Amy's Whimsical Musings
This morning I woke to a post on my Twitter feed sharing an article from Prospect Magazine – “How the Human Got His Paintbrush”. It’s basically a well composed critique by Philip Ball of scientist E.O. Wilson’s new book, The Origins of Creativity. The topic is something I’m obviously quite interested in, and I’m a sucker for genetics (I blame the mesmerizing Mendel’s Peas film we watched in 8th grade Biology).
I encourage everyone to at least skim this review, for it brings up some intriguing points. I wanted to highlight a few quotes that struck me:
This reminded me of one of my favorite TED talks – “I Listen to Color” – by the self-proclaimed cyborg synesthete Neil Harbisson. I’m assuming from the review that Wilson does not explore the possibilities of technologies (a form of evolution in my opinion, as I subscribe to Marshall McLuhan’s view that tech is an “extension of ourselves”) in light of the fact they can enhance the creative experience and process of the artist (and audience, for that matter). I love what Golan Levin is doing with “Art That Looks Back At You”, enabling something concrete to happen from shapes drawn by movement in thin air, or “unseen space”, as he puts it.
Golan goes further and poses the question: What if art was aware that we were looking at it…and what could it do if it were to look back at us?
Definitely view his talk to find out more about the subsequent experiments, but I just LOVE this query. Could art be “doing its own thing”, detached from its creator, the artist, the context in which it was produced, and even the audience that perceives it?
This brings me to the next jewel of a quote from Ball’s review:
I’ve long studied the lives and creative habits of artists, and even summed some of my takeaways up in a recent TEDx talk. I make art too- mostly irreverent remix and mashup, but often wholly original pieces that are influenced by the styles of artists I gravitate toward, but are by no means what I’d call completely derivative.
A lot of people read into my creative works, and often I find myself responding with a “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” explanation. But is it? Perhaps there are some subconscious forces at work I myself fail to grasp.
I agree wholeheartedly with Ball in that artists are more often than not “unreliable commentators” on their own creations – perhaps it’s because, as Da Vinci, Picasso and Van Gogh espoused, one must “just do it”. When the blank canvas stares back, just “slap something on it”.
Yes, it can be a “driven by the muse” thing, but mostly it’s about starting something and letting it unfold, the old “inspiration exists but it has to find you working” that Picasso alluded to. In this respect, it can be difficult for artists to identify let alone articulate their raison d’être.
I find it profound when Ball says the best art goes beyond artist intent or original context – that it is in fact unfettered by the shackles of the times or the constraints of the creator’s view. Of course this is why still cry at Debussy, marvel at the Sistine frescoes, stir at Munch’s Scream and remake Shakespeare’s plays into modern rom-coms.
Ball is really on to something here, I think, when he brings up the problem of the critic and wonders whether art can or should be “explained ” in “scientific” terms.
In most of my talks I refer to the poet Keats’ concept of negative capability. It’s about being comfortable with ambiguity, and it is very difficult state for most people to be in. Schooling in particular has privileged Reason, the scientific method, and definitive answers. There is no problem with that (and I adore all facets of science), but we must allow room to explore the enigmas, to tinker with multiple perspectives, and to grapple with the grey areas (which, to be fair, is the essence of science, too).
The last quote that really struck me was this:
What imagery! Acid! Disintegrating myths! Burning through meaning!
According to Ball, EO Wilson defines creativity as “the innate quest for originality”. That might be a better description of “innovation”, for creativity is about connecting and remixing, finding relationships, expressing in metaphor, and recognizing what others miss. I’d argue that few things are truly original, and that brings us back to
My big takeaway from Ball’s piece is that perhaps art has agency. We can try to own it, define it, deconstruct it, explain it, and rationalize it using subjectivity or science, but in the end these attempts are futile. Not even the artist can foresee what his creation may be..how it morphs and re-contextualizes over the decades.
The other night I was watching the original Bladerunner (1982) in preparation to see the new one (2017), and all I could think of was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). And perhaps, like with Frankenstein’s monster, the creator can only bring something to life and let go. Science cannot contain or explain the unpredictable, beautiful, and often heartbreaking bits of humanity that froth up in the arts…
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