Tag Archives: Psychology

20 Seconds to overcome fear

rothko at Seagram

Marion Milner, a celebrated child psychoanalyst wrote of her own creative anxieties in her book On Not Being Able to Paint (Heineman, 1950, but still available). Fear is embedded in much of the writing on creativity, mainly because creativity is a public expression of internal life. It is a form of exposure, and ever mindful of judgemental others, we often are more afraid of what this exposure, than the actual creative results themselves. In most cases, despite self doubts, we are proud of our creativity, but know where it is deficient — we’re just nervous about hearing that from others.

Milner’s point rested on various assumptions about preconditions for the production of a work of art itself, namely technical mastery of materials. This is obviously in contrast to whether the creative results are personally satisfying, or articulate well what we are thinking. Art is form of expression, not just a meander across a canvas or a lump of clay deformed by idle hands.  This despite some art being of this form, of course.

Henry Peacock, in his excellent book  Art as Expression (Whalesback, 1995) observed that of his art students, the ones that drew well were the least creative as artists, as they were more intent on replicating the form of what they saw, whereas those who drew less well were more inclined to engage with and interpret the external world. Peacock’s book is important as it is provides inspiration for people to explore their creativity without the fear and anxiety of mastering technologies first (like pens and ink, and paint or clay).

All these issues are well-addressed in Art and Fear (Image, 2001) an excellent tonic by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

Taken together, the fear that drives many to avoid creativity is actually self-imposed and has no bearing on whether we are actually able to express ourselves through various artistic approaches.

I would like to encourage creative souls to shrug off their attachment to what things look like and think about how to let your inner perceptions work. The art world has its cycles, from loving the realistic paintings, with figurative precision through to inscrutible abstract constructions which for many may bring on a headache. Abstraction is the true form (sounds like a mantra…), it excites and challenges the mind, is obviously much harder to do, as it requires real honesty and elegant presentation of complex inner thoughts. For others, it is easier to paint the vase and the flower and I accept that for many people this is enjoyable and satisfying. I’m only saying, there can be more.

Art methodologists and historians may see artistic periods like the tide — new ideas come in and wash away the old. Once done, it can’t be done again. Some think of it as the shock of the new, as all art history must be constantly rewritten from the perspective of current artistic tides. That does not mean that these perhaps passe modes of expression have nothing to say, otherwise why do we keep them on show in art galleries and museums.

You need to look at a work of abstraction for a least 20 seconds in order for your brain to decide that you are really interested and then it starts to process in detail what you’re looking at. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find yourself.

 

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Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?

“where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?”

(title from the song with lyrics by Peter Sarstedt, 1969, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRDaeLs69i4 )

Originally publised in Art of England, Issue 76, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Fantasy, imagination and dreaming have been acknowledged sources of artistic inspiration as well as scientific discovery. Dreaming is particularly interesting as we all experience it, doesn’t require a university degree, or that we consort with the assorted wildlife in the art community.

Many artists have drawn on dream states in their work. In Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2001) we learn:

  • Albrecht Durer’s 1525 watercolour of a storm came to him in a dream;

  • William Blake’s “Young Night’s Thoughts” (1818) is a dreamscape as is his “Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams” (1819);

  • Edward Burne-Jones’ pre-Raphaelite paintings frequently depict dream states, such as “The Rose Bower”.

The Surrealists were consummate dreamers – Paul Nash’s “Landscape from a Dream”, Dali’s “The Dream”, Max Ernst’s “Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale”, and others. According to Barrett, Dali developed specific methods which he encouraged artists to use to facilitate entry to and exit from sleep in such a way that the dreams would be remembered – the trick here is to wake up before you go into REM sleep.

And not all dreams are pleasant. Goya’s paintings frequently document nightmares; “The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters”, in his Los Caprichos (1799), is one example as are his lesser appreciated ‘Black Paintings’. As dreams these provide an additional layer of meaning, extending on the more rational interpretation that he was depicting the state of man. However, these works were originally painted on the interior walls of his house, as though he were creating an immersive environment for his mind – perhaps to live in his dreams rather than the real world. They were subsequently removed (placed on canvas) and hung on walls in the Museo del Prado, but this is the vandalism of art historians and their failure to grasp the subtlety of their genesis.

As someone who prefers the abstract, dreaming is particularly interesting as our dreams are pure creations of our innermost self. The brain (the bit our minds live in) likes to create patterns, likes to play, and do this much more than people realise.+

We all wonder what dreams mean, and whether they carry messages to us from ourselves, like we were whispering life’s little secrets. But beneath, or above, all this sits the mind itself, quite independent of degrees from art schools, or social status. That we all dream bestows democratic creativity on everyone and not just the chosen few.

Despite or perhaps because of this, we can be mystified at the sources of artistic creativity when we get to journey with it. Charles Saatchi’s television and artistic disaster School of Saatchi (remember?) showcased chronically insecure self-promoters failing miserably to produce anything of anything, but perhaps that is the point that Saatchi was making – and in the end the joke is on us for taking all this seriously.

Do we think differently about art if we knew the artist were documenting a dream, or were instead probably insane like in Wittgenstein’s later work? In such cases, do we become mere voyeurs of madness, safe in our own smug sane little worlds?

But many of the ‘dream’ artists, do challenge us with the sensitive and intelligent translation of inner visions into outer thought-provoking imagery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery show “Twombly and Poussin” illustrates the contrast between the abstract and the figurative. And we are left wondering what dream Twombly was suggesting in his The Mathematical Dream of Ashurbanipal, but mathematicians offen solve problems in their sleep so why not the rest of us?

And so, underneath all the analyticity of so many figurative artists, or the safe critiques of well-grounded critics, lies the murkier and far more interesting idea generator at the centre of our own being. Finding our way into ourselves is always harder and perhaps scarier and that is perhaps why art today can be often be so uninteresting.

Dirt!

“Dirt!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 83, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

In the film Amadeus, Salieri says of Mozart that it was like he was taking dictation from God.

Most of us know the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. It is not about dictation, but hard graft. Work can often be summarised thus: dirt, dirty hands, muck, wading into the muck. Untidy, but real.

Creativity is not done by dictation, despite Salieri’s suspicions.

And so we come to a book by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making, about, well, about artists who conceptualise, but don’t make things. He suggests that the idea of artists actually getting their hands dirty, with unique personally created works of art is gone – is art just about putting a urinal on display and suggesting the art is only about creating new thoughts for existing objects? A bit like an unmade bed. Not art, but branding.

The arterati would cluster ‘round like bees to a hive, perhaps a bit zombie-like, waiting to be consumed by the branding as much as consuming the product. And art products are just evidence of the branding, indeed of notoriety, rather than substance, of being known for being known, rather than being known for something.

But the branding is important today for it is how we sort the wheat from the chaff, as it says these pieces of work are art in the early 21st century. It says we will buy (sometimes) and appreciate (maybe) these works literally in the same way as a can of peas, as an object to be consumed, and in the consumption to become alive in that moment, but not forever.  Perhaps in our new terror world, we seek any frisson of excitement, like the first orgasm, over and over again, replacing what makes us uniquely human with mere physicality.

So in this world, the arid secretions of artists who employ others to fabricate their ‘stuff’, become evidence that I am alive as I consume their products.  We might call this ‘secretion art’.

There is an artist who sees himself as conceiver of ideas, a thinker. Far be it that the artist should get his hands dirty, better to use others who can paint, but can’t think – this is such industrial age thinking about division of labour that we must surely find it archaic, if not exploitative.

This ‘thinker artist’ is a con, a bit like a philosopher king – would you want to spend much time in the company of such arrogance? But if you can sell a lump of wax for $3 million, well who wouldn’t? Do we marvel at the creativity of such work, cringe at the silly value, envy the ‘con-artist’, or bathe in the reflected glory that we got the invite to the preview?

In time, we will learn from the lack of substance, the failure to communicate, the muteness of the messages, and I think critically, the real lack of authority, for artistic authority must always lie in the process of creation, not merely its thought.

It is bizarrely reassuring to know that these secretions will be preserved for future generations by people who collate, collect and catalogue – it is for others to judge.

I predict that in the year 2135; a curator, who is just starting work today, but will be in her mid-forties then, will arrange a retrospective, “Secretion Art: memory of orgasm as evidence of creativity, 1990-2020”. Perhaps by then art will be dirty work again.

Now, where did I put my turps?

And from a child … true abstraction

Aelita Andrea is very young and yet she is showing us what goes on in the mind of a child through her art. See her website here.

No pictures for this one. You just have to go and enjoy the insight and enthusiasm she shows for her work. Likened to a young Jackson Pollock, some describe her work as a combination of Absract Expressionism and Surrelism. Perhaps more of the former, than the latter.

And let’s reflect on Picasso who opined that he spent a lifetime trying to paint like a child.

What is just a delight is her chosen form is abstraction, some further evidence that the natural, unsocialised mind is comfortable with the abstract. It is only through the destructive process we call primary and secondary education, that our natural creative inclinations are stilled, in some cases forever.

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Frankenfolks can be artists too!

“Frankenfolks” can be artists too!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 86, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Are older people curiosities, especially the long-lived? Do we see them as ‘marvellous’ simply for their fact of survival. Perhaps instead, we trap others in the medico-social web of nursing homes, expensive end-of-life care, and dependency on others. Perhaps old people become ‘Frankenfolks’, as Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote recently in her book on ageism.

Working as I do in the health arena, but a painter as such, her comments drew my attention. Figuring out what her comments mean entails coming to grips with something else she wrote: “Sometimes pop culture looks like nothing more than a giant machine for excreting ageism.”

Certainly less than a century ago, the average life expectancy was 40 years, death of children was expected; today neither is true, with life expectancy of a healthy person being at least to the mid 90s. Furthermore, most of us will not pass our final days in nursing or care homes. And despite doom-laden predictions of rising cancers and metabolic disorders, most people should expect healthy ageing and natural death. So much for the good news.

The departure of Cy Twombly is a timely opportunity to reflect on all his work, and how it evolved, and challenged us as he himself moved through the phases of his life. All long-lived artists evolve, some like Picasso were condemned in old age for what was seen as inferior work by people with short memories.

We all have life trajectories, and some are acutely aware of the process of personal evolution and seek to reinvent themselves over and over again. Others, whose lives may be more tied to the corporate business cycle may just stop when they hit a ‘retirement age’. Regardless of personal life experiences, ignoring the evolving talent potential of ‘older folk’ echoes ageism.

I’ve noted in other writing the dismal performance of the UK’s art schools. It is also worth noting that while an arts education is a wonderful thing in and of itself, few arts graduates actually make a career out of their studies. And this at the expense of art schools themselves becoming engines of creative expression for the whole of society regardless of age. Like pop culture, art schools also seem to be engines of ageism.

There may be a reason for this. For some, art history is broadly linear; this is a typical western approach, that present perceptions replace past perceptions, a sort of movement from/to. Other cultures see all history as living in the present, so art movements of the past also speak to the present: Sumi-e for example. Can abstract expressionism, described as dated by some, be relevant – no sooner had abstract expressionism burst upon the scene, pop artists were claiming it was obsolete. Really?

The point here is a simple one and betrays the superficial approach to creativity that abounds in the art world and that fosters ageism, namely, that new art replaces old art, and when an art ‘style’ has been replaced, it has no more to say to us. In that respect, we are always looking for the ‘shock of the new’, like Matisse’s gouaches découpés, themselves his response to ageing.

Is everything before transformed, as newness forces us to reassess everything that went before, and must we then consign it to the bins of the history of art?

What can Malevich, or the Futurists, say of relevance to ourselves in our 21st century angst when no sooner are we tweeted than we’ve moved on to the ‘next big thing’. And the next big thing is showing his or her work at some dodgy art school of middling quality at taxpayer’s expense, hoping to shock you with some edgy work of marginal interest (this sentence could go on and on….)

And so we never notice that we are drawn to the specious moment, in our search for that euphoria of artistic discovery, a type of addictive behaviour overwhelms, which always needs a fix. In this way the conditions for ageism in art are created. QED.

Intelligent Life

waste basket and jumble of letters

Now what to do with it. [Image by Torley via Flick

I subscribe to only one art magazine: Turps. Actually, I subscribe only to a few things anyway. I used to want to get one of each, like some artists who need to have one of each colour.

Knowledge is different, and I guess the fear is that you’ll not be reading the right material when something comes up in conversation. Art magazines can feel voyeuristic or worse, self-indulgent.

I got a complimentary copy of the magazine, Intelligent Life, published by the Economist the other day, hoping I’d subscribe. I’ve read this magazine before. I can only say it feels like a intelligent version of the FT’s How to Spend it. But not something to subscribe to.

Sorry Economist.

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Medicine for Body and Soul

Histopathogic image of senile plaques seen in ...

Senile Plaques: what goes on here can change your life

Art of England (issue 66, 2010) has published a short piece of mine. It is some commentary on a conference in London on arts and health.

This is an interesting area. Research is beginning to show that arts can have therapeutic value, can trigger memories in people with Alzheimer’s, or be of rehabilitative value in treating stroke victims.

Near where I live is the Sydney de Haan Centre, which is focused mainly on music and health, but art and health groups are active around the world.

What to know more?

This journal, Arts and Health, is a good beginning as is the Journal of Applied Arts and Health.

There are many arts and health groups around the world, and well as many arts and health research groups. I can provide a list if you’re interested.

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