01.07.2008

The Divine Spark

Tortured soul or a fulfilled, self actualised being? Lisette Kaleveld explores the paradox of the artistic temperament.

Torturedsoul or a fulfilled, self actualised being? LisetteKaleveld explores the paradox of the artistic temperament.

Stereotypically speaking

The myth of the crazed creative spans all art formsand mental illnesses, from anxious writer Franz Kafka,to the moody pianist David Helfgott and the fabulouslyaloof and narcissistic pop artist Andy Warhol.

As much as we love the Jackson Pollock, Vincent vanGogh and Pablo Picasso paintings, we also treasure thedisturbed lives and souls of their creators. VirginiaWoolf is as famous for being depressed and difficultas she is for Mrs Dalloway. And Sylvia Plath's PulitzerPrize winning poetry seems just a footnote to her widelydiscussed suicide and dysfunctional intimacy with TedHughes.

Artists aren't the only public figures known for goingoff the rails. But more than politicians, more thancorporate bosses, scientists, inventors and religiousleaders, high profile artists attract intense scrutinyof their dysfunction. Perhaps it's that they trade inemotional truths, and we feel an intimacy with theirinner lives. Whether it's Joni Mitchell's haunting melodies(and lyrics like "I am a lonely painter..."),or the jazz blues notes of Nina Simone and her throatfull of suffering and wonder and song, great art involvesan intermingling of pain and joy that is so personalit's transpersonal. "And now I mean every wordof it," Nina Simone once told her audience duringa live performance of "Mississippi Goddam".And we don't doubt her for a minute.

Yet there's something misleading, even irritating,about the stereotype of the tortured artist. WriterElizabeth Wurtzel wonders whether it's our culture'sattempt to invent a medicine man for our emotional lives.She asks: do we see the artist as a shaman who suffersso we don't have to? (1)

As someone who takes art classes just for fun, thecreative process for me involves just a peaceful, easyfeeling, a kind of centeredness. And I see nothing extraordinaryabout the professional artists I know personally. Likeother people they work hard, keep a tidy house, laughat themselves and aren't averse to good times. Theyare earthy, knowledgeable and their lives show that,contrary to popular belief, being artistic doesn't meanstruggling always with inner conflict and pain.

In fact, according to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy ofneeds – where humans move towards their highestpotential as the physical, social and spiritual needsare met – creativity is the sign of self actualisation,something that the most fulfilled and healthy peopleenjoy.

So why would art come to be associated with angst?Art therapist Tessa Dalley believes we rely so muchon verbal messages that communication through imageryand symbols is seen as obscure, even mystical. Peoplelack confidence in understanding art's meaning, so it'sglorified and feared. "The ambiguity of art ingeneral places it at a tangent, detached from the mainstreamof communication...Because of this, art and artistseasily generate stereotypes," she says. (2)


Freud, on art

Our culture's most influential psychoanalyst, SigmundFreud, wasn't at all kind to the arts (despite his sonErnst being an artist and architect). Freud once describedart as the sublime form of playing with one's excrement,and his theories helped link pathology to the artisticdrive.

For Freud, there were "secondary thought processes"of verbal, rational and analytic thought and "primaryprocesses", imaginative, symbolic and non verbal,which he associated with regression, neurosis and illhealth. Art critic Peter Fuller says Freud "wasthus never entirely able to free himself from the viewthat art was on the side of illness – or, at best,an uneasy defence against it." (3)

Freud was challenged by psychoanalyst Carl Jung whofound in art evidence, not of psychopathology and neurosis,but of what he called the Self, that centre of humanwholeness (4). But Freud's theory had on its side theweight of an industrial society and culture that privilegedrational thinking, while marginalising the productionof art. The unfortunate result is, writes Fuller, thatmost of us "lack contact with creative processesand their restorative powers."

But thinking is, as always, changing. Psychoanalystsnow believe both rational and imaginative processesare equally adaptive and necessary for health and happiness.Developmental psychologists say children start drawingspontaneously at 18 months and, for anthropologists,art is indigenous to all societies, and as natural tohuman life as breathing. In medicine, the link betweencreativity and healing is now well documented. Journallingis even thought to help patients overcome cancer andautoimmune disease. And although a long list of highprofile, disturbed artists make "art therapy"seem a contradiction in terms, the practice has beengaining credibility since the 1940s.

Interior silence, the art of stillness

Thinking about art has taken on a different shape andform in Eastern cultures, which are notable for theirhighly proficient approach to exploring and masteringthe inner life. Unlike the Western idea of artist asanguished soul, Eastern philosophy views artists asspiritual teachers, a claim made also by Kandinsky.

Japanese thinking about art is aligned with the ideaof self cultivation. Japanese arts – pottery,the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, martialarts – are literally seen as a pathway to deeptransformation, if not enlightenment. Practised by allpeople, regularly, the arts in Japan focus the mind,unify the heart and body and lead an individual to realisetheir divine potential. Religion, philosophy, aesthetics,culture, and ethics are all interconnected here (5).

In Japan, a Zen Buddhist artist will meditate on whereto mark the paper in order to achieve a perfect senseof stillness and balance in the composition, to calmand quieten rather than unsettle or stimulate the viewer.

Of course, "art" is the most elastic ofconcepts. Zen Buddhist Japanese art is a world awayconceptually from elite Western art which strives alwaysfor that "wow" factor or shock response.Contemporary gallery art can be cerebral, political,detached and alienating. Artists of our time provokeand satirise. They do strange or disturbing things thatmake us attentive to life, or the emotional lives ofothers. Or produce incomprehensible forms, the Emperor'sNew Clothes, which is all part of the game and the enjoyment.

But the Japanese approach to the arts reminds us ofthe importance of giving art a life outside galleries,in the studios and hands of ordinary people.

Art outside the gallery

Since the opening of the first art museum, the Louvrein Paris, art in Western thought has tended to be eliteand marginal, and heavily over-intellectualised.

But there are signs art can be re-integrated into oureveryday lives. The internet has opened up new creativeoutlets for non-discipline based art forms (web authoring,social networking, games and blogging). Artist and curatorMelinda Rackham notes, "Networked space has enabledartists to mutate journaling with visual photographicand video traditions into an emergent interactive artform." (6)

In 1999, New York's Bust magazine editor Debbie Stollerfounded the knitting group Stitch and Bitch. Beforelong, forgotten handicrafts were being practised allover the world. "I began seeing women – youngwomen – knitting on the subway. Soon they wereeverywhere: at coffee shops, on lunch lines, at themovies, even in bars," Stoller says (7).

This trend resembles art's place in pre-industrialtimes, as an unglorified practice, that everyday thingthat connects us with fabrics and wood, stones, coloursand clay, sound and movement. It's a tactile pleasurethat maybe as a culture we've forgotten.

"Thought alone doesn't interest me. Photographyis a manual labour: you have to move, to shift,"said Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Buddhist photojournalistand one of the most influential photographers of thelast century. He says: "My problem is to be inmy life. To seize the moment in its fullness....Thebody and the spirit should add up to one only."(8)

Cartier-Bresson travelled everywhere – "carryingthe lightest baggage," Gerard Mace once said ofhim. "The lightest baggage is that old lesson whichcan't be learned, but which accompanies us everywhereonce we understand it. It has enabled Henri...to removehimself as a person, to disappear in order to capturethe instant...the shape of destiny in the clouds, andsmoke of India in a peacock fanning its tail."(9)

It seems art is a matter of alignment – Cartier-Bressonsays it's about putting "one's head, one's eye,and one's heart on the same axis," and Australianpainter Guan Wei describes using "the trifectaof wisdom, knowledge and humour in every painting."(10)

Art as illumination

In my picture of the world there is a vast outer realmand an equally vast inner realm; between these two standsman, facing now one and now the other, and, accordingto his mood or disposition, taking the one for the absolutetruth by denying or sacrificing the other – CGJung (11)

If the light of reason cannot reach everywhere, thenart is the other great illuminator. Art captures thatwhich is difficult to grasp, like paradox, the MonaLisa smile, the surrealist dreamscapes such as PaulDelvaux's moonlit scene in "Les Adieux",or Salvador Dali's absurd worlds that nonetheless haveresonance and a strange familiarity.

Art is home to non-dualistic awareness and primordialsymbols, the beauty of Indigenous painter Paddy Bedford'scompositions, those simple shapes with a surprisingpower. Art is the ability of Mark Rothko to paint canvassesfull of nothingness and express emotion with an exactnessthat's impossible to describe in words.

Art is non-verbal communication that reaches acrosscultures and through history, reducing distance betweenourselves and others. It's neither subjective nor objectiveknowledge, but an intermingling of both. It's the personalplus something larger. It's Thales' idea that "allthings are full of gods" or the Zen notion ofthe big mind and suchness. It's a proper, almost yogic,alignment of heart, mind and body. Art is to the soulwhat reason is to the mind. The shamans knew it as atool for exploring the inner life, a great vastness– and as someone once said to me, "If youwere to document every emotion, every sense and feelingyou have, you'd be astonished by how rich your lifeis."


References:
1. Wurtzel, Elizabeth 1999 Bitch, In Praise of DifficultWomen, Quartet Books Ltd: Great Britain.
2. Dalley, Tessa (ed) 1984 Art as Therapy: An Introductionto the Use of Art as a Therapeutic Technique, TavistockPublications: London.
3. Fuller, Peter 1984 Foreword, in Art as Therapy: AnIntroduction to the Use of Art as a Therapeutic Technique,Tavistock Publications: London, pp. ix - x.
4. Robinson, Martin 1984 A Jungian approach to art therapybased in a residential setting in Art as Therapy: AnIntroduction to the Use of Art as a Therapeutic Technique,Tavistock Publications: London, pp. 82-95.
5. Carter, Robert 2008 The Japanese Arts and Self-Cultivation,State University of New York Press: New York.
6. Rackham, Melinda 2005 in 2004 A Collaboration BetweenCentre for the Moving Image and the NGV, National Galleryof Victoria/Woodstocker Books: Melbourne.
7. Woodcock, Victoria 2006 Introduction in Making Stuff:An Alternative Craft Book, Black Dog Publishing, London.
8. Mace, Gerard,1999 Afterword in Henri Cartier-Bresson,The Mind's Eye, Writings on Photography and Photographers,Aperture: New York.
9. Cartier-Bresson, Henri 1999 The Mind's Eye, Writingson Photography and Photographers, Aperture: New York.
10. 2005 2004 a collaboration between centre for themoving image and the NGV, National Gallery of VictoriaWoodstocker Books: Melbourne.
11. Jung, C.G 1933 Modern Man in Search of a Soul Routledgeand Kegan Paul: London.

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