Thursday, 28 March 2013

walking in the opposite direction

I'm convinced now that the only way to find out how to create is by going inwards. I'm also convinced that whatever I thought this might mean is not what it actually does mean.  We're culturally predisposed to be very confused about this idea. 'Me time', 'but isn't that just selfish?', 'shouldn't we think of others?', ' I don't have that luxury, I have a family' etc. There's a vague cultural sub-text about loving one's neighbour, and a collective amnesia about the next part of that sentence.

Perhaps, in relation to creativity, it seems blindingly obvious to say that you need to go inwards. This might be the case for those who don't seem themselves as creative; who are slightly awed by what they define as creativity in others, or who have known creative people who have seemed to them to be self-centred, or self-indulgent. Isn't that what artists do? Don't they 'express themselves'? Isn't it all about the self (and that might be alright for them but I have far too many shirts to iron/research to do ....). Isn't art/creativity, in fact, a glorious self-fest, only possible for the very rich or the slightly mad?

There's no doubt that the ego tries to muscle in on creative action, and that artists are as prone to ego-delusion as any other human being. But the artists I have known personally seem to struggle with quite the opposite condition - a recurring failure of, or at least threat to, self - a constant return to self-doubt and self-questioning, of an often non-productive kind.

This is partly because - assuming that they're not involved in the complex game of playing the market, or trying to manage some kind of recognition without losing track of what they were doing at the the point that they got recognised - most of the time they have to get up every morning and believe in the continuing of an activity which may bring them little or no recognition or praise, let alone money. This is the equivalent, perhaps, to having had four hundred job rejections and expecting to get up and face your four hundred and first job interview in an optimistic and positive frame of mind.

The need for 'recognition' seems to be very complex. There was an story in the Family section of the Guardian this weekend about a painter who had made a living from painting all his life, who at the age of 70 still painted every day and loved it, reportedly feeling deeply depressed about the fact that he had never achieved recognition. What is that about? You do what you love, what you feel best doing, you enter into some kind of communion with the world around you through your activity, and you get paid enough from doing it to be able to eat and contribute to your family. But it's not enough.

I've managed to turn my back on that recognition, in terms of any fantasies about joining the mainstream art world, or of making much money from what I do. Leaving the financial aspect aside for the moment, I can only do that, I think, because I 'achieved recognition' in my previous career. I used to say that I never wanted prestige or promotion or power, but that I did want to be part of the conversation. The most important thing to me at the time was a) to be able to share all my ideas and the things I was working on, and b) to get a response, to have someone talk back to my ideas. In other words, to be heard. Perhaps these things get all mixed up when your first and only job is that of being an artist. Firstly, you need to eat, so you need recognition to get money. Secondly, as a human, you need to be heard.

I believe now that all humans are naturally and abundantly creative. We start creating and experimenting from the moment we're born - as children we want to make, and make noise, and use our bodies, and we want to share the miracle of what we make and do with the people around us. And then someone tells us that our joyful sharing is wrong in some way -  that we're singing off key, or that our moves look silly. On top of that, mum's out working and dad's busy at the computer. We soon learn that sharing the excitement of our creativity hits a wall.

Then the response we get to our creativity starts to metamorphise into something much less unselfconscious and free. It matters now if they like it. It matters if they trash it. It matters perhaps even more if they ignore it. We start to believe that our creations are ourselves, which are now fragile because they're self-conscious, and in awareness/self-consciousness pain has replaced unselfconscious sharing.

While the ego is rampaging about out there in the world, preening and puffing and trying to sell itself to the highest bidder, the creative self, if not allowed to breathe, starts to suffocate. This is how it was for me, at least. The 'going inwards' that I think is needed in order to create can't be dismissed as navel-gazing or self-indulgence. The extraordinary thing about the battered soul is that it keeps on trying to be heard, whatever else is going on. The ego can kick it and laugh at it, experience can build a narrative around its feelings that make it feel as if it has a rope around its neck, but these things just make it wail all the louder.

Whether you call 'it' your soul, or your feelings, or the biological survival instincts of your organism as self-organising system, the gutbody, feelingmind seems to know exactly what it  needs to do to flourish. And if you start to feed yourself rather than continually depleting yourself, it seems that everything starts to change. The body knows this, and is constantly trying to steer the system in the direction of feeding, away from toxicity; whether this be via dreams, feelings, vague intimations at the back of our minds, or recurring physical symptoms.

The denial of this basic fact - that the human is like a plant, which needs soil, water, air and food - doesn't seem to make any difference to the system's attempts to right itself. Your mind can tell you that you need to put others first, or that the most important thing is to get some savings for your retirement, or that you don't matter while your kids do, but the biological need for an improvement in your basic conditions will keep trying to assert itself. I remember that I used to frequently think, after a conversation, 'why on earth did I say that?'. Berate myself for being 'inappropriate', or too outspoken, as if there was some part of me that existed somewhere completely beyond my control. Exactly right. There was one day when, joking along the corridor with my head of department (who was also a friend) I suddenly pinned him to the wall by the shoulders in a mock attack in response to something he'd said. A little warning bell sounded in my head.

Whatever 'going inward' might mean, it seems that it has to be done; you have to find out what it is that has to be done in order to start to burn off the soot of ages and give yourself a chance of returning to your free, experimental, laughing, creative self. Which is not some touchy-feely, new age, mythical promised land, but the simple fact of your human existence. I would argue. :-)

Ironically, once you begin to turn around and walk in the opposite direction, back inside, away from all the things you believe that you should be doing in relation to all your internalised external agendas, you seem to start to open outwards to the world in a new way. It's a strange paradox. That as you start to pay attention to your body and your inner speaking, the need for fighting and protecting yourself, for pushing and forming and competing and 'trying to survive' seems to turn on its head.

I know all this experientially, and yet I still find it so hard to do. As I create, as I play and sing, the mind, desire, intention, heave into the space of my awareness, and start to scrunch my body up on some subtle level I'm not even aware of. I wonder why I'm not feeling calm and clear and light and then I see that my mind's been at it again - dancing me from activity to activity to activity, without space, without light. Even in the very act of creating itself. I saw all this - summed up in the feed and digest model I posted a few days ago - when I was forced to my bed recently with a bad chest cold. As I lay there, drifting in and out of sleep, relieved from subtle tensions/intentions I hadn't even been aware of (I want to make a painting about this, I want to do that for the exhibition, mmmm, that's a good idea...)  things started to emerge easily, of their own accord. Quandaries about painting direction resolved themselves in a simple and easy ways, colours appeared, shapes formed.

It seems that the creative response is emergent, light, easy, unending, and constant, if we're able not to stand in its way. But of course, that's where I usually stand. In its way.

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