Monday, 30 April 2012

'how creativity works', again

A while ago I posted something about a new book about creativity called 'Imagination; How Creativity Works' by Jonah Lehrer. I was aware as I was posting that I seemed to be a bit intellectually disengaged from the idea of this book, and the ideas that were being extracted from it in the little video posted on brainpickings. What's wrong with me, I though, have I lost my intellectual curiosity about this thing that is at the centre of my life?

Then a week or so later, there was a review of the book in the Guardian by Steven Poole, who completely slated the book. He begins...

How did Bob Dylan write 'Like a Rolling Stone'? The pop science writer Jonah Lehrer wasn't there, but he pretends to know anyway.

He rips into the book from every angle, many of them being angles that I myself subscribe to, such as, just because we can identify the area of the brain that lights up, or the chemicals present, what does this tell us about the lived experience or ongoing dynamics of creative activity? It's not that the electrical correlates or chemical consituents aren't interesting, from an electrical or chemical point of view. It's just that knowing, for example, that oil paintings are made from canvas, pigment and oil, doesn't really get you much further on in working out how to make your own painting sing out in the way that your heart and your imagination constantly tantalise you with believing might be possible.

This morning a radio programme called Start the Week on Radio 4 devoted itself entirely to talking about creativity, and Jonah Lehrer was one of the discussants. I found it much more interesting listening to a chemist, a musician, a novelist and Jonah Lehrer having a chat about this than reading a textual argument about neurology or a critic's rant.

I'll perhaps try to summarise some of the discussion in a future post. But overall, I find myself struggling with the analysis of creativity as this seems to often be presented in books and discussions. For example, the people on this programme were all very successful, so anything that was said 'about creativity' was actually specific to some fairly exceptional people.

The musician/composer, for example, said that he got up very early, worked in the morning, and the afternoon, and the evening (though did take some time off then), and didn't drink, take drugs or smoke. Well, that's certainly interesting to hear about. But in the context of the idea of 'finding out about creativity' (as if it's some kind of phenomenon that can be pinned down and described) I wonder how much that helps the rest of us. It might be tempting to think that 'this is how you should work/be working if you want be really creatively successful'. But maybe you actually have to be pretty successful to be able to work like this (he apparently has 22 projects on the go). How much of what he describes is what creativity might look like when it's working in the world, connected to people who phone you up and ask you to do projects (which you'll be paid for), and who you regularly meet with for feedback and creative exchange?

There seems to be a kind of 'us and them' implicit in these discussions. There are those genius, 'really creative people', who are recognised and rewarded, and there are the rest of us. This view often seems to assume the 'god-given talent' view of creativity - the 'you've either got it or you haven't'. But what I'm interested in is something else.

What I'm interested in is not about 'putting yourself out there' and hoping you'll be rewarded or approved of. I'm regularly asked why I'm not exhibiting my painting, and in a conversation the other day someone suggested that perhaps the reason that some of the people I know don't realise that music is every bit as important to me was because I don't perform publicly. But right now I'm not interested in exhibiting myself, or performing. I'm interested in freeing my spirit through the act of creating; of responding to the world as it moves through me. I don't mean spirit in the 'spiritual' sense (don't know what that means), but spirit in the sense of that part of you that wants to laugh and run and skip and kick a football, to twirl around with your arms outstretched just for the sheer delight of it.This kind of freeing, it seems to me, should be possible for anyone.

I guess that's why I write this blog. It's not likely to be of interest to those who are comfortable exhibiting and performing, people who already get up every day and work all day long at their creative outputs. It's about uncoupling the idea of creativity from all those other ideas about specialness and talent, and exploring it as something else.

One of the really interesting things about this, though, is that when you read people like Green and Werner , and if you start to do work with people like Kath Burlinson and Paul Oertel, they all seem to be talking about just this kind of responsive freedom. Which suggests, in turn, as they all work with professional artists, that the 'inner freeing' thing is not just something that is relevant to those of us who are all clogged up like rusty drains.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

where is the edge?

A painting, at least if you're not going to work obviously or directly from the objects and life you see before your eyes, is an improvisation in its every tiny move. Actually, it's an improvisation even if you take a flower pot and put it on a table and start to try to represent what you see. And this is is what kills me and calls me in equal measure.

I don't know where to go, what mark to make, what colour to choose. I don't want anyone trying to 'help', giving me (their) ideas, to teach me. I don't want a predetermined structure, an object to copy, a set of rules. Sitting with the boundlessness of possibility, a place I have struggled to attain over a lifetime, I am largely overwhelmed.

I knew that this painting was 'finished' when I got to the stage above. And yet I also couldn't understand why what was supposed to just be an experiment with colour and the unfamiliarity of paint was constantly trying to make itself into 'a painting'. I questioned the sense of finished (in terms of satisfaction, it was actually finished at a very early stage when it was just ochre and white...) and wondered what I was missing out on by constantly defaulting to the idea of making a painting, of stopping, of not going on and 'making a mess' of whatever it was that I quite liked at this stage. How else are you ever to find your edge, to move away from your tentative little piece of ground?

Frustration made me brave. I started to mess it up.


Thursday, 26 April 2012

Tibetan performing arts

This is Techung, who was a young musician training at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in North India when I worked there in about 1986.
One of the things I remember most strongly about this time was the Dalai Lama's Court Dance Master visiting from Tibet, very old, having been allowed by the Chinese to come out for a few months to pass on the performing traditions of Tibet to the young Tibetans born in exile. Techung is one of very few Tibetan musicians working in the West trying to keep these traditions alive. He is trying to launch a recording project. If you would like to support him you can visit his site at
 Please pass this blog post on to anyone who you think might be interested in supporting his work. Thank you.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

what comes alive

'Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then give that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive'

Quoted in Mindell, A. (2010) Process Mind Quest, Wheaton, IL 

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

courage to act

It seems to me today that, in a sense, all the problems of being blocked, of not doing the work, of doubting it, and all the rest of it, come down to this simple idea of the courage to act.

Once you're acting, something can happen. As long as you're not acting, there's nothing but your mind, your feeling of discomfort, your self-talk - just the culprits themselves.

For the first time in my life I'm working on a painting that has no accidental effects, no beautiful, nature-created fractals, nothing that can suddenly astound me with the beauty and perfection of material effects, always far beyond anything I could imagine.

Every mark has been made by me. Every mark risks 'messing up' anything about the painting that I've come to like. And at all points I recognise that something in some ways much more profound could have eventuated from leaving the damn thing alone, not fussing into it, not carrying on. There's a huge simplicity there to be explored. But there is also something to be explored in the carrying on that acrylic paint allows; the possibility of layering, of obscuring, of wiping out; a constant process of transformation.

This morning a mucky ochre has muddied much that I liked about the image above. And I carry on. I abandon the notion that I've 'ruined' it, and continue, to see what unexpected and unimaginable thing might yet appear. This time, not by accident of uncontrollable materials. But by some new kind of accident that comes from putting paint on deliberately, while at the same time having no idea what that putting on will do to what is already there. So it is, in fact, as unknown as the other kind of working. But it requires the courage to act.

A few hours after writing this, I went to Jim's blog and found a recent post about ambiguity. What he's talking about there seems to relate to this recent shift of mine to consciously placed marks. It's also rather scarey. Best not to think about the difference between vagueness and ambiguity, for me at least, if I don't want to turn myself to stone.

Friday, 13 April 2012

how creativity works

 Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer. When we tell one another stories about creatvity, we tend to leave out this stage of the creative process. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problems were impossible to solve. Instead, we skip straight ahead to the breakthroughs.

A new book out on creativity - Imagine; How Creativity works - by Jonah Lehrer seems to be getting a lot of publicity at the moment.

An excerpt from it about Bob Dylan was published in the Guardian this week:

The Bob Dylan bit is interesting - apparently he got sick of fame early on, and sick of people asking him what his songs meant. He resolved to give up writing songs and took off for a log cabin in the woods. All alone, released from the pressure to create, out came 'Like a Rolling Stone', which he didn't  try to 'create', and which seemed to him to be quite random and strange. It made him want to start writing songs again from a new place....


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

materials, structure, subject matter

It may be the case that I can do much more than I imagine with the level of skill/technique that I already have. However, it also seems to be the case that one of the reasons that what I imagine is so limited may be because I have not built up a technical and material language; that I haven't made myself a comfortable home in terms of paint and colour.

I am well aware that much of what I've been doing has been a reaction against a kind of fear of brush and oil or acrylic. Or at least, strong reservations.  The decades of 'not understanding what it was supposed to be about' are associated strongly with canvas and paint, and I don't think it's an accident that my freedom back into painting came about through playing with scans, and watery colour running into itself, and what I could do with the results by cropping and intensifying on the computer.

I can see how I keep inching a little closer to paint, and then backing off. Very occasionally, I have put paint on a canvas. I tried it twice, over a year ago, with a brush; first with oil, and then with acrylic. I made quite a dark mess, and was unhappy with the brush marks, the paintness (I only realised that some time later..). I backed off, and went back to water and colour. I had a period later of acrylic and palette knife, which I found quite exciting and freeing. And then I backed off again. Recently I've been working with water-soluble wax crayons, and I've been able to see how I'm inching closer to paint. And also, interestingly, to the use of white, which I was told never to use at art college, and which remains something quite mysterious to me.

This talk of subject matter, it seems to me today, is still premature. I'm not sure it matters what my subject matter is. It's the paint and the colour that have been my fascination, and still are. I've felt lost at times in the lack of structure and form, as I've played with paint and colour, and that lostness has taken me back to working from the what I see around me, amongst other things.

I also quite often crave some kind of line, and look around for ideas. I realise, over and over, that the natural world gives me shapes and forms and lines (as well as colour) in a way that my 'imagination' never can. And I also realise, more and more, that I am not content with being some kind of human camera thing - I start to get restless and unhappy if I find myself working directly from life in a way that becomes dead, deadly naturalistic, or something.

Anyway, this week I seem to be continuing on with the fresco/ancient Indian wall theme, in terms of texture and colour. The exquisite line of a Chola bronze statue is on hold, and I am suddenly uninterested in subject matter, and strangely fascinated with paint. And brush. There it is, paint, and brush. Two kinds of wall ochre. And white.


Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Sunday, 1 April 2012

strange week

I have had a curious week this week. The colour of that pot exercise I did agitated my mind with memories of India, and all that I loved about Indian art. I had to follow it through, though I couldn't grasp what it was about. This painting (now painted over and lost, like all good mural art should be...) perhaps caught a tiny moment of what I was grasping for.

The mind and heart keep looking, waiting for connections....



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