Sometimes I think the art world has become self-conscious of its innate subjectivity, to the point that it is fearful of its fundamental nature. In education, the thing itself, be it a painting, sculpture or whatever else, often feels sidestepped. The discussion, seemingly too vague, is exchanged for the unpacking and unravelling of the conceptual framework underpinning the work. It is not unlikely that, today, students can produce a variety of strong works over the course of months, and hear nothing of their visual character at the point of assessment. These questions of how good the thing looks, how it works, how it has evolved, feel avoided.
Show opening: The analogy
This fiction is centered on an exhibition taking place in the small town of Falmouth, Cornwall, during February. A crowd of students, artists and general audience members stand in a circle in front of the artist, who is about to open the show...
He walks to the front. Silence. The man responsible for all the work says nothing, stares down. It’s awkward, uneasy. He doesn’t look comfortable. We don’t feel comfortable. Two minutes pass - nothing. The lights shut off and from the back corner of the room we hear a tremendous crashing sound followed by shattering glass: the waitress has dropped a tray of wine glasses. She’s now under spotlight, cleaning them up. She’s on her knees - is she sobbing? Hard to say. There’s a rising murmur coming from a speaker. It could be that. The lights shut off and train sounds start beating on our ears. The tension is increasing. It’s uncomfortable.
A minute passes and the veil lifts – a man enters the building. He’s asking if we’ve seen his dog. He’s desperate, on edge. He’s getting louder as the sounds creep in again. Feel sorry for him but not for long – the veil returns and he’s gone. His words fade. The train sounds keep going, on and on.
The spotlight returns, the other side of the room. It bursts onto a sax player who starts wailing and letting loose. He’s on his own, it’s powerful. The murmur tries to supress him but he’s fighting it, getting louder and louder and louder until – black. The room goes black again. Train sounds - faster, louder and grittier than before.
Screaming, not too loud at first. The spotlight lands at the back of the room and suddenly it’s loud, scary. The artist, that silent speaker, is destroying his work. He’s in a rage. The picture is so beautiful. He doesn’t see it. He ends up on the floor spread out between parts of his canvas - is he sobbing? The murmur starts rising. The light fades - black.
The veil lasts longer this time, it’s a relief. But there’s no true respite. The spotlight returns to the left-corner of the room. A girl is writhing and turning on the floor, her shoes squeaking on it with every harsh movement. She looks like she’s trying to get up. Trying to do something. She can’t. She struggles and we watch. Black.
Train sounds, louder, grittier; murmuring, intense, emotional. This time with 30s swing intertwined. It’s fading in, louder every few seconds. Sounds cut and the spotlight drops at the back of the room with applause and laughter on speaker. Comedian standing in front of a mirror practicing his lines. He’s good, funny. We’re laughing. It feels strange to laugh but he’s good - black.
Same sounds excluding jazz building in volume, moving us forward. This time Elgar’s concerto in A minor grows with them. Emotional piece, feelings of the sublime. Veil lifts and a man sits in proximity to us. He’s writing on a typewriter, reading aloud what he puts down. It’s interesting, he seems collected, in the flow. He’s at the end of his book, closes with “The end”. The room goes black, this time without sounds. A minute passes and the room lights turn back on.
Our attention goes back to the artist, who simply states, “Let the show begin. “
The heavy silence breaks with heaving applause. He smiles - we understand his journey.
Photography quotes worth noting
’Photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait. I take photos of people the same way I would take photos of a plaster bust. What people see, eventually, is only what's already inside them’. (Ruff in Dorment, 2003).
‘Photography’s plausibility has always rested on the uniqueness of its indexical relation to the world it images, a relation that is regarded as fundamental to its operation as a system of representation. For this reason, a photograph of something has long been held to be a proof of that thing’s being, even if not of its truth’. (Batchen, 2002, p.139).
Why do I choose to work at home?
Even before I started on Fine Art, I preferred to work at home. In my first year I created a project about biomorphic forms, which I did so from the confines of my small bedroom. And then at the start of my second year, I created two video works and a series of images within my house. I’ve made many other little side projects along the way.
At times I’ve questioned whether I opt for this because of laziness. Being honest, there’s probably a bit of that kicking about: at home, the time and effort it takes to smoke, eat, make coffee, take a break, is much less than that of being on campus. Not to mention, socializing is fairly exhausting and transporting oneself to university takes time.
Regardless, after relaying to a family member why I love painting, the real answer revealed itself. And it’s not because I’m lazy – far from it.
My line of thinking began with this idea of a liberated creative act or process. It makes sense I’m gravitating to these thoughts now, after involving myself in action painting. Painting, writing, and music are liberated created acts, insofar as they require very little from the external world in order to occur.
With these creative acts there is immediacy. You do not need to experience Yosemite Valley to paint it, or have experienced losing a loved one, to imagine and write about it; to play sounds that caress one’s sadness does not require being sad.
The above is fairly intuitive and I’m not proposing this a profound statement. It serves to identify a kind of creative act that requires less, rather than more. Conversely, something like landscape photography requires an engagement with a landscape – requires more.
However, even if these acts are free, insofar as I designate them, they are not untethered. For they do require instruments of varying kinds, experiences, knowledge. This prompts a question: is there such a creative act that is divorced almost, if not entirely, from material and experiential components.
The answer, which is obvious, is that a creative act cannot be divorced from one thing: experience. The accumulation of experience in individuals and groups fundamentally determines action. So, a pure creative act is impossible in the same sense a pure abstract work is. Another intuitive way to get to this conclusion would be to acknowledge creativity as requiring material to create with, hence without material there is nothing to create.
There is, however, the illusion of a pure creative act, as there is an illusion of something purely abstract. In the latter case, what governs the work’s perception is simply unidentifiable. In the former, the materials required are so hidden, so subtle, that they seem not to be in the act at all.
I believe one of the greatest illusions of a purely creative act could be humming, done by someone without much experience of music, or any practice. This, if any act does, relies on far less, rather than far more. This creativity is raw, perhaps even primitive.
There may yet be a better example to use, but for the sake of this text I will use it as a marker on a spectrum. This individual marks the most paired down, harmoniously creative act, an act so reliant on the facets of one’s mind, an act similar to multiplication. This individual has a fine and productive balance between their means and desires.
This reveals a duality, and that is of the relationship between means and experience. The latter governs your desires, your taste. The former governs what you can do about all that. The artist, in my view, is forever in a great struggle because of this duality. Sometimes our means far excel our ability and sometimes our ability, our means. These problematic outcomes are of tantamount importance.
In the example of a person humming, there is little conflict. The experience and thereby ability of the person harmoniously interacts with their means. They need only their mouth and some vague sense of notes, rhythm, tempo; and they only have a few basic desires with respect to their aspirations in humming a tune.
A paired down, harmoniously creative act – but maybe it is not nuanced or derived from a complex aesthetic sensibility. It looks like that is usually comes later in a creative journey.
If one progresses from hummer to stage musician, conflict emerges. They will be beset by standards resulting from involvement in their practice, their experience. And this leads to improving means, diversifying the ways your ideas manifest, in conjunction with the increased complexity of the ideas.
After a while moving forward like this, it becomes especially obvious that you need to be empowered to create what you want to create. If you are a serious musician, you need a good instrument, equipment, connections for gigs, a routine perhaps. A painter needs a place to paint, a studio ideally. A film photographer needs regular access to a darkroom, cameras. All of these creatives might take a university course for these reasons.
But let’s go back to the initial question of this text: why I choose to work at home.
I do so because here, at home, there is the least amount of conflict between my means and my desires. I have been able to achieve something of the ideal fairly early on: I have a room to paint in, and painting is what I want to do. It was luck of the draw that Ellie and I were able to find a place affordable to rent with this possibility, but we have. It was sheer determinism that I ended up wanting to paint – I would be stuffed if I wanted to be a metalworker.
And this is where I will go back to the term, immediacy. I have an immediate creative process because my studio space is at home, so in some sense my work is deeply connected to my normal life. Any idea, be it at three or ten AM, can be realized. I have always tried to live like this and many times, I have gravitated towards creative endeavours because they allow for this. My studio has been my bedroom in a shared flat, my van in America.
So there you have it. I am drawn to creative acts that require less, rather than more, because they are immediate. That’s the basic point. This is why music works so well for me – the result is simultaneous, instantaneous. Similarly painting and writing have this benefit, more or less.
Man this is so subjective.
10,000 Words Later: An indistinct glance at the elusive nature of artistic creativity from the perspective of embodied criticality
(archive text, dissertation thoughts)
I’m trying to paint a picture of creativity – what is it? What is artistic creativity? I started with Clement Greenberg. He coined the term “at-onceness”. (1959:45). It’s this idea that artwork can gather “you to one point in the continuum of duration.” (1959:45). Its visual unity synchronizes you with something deeper, confronts you as a whole. Greenberg was talking primarily of abstract art, which he thought of as being all about at-onceness. For me, his idea triggered thoughts about artistic creativity more broadly.
At-onceness echoes that mental state, flow. Your inner voice is quiet, you’re relaxed. Fragments of sentences emerge and disappear as you act. You remember things you thought two minutes ago, but rarely think about them in the moment. Thoughts feel like events in your dreams: distant, indistinct. They pass through you; your attention is elsewhere. You are at one with something: the brush mark, the picking of a string, the resonance of a trumpet.
Artists and creatives in general talk about this automated, hardwired state all the time. For some it’s the lifeblood of their process. I tried to figure out the purpose of this state. What’s it doing? It seems to be good, and there’s one reason we do it. But why is it good?
I want to feel alive, real. I’m not just a thing existing. I’m not a mindless microorganism. I do things to ensure this. I develop myself. Art’s one of the ways I do that. But I also do it when I play music, and I’m doing it as I write this article – I’m doing it when I post on Instagram. I’m representing the “forms of human feeling”, specifically my own. (Langer cited in Wright, 2000:88). I’m “singing” myself into existence through a carefully considered combination of ideas. (Wright, 2000:86). And when I look back, I see myself.
Self-experience must be reflected if one is to feel alive. Doesn’t have to be through art. Maybe art’s a good way to achieve this. Writing is as well. Anything that leaves a trail, a legacy, however minimal or grand. “I am seen, therefor I am.” – Donald Winnicott’s adaptation of cogito, ergo sum. (Winnicott cited in Wright, 2000:84).
Flow: a distilled, focussed process of self-creation? Artists get high giving form to their inner feelings, confirming their existence. Winnicott says we’re trying to reclaim something. Trying to access what was facilitated by our mothers when we were infants.
The adaptive mother: we cried, she fed. The process was seamless. And from that came creativity. We got the sense that we made the food happen. And there began me, you, and everyone. Here is the birth of the self: the distinction between merely “existing” and “feeling real”. (Wright, 2000:91). You could think something and act and there’d be a result. And you learnt to repeat this: the world became a “responsive medium”. (Wright, 2000:81).
Years later and the process is on steroids. You’re 25, 32, or 50 years old and still creating. But your smarter and new things are important: you’ve got bills, social circles or even a fairly deadly virus crippling the world’s economy. You’re not omnipotent – quite the opposite. There’s always a limit on what you can do.
Need to account for this if I want to ‘cover’ artistic creativity. It isn’t just I paint, therefor I am. That could be part of it but it’s also something many of us wrestle with. For me it’s sometimes warfare. Can I triumph over my disposition to dissolve, wither away, fail? Over recession? Over the likelihood of mimicry? I can’t separate myself from the times I’m in. Limitation helps define creativity and it needs unpacking.
The brain is where I looked for answers – neuroscience. Needed to account for this control, this sense that I can’t just do anything. Scott Kaufman did an interesting talk on creative thinking, couple things stood out to me.
There are two neural networks at play: the executive neural network, which determines our focus, attention, and control – our ability to play a learned song. It’s associated with “looking out”, problem solving in the world. (Kaufman, 2014). And the default network, associated with “looking in”. (Kaufman, 2014). It’s most active when we sleep and is the platform for dreaming. The two work together and from that, you get creativity: creatives don’t disengage the default network during the day like most people do.
Executive network could be an articulation of the limitation and control experienced in creating something. It looks out to the world, factors it in. Perhaps it sees Coronavirus, bills, plans. Maybe you can’t make a sculpture today even if that’s what you dreamed of doing.
If it isn’t heavily active, we’re flowing. We’re in a “pre-conscious” state that is characteristically open, unbiased. (Kaufman, 2014). Our latent inhibition – the capacity to not just forget things previously categorized as irrelevant – means we stack together a broad set of material. Executive network is subtly driving the vehicle. It realistically knows what we can do: it “support[s] creative thought”, provides control. (Kaufman et al, 2015).
Winnicott’s theory is a good answer to why we make, neuroscience explains how. But it’s crystal clear right now. Ten thousand words later, still unravelling, unpacking. That’s the thread of this research. I’m more and more uncertain, unsure. I can only write drafts and I’ve written so many.
An ontology of artistic creativity: we might not be allowed more. Unpack, unravel, and inhabit the situation we’re in. Don’t expect resolution, expect a “heightened awareness”– a platform to stand on. (Rogoff, 2006:1-3). A steppingstone to jump onwards from - or backwards. There’s no north on this compass, only the possibility of direction. We can’t “stand outside” the problem. (Rogoff, 2006:1-3). We are the problem, we “suffer” our time, we are in constant flux. (Rogoff, 2006:1-3). This is embodied criticality.
So, what stone lies beneath my feet? Can’t say its exact composition, shape, size. But something’s there. Creativity might give me the part of me I most associate with I. I’m not merely existing, a microorganism – my artwork serves as a distilled, focussed record of that.
In flow, I might inhabit, in a real time, the very fabric of my existence. Perhaps I can take this pre-conscious state as the utter synchronization with the unfolding moment, which otherwise I only latently experience, see in retrospect. Maybe it feeds my sense of being alive because of this. Self-experience is reflected in real time.
And this conflict, everywhere. This limitation needs consideration: how many things could you create with one brick? We have to adapt to the changing, challenging world around us. Does that define creativity, artistic creativity? Perhaps that’s why we create – why anything was ever created – in the first place. To overcome, to improve.
Many difficult questions remain. I may find answers of a kind through the through the “inhabitation” of “knowing and unknowing”. (Rogoff, 2006:1-3). Winnicott, Rogoff, Greenberg, and Wright, all have their part to play. Funnily enough, Mark Twain was years ahead of us with embodied criticality: “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (In McKay, 2015).
GREENBERG, Clement. 1959. ‘The Case for Abstract Art’. In New Edition (ed). Clement Greenberg: the collected essays and criticism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.75-84.
LANGER, Susan in WRIGHT, Ken. 2000. To make experience sing. Edition 1(ed). ‘Art, Creativity, living’. Exeter: Polestar Wheatons, p.88.
WRIGHT, Ken. 2000. ‘To make experience sing’. Edition 1(ed). Art, Creativity, living. Exeter: Polestar Wheatons, p.81-91.
KAUFMAN, Barry Scott Kaufman. ‘The Neuroscience of Creativity, Flow, and Openness to Experience’ [online lecture]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un_LroX0DAA&t=2056s [Accessed 10.03.2020]
KAUFMAN, Barry Scott et al. 2015. ‘Default and Executive Network Coupling Supports Creative Idea Production’. Scientific Reports. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep10964 [Accessed 26.03.2020]
ROGOFF, Irit. 2006. ‘Smuggling – An Embodied Criticality’. Available at: https://xenopraxis.net/readings/rogoff_smuggling.pdf [Accessed 10.03.2020]. p.1-3.
TWAIN, Mark in MCKAY, Adam. 2015. ‘The Big Short’ [film].
Literature review: The Case for Abstract Art, by Clement Greenberg
This essay will unpack Clement Greenberg’s 1959 article, The Case for Abstract Art.
Greenberg begins his defence for abstract art by providing context and highlighting some perceptions of it. Some say it’s “crazy” and others, that it “will soon pass”. In the late 50s, America was still coming to terms with abstract art and that’s important when thinking about this text.
Reviewing Greenberg’s writing comes with a need to acknowledge how things changed. His ideas are grounded in Kantian philosophy. Kant supplied modernist theory with absolute notions of aesthetic experience: disinterestedness is central to that. I will elucidate this term later. Today, we would probably call Greenberg’s ideas fairly prescriptive, because of their implicit ontological stability. That is, art is a certain way, or there are certain ways to judge art. These absolute notions of aesthetic experience assume a position of looking out or into a problem, instead of inhabiting it. Absolutism makes it difficult to account for new kinds of art and practice in a forever generating mediascape.
Nevertheless, we may look at Greenberg within his context. With that, I will first highlight his awareness of a cliché, one that he is not happy about, but still inclined to acknowledge. This sense that his time is one that would benefit from more disinterested contemplation. In layman’s terms, we can define this as the unmediated experience of aesthetics. I will elaborate later, but this interpretation of his context is key to why he feels abstract art is important.
Early on, he’s setting the stage for his claims, playing with this idea of societal autonomous self-correction. It’s a way for him to explain the seemingly indexical quality of abstract art. Years of mimetic art sent The West in the opposite direction – abstract art is an example of this mechanism at play.
But he’s not claiming representational art needed correction or “that some artist or artists [merely] decided it was time to curb the excesses of realistic painting”. For Greenberg, it’s haphazard - an example of “consequences escaping intentions.” It’s just how things happened.
America had always privileged engaged thinking, interested activity. Its art mirrored that, with its focus on what Greenberg coins, “dynamics”. That is, the unfolding, progressing quality of a painting or song: its “movement and development and resolution, (…) beginnings, middles, and endings”.
His key question is, “how does Western Art compensate for, correct, or at least qualify its emphasis on the dynamic – an emphasis that may or may not be excessive?” Abstract art is part of his answer.
Behind The Case of Abstract Art, the key, supportive claim is that abstract art is the “epitome of almost everything that disinterested contemplation requires (…)”. If he can argue this, he can argue that abstract art is good for the times. He begins justifying this claim through likening representational art to literature, to then contrast it with abstract art.
Literature “tends to involve us in the interested as well as the disinterested by presenting us with images of things (…)”. This, for Greenberg, put literature in proximity with representational art: the description in a text is the symbolic relationship between an apple and royalty in a renaissance painting. And these interactions of “things” may interfere with disinterestedness: “while undergoing the experience we are caught up and expectant”.
Just before and after this he is careful to note two things. First, that the “total experience of literature (…) is completely disinterested, (…) only at a further remove.” This, to highlight his focus on aesthetic experience as it unfolds, when we are expectant.
Second, “aesthetic experience has to be disinterested”; if “it is genuine it always is”. This, to make clear his understanding of aesthetic experience. Interest, perhaps understood as a kind of non-aesthetic preference, cannot solely determine judgements about the part of art that is visual.
In Kantian terms, one should not conclude painting X is a ‘good’ painting, aesthetically, because they like the subject, X. This would not be apt as an aesthetic judgement concerning the image; it would be to “confuse the attractiveness of the things represented (…) with the quality of the picture itself.”
In line with that, to properly judge the representational painting, we have to consider how its parts lend themselves to the ideas: “That Rembrandt confined impasto to [nose] highlights (…) is important to the artistic effect of [his] portraits.” Moreover, with all this, he points out the importance and inseparability of interest and disinterest in judging representational work.
And this leads him to a distinction: we participate in representational works through their unfolding dynamics. We contemplate the possibility of experiencing a depicted landscape, seeing a brooding character in the flesh. Perhaps prescriptive, he is clear to say that this is only “improper” when it “begins to shut out all other factors.” None of this, supposedly, happens in abstract art.
Before explaining his grounds for that, it want to highlight once more that for Greenberg, it makes sense that abstract art would emerge out of Western culture – particularly its “American variant” - that has been so focussed on purposeful and interested activity. Greenberg believes “it should be reminded, in extreme terms, of the essential nature of disinterested activity.”
Enter abstract art: the vessel for such a reminder. It does not “come out” as piece of literature or music does. An abstract image confronts you as a whole, not as content with a beginning, middle and end. A term he uses readily - “at-onceness” - encompasses this. It explains the beckoning quality of abstract works; they gather “you to one point in the continuum of duration.” They provoke disinterested contemplation.
The description is debatable, but in any case, he sees this as a new experience for American society in the mid-20th century. To be liberated and in a state of “complete concentration”, when viewing art, is desirable. For Greenberg, it explained the sharp increase in popularity shown towards abstract art.
But he makes explicit that abstract art is not a “superior” or “special kind of art” because of this. Its capacity to attune one to the singleness of an image, in an experientially “pure” way, does not make it good. This resides in the effect of the image itself.
Beginning to conclude, he claims a good painting is governed by its abstract quality first, then its subject matter. It is the fact of how it is visual. In his words, the “unity of a picture by Titian is more important to its quality than what that picture images.” And unity, he thinks, is precisely and subtly what has always determined good and bad pictures in the past. This was a fairly forward-thinking assessment for his time: Hanna Segal, 1991, argued that art is the “unification of previously separated elements.” (In Wright, 2000).
I’ll conclude. Abstract art is important to Greenberg because of his context, which he determines as one needing more detached contemplativeness. Through priming his article with an intersubjective description of his context, he reasonably sets himself up to confer importance on abstract art. The “habits of disinterested contemplation” will benefit artists and viewers; the “at-onceness” of abstract art can offer a way into ‘real’ aesthetic appreciation. In a time caught up with mimetic art, this was a solid defence of abstract art.
GREENBERG, Clement. 1959. ‘The Case for Abstract Art’. In New Edition (ed). Clement Greenberg: the collected essays and criticism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p.75-84.
SEGAL, Hannah in WRIGHT, Ken. 2000. ‘To make experience sing’. Edition 1(ed). Art, Creativity, living. Exeter: Polestar Wheatons, p.88.
Thoughts on flow
I’m going to write a dissertation that eventually will be subject to a lot of critique. This means I’m going to have to be diligent and obsess over the meat of what I’m trying to say. I have no problem with this. It’s good.
But I think I need to drive forward my understanding of some of the ideas to be mentioned, if I am to succeed. I need to clarify my experience of the things I’m interested in. I need to show the areas I’ve come across were revealed by experience, not wild speculation. So, with that said, I’ll begin.
There’s going to be a lot of talk about a term, which designates a state of mind or process: flow. But what do I mean by this? What is flow? It sounds imprecise, lazy, for the hell of it. Perhaps it could seem cryptic. Artist’s get it immediately while others might scratch their heads or laugh. It might sound like ‘hippie nonsense’, theatre.
Well I don’t think it’s any of that, if it’s talked about genuinely. It’s a real thing, a real state of being or mind. And I’d say, in its own way, that flow is a deeply technical, crucially important state worth talking about in relation to art practice and experience.
But still, what is it, when is it, how is it; and for who; and is it always the same. I can’t begin getting at, with precision, the latter two questions. I will never have access to another’s direct experience. But I have access to mine, and I believe through that, I can explain this state of mind. This way creative processes can be. And in cross referencing my own experience with other’s, however technical those experiences are described, I may be able to thread together a reasonably founded definition of what flow is, how it is, when it is, and what it does. And then I may reasonably include it in my dissertation.
Going into my experience
A good place to start seems to be highlighting that I can be in and out of this state. I know very much so when I am not in it and, usually after the fact of it, I can observe when I was very much in it. Interestingly, I don’t often become aware of the fact I’m in it, when I am in it.
In that way, flow seems all-consuming. I may go so far as to say that I am not totally in control of it. Rather, it takes over. I would substantiate this by highlighting the incredible challenge I sometimes have in getting into this state. Seemingly, I cannot decide to be in the flow, I have to trigger it. I think we all have our ways of triggering this state of mind and I might talk about some of those later, thinking about what these specific activities do and how this creates flow.
I mentioned that I don’t always know if I’m in a flow, that I usually notice this after. I stand by this but, as I have recently concerned myself greatly with this idea, among others relevant to my study, that needs to be addressed. While in the flow the other day, I was able to pause for a moment, acknowledge the state I was in, and return to it. However, in doing so, I felt I could lose the flow I had. I moved to block out my acknowledgement, clouding it with action. This interests me but I’ll touch on it later. For now, I want to talk about flow in relation to painting the other day.
It was a typical day in that I paint every day. However, instead of starting something new, I was building on a pre-existing image. Beginning to work on this piece was tricky. There was a definite initial stage where the choices I made were not ones I would come to stand by. I could see and think about this during the process. I was articulating much of what I saw, what I did, and what I might do, in my head. Quite literally, my inner voice was vocalizing and critiquing every move I made or thought about making.
As I reflect, how this felt, was much like having a barrier between me and my work. It was like I was talking in a room with another person. But in this room, a rising and falling murmur of other voices complicated the listening and processing of the ideas projected to me. This conversation, to follow that analogy, was one sided.
It went on for some time. Perhaps this is where I can briefly touch on this idea of triggering flow. I knew one thing: painting was one of the better ways I could get to an image. From experience, I guess I knew it might trigger a state of mind that would allow me to complete the image or make progress with it. So, I kept going, sometimes making mistakes, sometimes making steps forward.
But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I could have continued on this exhausting path of listening to my inner voice, engaging with it. And I’ve done that before. It rarely works and if it does, it wasn’t very enjoyable to have my process unfold in that way. There’s something additional at play here.
This is the grey area and I’ve come up with numerous ideas for what happens at this point. Maybe, at different points, all these things I’ve thought of happen. It just depends on the circumstances I find myself in. In any case, I’ll go into one.
Kill the critic. This was one of my first thoughts on the matter. We concern ourselves a great deal with standards and conventions and aspirations and ambition. I think these things are reiterated during a creative process. I think this is in fact the ground that the inner critic works from. If the inner critic has no sense of a standard, there would be little ground for trusting its critique. All the things we take in that drive us become, at once, the things we attack ourselves with or, at least, burden ourselves with.
Thinking about all this, I decided to question these standards. I questioned my very right to achieving my ambitions. Why should I be a great or even good artist? Why should my work be as good as X? I found that I had no right to anything. Frankly, probability alone suggests that I will amount to nothing.
I realized my motivation had triggered a kind of passion that was consuming and counterproductive: I simply had to succeed, had to make something worthwhile. In waves of varying intensity, these notions were taking centre stage in my process, acting as ammunition for my inner critic.
All this probably sounds like I have been consumed by competitiveness and drive throughout my creative life. I haven’t. I’m trying to be honest about what I think occurs in many people’s creative processes. What I’m saying is this: there are standards, we all have them, they’re not all bad, but we should be careful not to let them dictate our every move. But how does that relate to triggering flow?
When we finally say to ourselves, 'you know what, I don’t even care anymore', we shed ourselves of worrying about preconceived notions of what is good, what we should do. Or perhaps you say, 'I’m just going to go for it and see what happens - I don’t mind if I fail.' Saying anything to this effect does something important: you liberate yourself.
You untether yourself from the vice of the inner critic and that harsh voice no longer matters - you create primarily for yourself. It can be a middle finger to everyone and everything, a statement of internal strength in the power struggle between critical psychological states. And this allows you to get in the flow. The inner voice goes silent and you can finally hear the other person sat across from you in the room full of people.
At this point it would be good to recap what has been covered
I’ve introduced a term – flow - and I loosely defined what that is. This led to me describing my own process, how flow is to me. To do this, I decided to focus on a session painting the other day. I began describing some initial difficulty, which I used to both highlight the inner critic and the idea that one can trigger flow. I explained how I interpret this triggering of flow. We’ve now reached a point where, in the progression of my painting the other day, I am in the flow. I’m now going to talk about what that’s like. I’m going to use a creative, fast paced style and then I’ll revert back to this style of writing.
The inner voice is now quiet. I am relaxed. It is not certain whether I am happy, but I am not sad. I am focussed. Incredibly focussed. Fragments of sentences emerge and disappear as I act. I remember things I thought two minutes ago, but I rarely think about them as I think them. When I remember or experience one, I’m merely acknowledging that it is happening or happened. These thoughts feel like events in my dreams: distant, echoing, indistinct. They pass through me.
As I act, I do not define my actions with words. Their best description is the result they leave behind. The best way to communicate the brush stroke I made at 2:03PM is to show the brush mark as it rests on the board right now. I can otherwise only allude to its character. I am thinking in this way: I am in dialogue with myself in terms of the lexicon specific to my medium.
And in the case of my image making, that is lexicon made of line, shape, colour, tone, value, hue, saturation, density. The grammar of this lexicon says this shape goes with that one, this line with this, this colour with that one. I am more or less at one with the rules of engagement.
That will do for now. I am aware this little piece of writing is filled with my subjectivity and that the reader of it will have many questions. I have many as well. The last paragraph makes fairly prescriptive claims. I’m open to any expansion or dismantling of those. Moreover, with the final paragraph, I’m trying to allude to my way of thinking as I am in the flow. In that state, I think I’m working with ways of communication that are visual.
Clement Greenberg, although his ideas are now contested greatly, has contributed to my claim here. In a 1959 essay, he coined a term: “at-onceness”. He describes it as an image’s unity beckoning our attention. He was describing a sense of abstract art that he had: this kind of image has a singleness devoid of representational distractions. He said the image calls us to a single point in the “continuum of duration”, does this to us. (A literature review of the article in question is above this text)
He says literature and representational paintings are different. These things have beginnings, middles and endings. They have dynamics. And that leads to expectancy, to being caught up. One is perhaps slower to perceive the unity of an image, because such unity has a relationship to what is imaged. The parts must be assessed.
Greenberg seemed to highlight an idea: that one could be attuned to the visual. He argued abstract art encouraged this through its focus on abstract qualities of the visual. This seems to connect to flow, this state of attunement. In the same way he describes the viewing of abstract art, one might describe the sense of flow I claim exists during the part of a creative process concerned with aesthetics. Furthermore, it seems you can defend this idea of being in a more visual state of mind: neuroaesthetics can engineer a mindset like this through application of magnetic pulses to a particular part of the brain, namely the posterior parietal.
As I have written in other essays, the question is not whether it is possible to be attuned, but rather, how much one can be and when. I previously have imagined a spectrum with regard to this.
The more synchronized one is, the less they hear information about any old thing that comes into the stream of consciousness. And perhaps one side of this spectrum is the mental state, pure flow. In this state all other information is secondary to the primary creative act. Hence, we forget to eat, drink, go to the toilet, contact people, go to class, go shopping. The list goes on and on. Indeed, we may completely and utterly lose touch with reality as we usually know it. Moreover, the closer one is to flowing, or the greater the sense of flow they have, the more one is in a state similar – with respect to the visual – to that which neuroaesthetics can engineer.
What flow is, how it is, when it is, and what it does
While I could continue to dive into my painting the other day, I think this is a good point to round up what I’ve said. I’m a few steps closer to understanding some of my questions. Before properly concluding, I’ll run over my initial what, how, and when questions.
What flow is seems to be a focussed state. It’s a state of undistracted creative momentum. It excludes non-essential information to allow more productivity in the creative act at hand.
How flow is seems to be variable. It can be relaxing, but tough. An enjoyable challenge perhaps. It is a kind of problem solving, we learn while we do it in a fairly automated sense.
When flow is seems to depend on a person’s mood, whether they can trigger the state. It seems to happen to us as much as it seems we can trigger it. It is something we can tap into, and out of. An uncharted place filled with riches, if we can but navigate to it.
What flow does is a matter of productivity and personal growth. On one level it provides a fairly meditative experience, on another, it makes us work faster, harder. The combination seems to be good for well-being. It also allows us to think in more medium-specific terms, which is beneficial in cases where we are focussing on the balance of an image, on the small transitions of notes in songs.
This writing is intended to spur curiosity and drive forward thoughts. And I am trying to not prescribe understandings of experience. For the record, wherever I have referenced studies or theories, I can provide justification for their use and explanation. I have not done so in the text, because the result would be at least double the current word count I have. I wanted to try and keep this relatively short and anchoring this on my experience has helped do that.