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October 07, 2005


Creativity: Further Notes

Corneria City Palace
Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

Above is another computer rendering by the talented young artist presented in the previous posting. This rendering is, in contrast, much more colorful (emotional). On the other hand, it conveys a sense of anger (bright red object in lower left corner) about feeling contained, isolated or not accepted within larger interpersonal social contexts, represented here by the image of a large, diverse city. In addition, the theme of placing the rendering, as well as the one in the previous posting, in the "futuristic" realm may suggest at least one of two things. First, the focus upon a world of the distant future may be a defensive way to provide a sense of distance, a temporary sense of relief, from having to face difficult or serious issues confronted in everyday life. On the other hand, the emphasis upon the futuristic theme could also suggest the capacity to maintain a sense of hope about positive prospects that might lie ahead in one's life.

Again, turning to a more theoretical perspective, there is a revolution underway that will affect the way in which human beings describe ourselves and, through that, the ways in which we relate to each other and the way we organise ourselves. On an even deeper level than the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, this coming change will alter long held and sometimes 'sacred' perceptions of the self. It will change the way we perceive our perceptions. In so doing it will also alter the way we look at and understand art, which is the main theme this discussion.

The revolution is arising from recent explorations into the functioning of the brain. Only in the last 15 years or so has it come about that new thought and new technology have, hand in hand, begun to enable us to see into the brain in greater depth than ever before and to discuss in more detailed terms subjects once held to be the intuitive realm of art. We are now beginning to be able to look at the very building blocks of what/who we are, the terms with which we describe ourselves, those things which give us our essential sense of identity.

Specifically, there have been renewed investigations about certain mechanisms in the brain which allow it to fill in missing information, make generalisations and, where large gaps in sensory input exist, to actually impose objects on the perceptions. The objects dredged up from the memory by the brain and projected onto our perceptions then appear to fit seamlessly into the real world.

For example, how might the brain deal with seeing a cat's tail sticking out from behind a sofa. One might speculate that what we call perception is really the end result of a dynamic interplay between sensory signals and high-level stored information about visual images from the past. Each time anyone of us encounters an object, the visual system begins a constant questioning process. Fragmentary evidence comes in and the higher centers say, "Hmmmm, maybe this is an animal" Our brains then pose a series of visual questions: as in a twenty questions game. Is it a mammal? A cat? What kind of cat? Tame? Wild? Big? Small? Black, white or tabby? The higher visual centers then project partial "best fit" answers back to the lower visual areas including the primary visual cortex.

In this manner, the impoverished image is progressively worked on and refined (with bits filled in when appropriate). These massive feed forward and feedback projections are in the business of conducting successive iterations that enable us to home in on the closest approximation to the truth. To overstate the argument deliberately, perhaps we are hallucinating all the time and what we call perception is arrived at by simply determining which hallucination best conforms to the current sensory input.

This capability of the brain to impose what it deems to be a useful reality on a given set of sensory perceptions is an underlying theme of how, from the viewpoint just described, this particular brain function is fundamental to our understanding of art and ways in particular that some visual art uses it in making its effects. There are many examples now of brain function which show conclusively that those solid and unshakeable images of the self we have clung to in the past are not what we presumed them to be. The relationship between what is out there in the physical world and how we describe it to ourselves were once seen to be in some kind of balance. It seems now that that balance has shifted--the weight is now overwhelmingly on the side of the brain--inventing reality and projecting what it needs-- and can get away with--onto an indifferent and in the main unresponsive universe.

In the diverse range of ideas which have been used to describe the universe and our place in it something similar would seem to be happening. If one attempts to describe the physical world, which one would reasonably think is actually unknowable, incomprehensible and for the most part indifferent to one's actually being here, then one is describing what amounts to a blank screen onto which one can project whatever is most useful, or that which a person most desires to be there. This projection is only limited by the information received from measuring the screen, i.e., scientific descriptions of the universe and in most cases these can be, and often are, ignored anyway.

One can see in the creative arts something that is not only similar to this process, but which seems to be an exact enactment of it on a smaller, but no less significant scale. The blank canvas, the empty sheet of writing paper, the blank stave or silence itself being not a metaphor but an exact image of the blank universal screen and our filling in of these spaces to be the exact same process, not a metaphor for or symbol of it.

So what is going on in this process and what is its significance? What are the desired projections artists have needed to see on this blank screen? What do they need to see in this strange mirror? The many possible answers to these questions seem to revolve around two fundamental desires: the need for personal identity and a way of coming to terms with the world. Perhaps most of the projections made by human beings actually contain a combination of these two desires. With this in mind, when we project onto our artists' screens we are therefore telling a unique, unrepeatable and unforeseen story. In this sense every work of art may in some way be seen as a self-portrait, a unique set of projections.

Although these projections are unique they do fall into categories--much like books in a shop. There are the equivalents of thrillers, science fiction or historical novels. But also the sets which our projected stories fall into are not necessarily narrative. They manifest themselves in art as images of many kinds--each type corresponding to the particular person's need for identity and, of necessity, each involving a way of dealing with their perceptions of the world. We must remember that while these projections are always personal and related to individual experience and are therefore part of the process of self-description, they reveal themselves in projections of universal and archetypal images or processes. (Whether these are innate or not is a complex question and would need a further essay to examine it in depth).

Some of these images embody certain emotions and sensual experiences that we find pleasant or even ecstatic. For example, the representation, recreation and amplification of sensual and sexual sensations which can act as a hiding place, or at least a holiday resort, from the world. The great tradition of sensuality in French culture is a case in point. From the Impressionists such as Matisse, the over-riding projection is of images of sensual luxury which has been used as an escape from the drudgery and the horror of everyday life. Other projections would be of images which, while presenting a fragment of the identity of an individual, might enable us not to escape from life by limiting our relation to it, but to engage with the world in as complete a manner as possible.

I want to look the case of autism for the moment and in particular savants. People with autism often suffer from a deprivation of the socialising and communication skills that could enable them to take part, with real depth, in consistent relationships with others. In some cases though, it confers on a few of them some extraordinary abilities. For example, some savants display phenomenal ability in mathematical calculation in extraordinarily specific fields. One boy could tell the time of day to the exact second without looking at a watch. Another could generate an eight digit prime number with ease in a second or two. Some can, on one hearing, reproduce a Chopin waltz note perfect. Others can accurately draw an extremely complex scene, say the New York skyline, after one brief look. With those on a higher level of the autism spectrum, in particular Asperger's syndrome (often with Superior to Very Superior intelligence ranges), what is produced truly art, it does transform and communicate.

Perhaps for many artists, the effort to transcend the trivialities of everyday life would benefit from attempting to strip away mechanisms of distortion and see the world in part as the savant sees it. This would mean not only tearing down the social niceties and manners of peer groupings, as well as accepted reactions to things, but also making an attempt to approach and disturb the unconscious filters, barriers and means of projection deep in the brain. I think art, by certain techniques, can do this. In this sense, one is faced with those incomprehensible questions which the adept is told to contemplate in their search for enlightenment. The famous "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" is a perfect example. I think that what happens here is that the brain is presented with something it cannot deal with, a paradox, and in the small silence that ensues while it wrestles with this surreality--in that silence or shutting down of the logical, filtering and projecting systems in the brain --the whole world rushes in as it is--as it were without comment from the occupied grey matter.

It's as if while the brain was scratching its head we suddenly see a chair as a chair and the sky as the sky without intervening distorting mirrors. The result of this is a distancing of the perception from the emotional reaction to it. And in this distancing one sees clearly, at the same time, the "just-so" world and the responding self. What we would seem to be doing here is to be introducing a third eye--a dispassionate witness within the brain --a "super-superego." This seems to me to be part of the process which leads to what in other cultures has been termed enlightenment and which we might term awareness in existence. This state is possibly the best we can hope for in our lives and an object worth pursuing. This sudden apprehension can initially be only fleeting but by practice one might retain the situation for progressively longer periods.

The artist is attempting to make an object which displays an expression of personal identity either by a narrative description of their perceptions or by creating an object which might help them to come to terms with their existence. These attempts are made through the creation of works of art, which make their effects on internal mental life by playing with and using those perceptual/thought functions and systems described earlier, and which manifest themselves in archetypal images and processes.

In terms of the viewer, one way of confusing the brain in the presentation of artistic images is by playing with the brain's capacity to fill in gaps. When an artistic creation is presented that allows the viewer to fill in the gaps left by the artist, deliberately one would hope, the subsequent projection from the viewer's mind into these holes makes them a co-participant in the creation of the image. The work then has the ability of not only being a projection of the artist's consciousness but also at the same time that of the viewer. This technique, certainly much more common in Chinese and Japanese painting than in the west, makes for a powerful impact. In this case, not only would the image induce a fracture between perception and emotion, the viewers' own "ghosts" have been let out to roam around the structure before them. The artist's self-portrait becomes a mirror for the viewer.

Perhaps the question most urgent at the bottom of all this is "What is the basis of our actions?" The truths that are being revealed should liberate us from old, outworn, damaging and often imposed self images. We are being handed the power not only to create ourselves, but to recreate ourselves (and that over and over again). The work of the artist of the future should be to consolidate that liberty, to insist on the complexity of things, confirm the uniqueness of the individual and above all to invent relevant stories for all of us to use in the journey to self-consciousness.

Adapted from a research article on
the brain and creativity
Gary Kennard, 2005.

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