat, real or imagined. Feeling emotions is health.

The third question is about seeing mental illness as a problem that generates itself within the individual. If a 'normal' person was put in a damp flat, surrounded by rats and mould, pilfering gangs and noisy neighbours, and told that they had £60 a week to live on with their three children, how long would they retain their equanimity? Someone with a certain type of personality might be highly anxious as chairman of the board, but the confident leader of a cause they feel passionate about.

These are just the first problems that come to mind (I once met someone who was doing a PhD on the demarcations of mental illness. After some years, they gave up; the beginnings  and ends seemed impossible to find...). If there are all these questions, how can we begin to discuss how such an idea might relate to creativity? The BBC article makes the point that creativity requires pushing beyond accepted limits and norms, and suggests that people who already do this might find it easier to be creative. But, as the article points out, such pushing beyond norms, if that's your tendency, may well mean that you are already outside of 'normal' societal expectations. Is it surprising that people who take more conventional paths - who work hard at school, do well, get successful careers, look after families etc - might then struggle a little to push outside the limits that they have been conditioned to accept?

An alternative idea to the youhavetobemadtobecreative one, might be Aron's idea of what she calls the Highly Sensitive Person (subtitle, 'how to survive and thrive when the world overwhelms you'). An academic psychologist, Aron's research suggests to her that some people are just naturally 'HSP's - people who quickly become overstimulated, who are often accused of being 'over-sensitive', and who struggle with things that the rest of the world seems to have no trouble with. It's an interesting read, and seems to me to shed a completely different light on creativity and sensitivity.

Thursday, 10 February 2011


I think Jim is saying something about just keeping going in this post on talent...

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Monday, 7 February 2011

on risking 'bad work'

I've been thinking a lot about the idea I wrote about before of the fear of disappointing oneself, and how paralysing that fear can be. It's the fear of messing things up; of the risk of losing some small germinal thing in a image that was perhaps beginning to work, just a little. For a start, what is 'work'? You don't know what you're doing anyway, and what you're aiming for isn't available for more than the most rudimentary analysis. It's true that you're responding - that each step is a response to the step that came before. Each mark starts where another left off, has to find its place in relation to all the other marks that are already there. But that's the point, each mark is doing it, every time. There's no insurance against messing it all up, ever. So you might as well stop thinking like that. Taken to its logical conclusion, you end up making no marks at all. Ahem. Yes, well, I'm living proof of that!

You have to just take the risk, and if the marks fail, if the whole thing turns to an offensive sludge, well, you can just make more marks still. Sometimes that actually works to turn it around, and you end with something you could never have imagined, which is much more interesting than what you thought you were trying to do. 'Creativity is mistakes' (Grayson Perry). I begin to see that now. Not only do you have to take the risk, and work on through the disappointment; I see now that you actually can't really move until you start to do this.

By producing something you think is horrible, you learn something. You learn something about what you're trying to produce, as well as about how certain materials work with each other. How can you find out what you're actually trying to produce, other than by producing things that scream at you 'no, no, not this!' You need the ugly stuff, the mess, the experiments that fail, in order to move forward.

All these years I was unable to do anything. What matters now is simply to be doing, not too much what happens when you do. Bad doesn't matter - bad is doing; is taking a chance, pushing, trying, making. Making something appear that didn't exist before.

A friend of mine pointed out recently that it's thoughts that jump in and stop the work. She reckoned that you just had to decide that you're just not going to listen to those voices - that you're going to just keep on going for the next hour, or five hours, and see what happens. Just keep going, don't stop and look, don't think. Just keep going.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


Finally back from my travels. I was right about needing input from the outside, about needing stimulation. I devoured the British Museum, which did more for me than galleries. Looking at paintings gave me ideas about paint, about things I didn't like. Sometimes it was exciting, sometimes even pointing somewhere. But the British Museum connected me to my own place. The place where things come from.

Little recap for the beginning of 2011....The purpose of this blog is to explore the nature of the creative process, as both a lived experience, and in terms of writings and other forms of analysis. I include images to make the blog visual, and sometimes as a kind of commentary/outcome of a process I might be discussing. It's not intended as a gallery, neither are the images of 'finished pieces'. If you're interested in seeing more of the results of the process, the exploringcreativity photostream link on the right will take you to a regularly updated flickr site.


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