A work of art carries the distinction of the artist’s internal culture. The artist’s internal environment is comprised of systems and beliefs developed and acquired through personal crises, and with that at play becomes the primary motivation to most creative endeavors.
With the understanding that mind and culture are in constant dialogue, the illusive and ever changing nature of culture comes to light. Culture is continuously developing in context and meaning as we advance as humans, and within each individual culture there exists constant change and evolution. It is in this movement toward individual culture that an artist evolves. In other words, within larger and colliding cultures individuals sculpt their own deeply personal internal cultures.
John Stuart Mill (Goldstone, 2006) believed that the ‘internal culture of the individual’ was ‘among the prime necessitate of human well-being’ (p. 1). Mill was a British philosopher, economist, moral and political theorist, and administrator. He is considered the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 1800’s. His writings are considered among the deepest and certainly the most effective defenses of empiricism and of a liberal political view of society and culture. His father, also a philosopher, who kept him home and isolated from other children, rigidly raised Mill. Emotion was regarded with contempt; Mill was confined to an environment of extreme detachment.
- I thus grew up in the absence of love and the presence of fear: and many & indelible are the effects of this bringing up, in the stunting of my moral growth (Mill in Stillinger 1961, as cited in Goldstone, 2006, p. 2).
In Mill’s childhood there was no room for emotion. The immediate culture in which he lived was difficult, he grew to understand the value of developing his own internal culture, to turn his attention inward toward the cultivation of character. In doing this he recounted:
- I found the fabric of my old and taught opinions giving way in many fresh places, and I never allowed it to fall to pieces, but was incessantly occupied in weaving it anew. I never, in the course of my transition, was content to remain, for ever so short a time, confused and unsettled. When I had taken in any new ideas, I could not rest till I had adjusted its relation to my old opinions, and ascertained exactly how far its effect ought to extend in modifying or superseding them. (Goldstone, 2006, p. 5)
Mill’s account of his process of creating a new and deeply personal internal culture perfectly illustrates this experience as it would happen for an artist.
Konner, (Kitayama & Cohen, 2007, p. 77) reminds us that no human child can develop without culture. Culture seems to be intimately connected to the life force on the planet. As life force being creative force, we then understand that creativity and art are the life force of culture.
Matthew Fox (2005) makes the point that creativity existed before humans, “[it] is not a human invention or a human power isolated from the other powers of the universe” (p. 30). Creativity is the universal energy that is activated by the provoking and prodding of life. When we are confronted with sorrows and joys, as “deep heart” experiences (p. 45) we are broken open and made available creatively.
In viewing culture as an ethos of an organism, an outcome of process, dialogue, and emotion it is easy to see how these dialogues flow and evolve outward into the art and symbols that are reflected within the indigenous environment. Returning to the concept of a socially shared illusion, a vision of visions (Belzen, 2010, p. 50), and emerging from history and narrative, I am tempted to envision the comparative analogy of a painting environment. Each stroke of paint, containing color, weight, emotion builds up the surface until a culture, in a sense, is compiled. Within that environment a dialogue takes place, stroke responding to stroke, artist to image and memories, and emotion to human spirit.
It is the dialogue between culture and emotion that is the essence of our artistic inquiry, and externally expressed to create further dialogue. Within these dialogues we examine nature of beauty and the essence of the human spirit, Maja Rode (2000) offers that “it is our willingness to continue asking, to continue inquiring that provides the fertile ground for these repeated, deepening insights” (p. 70). Our concept of beauty evolves with culture and human emotion through our willingness.
Art is reaching out to touch the hearts of those who experience it, (to humanity), but it is also a reaching through of culture to the heart of the artist. Jacques Maritain (Monti, 2003) shares this sentiment when he writes, “the artist whether he knows it or not, is consulting God when he looks at things” (p. 129). Said practically, the artist consults his inner culture and his external culture, history, beliefs, and individual and shared emotions when he finds beauty.
If we view art as a reflection of culture, immediate and universally (as well as historically), then as a reflection of the smallest internal cultures of an individual encompassing emotion and all sense data, it becomes possible to view art as a vehicle of spirit and what Einstein refers to as non-logical, non-inferential movements of intuitive apprehension (Monti, 2003, p. 18). Einstein viewed these movements, sense data as “free creations” (p. 18) natural associations between our ideas and reality.
Monti (2003) maintains that there is much more to this “leap” from ideas to reality, as spirit to matter. He supports Polanyi’s summation that “we know more than we can tell” (Polanyi, 1966, p. 4). Polanyi (as cited in Monti, 2003, p. 18) describes two types of awareness, focal awareness and subsidiary awareness. Focal awareness being the awareness of the obvious facts and knowledge of a thing or experience, the subsidiary awareness includes the “tacit dimension” (Polanyi, 1966), the unspecifiable knowing. In Polanyi’s mind the two types always function together but are mutually exclusive.
This tacit dimension is well clarified by Thomas Torrance (1984):
- It is an implicit apprehension that takes shape in our understanding under the imprint of the internal structure of that into which we inquire, and develops within the structural kinship that arises between our knowing and what we know as we make ourselves dwell in it and gain access to its meaning … [It] is an intuitive anticipation of hitherto unknown pattern, or a novel order in things, which arises compellingly in our minds under the surprising disclosure and intrinsic claim of the subject-matter. It is an authentically heuristic act in which the understanding leaps across a logical gap in the attainment of a new conception, and then guided by an intuitive surmise evoked by that conception probes through deepening coherences to lay bare the structure of the reality being investigated. (p. 114)
As Monti (2003) observes by the term, to “dwell in” refers to the way we derive meaning through implicit, indefinable, subsidiary awareness, concluding that some things can only be known through indwelling. As an artist, this indwelling refers to that individual internal culture that evolves as a result of our own sense data. On some level we choose the lens through which we view the data, be it the rules of the many or rules of the few. For artists, they most often choose the rules of their private internal culture.
The creative break
- People scream and gasp at horror movies, cheer when the underdog clobbers the evil power, cry when the lady dies bravely. If you ask people whether what is happening on the screen is really happening, most of them will look at you askance and say, “Of course not!” (The intellectuals will ask what you mean by “real.”) Cognitively, they “know” that no one was hurt, that the monster was just a special effect, yet their emotions seem real. Their own well-being as never at stake; they do not need to cope with the perils before them; they are sitting in chairs in a comfortable environment surrounded by other people sitting in chairs. How can they be experiencing emotion if they lack the essential cognitive appraisals? (Ellsworth, 1984, p. 192)
Phoebe Ellsworth (1984) presents an interesting phenomenon when she discusses the emotional responses we experience when we view films or listen to music. Ellsworth views emotion as a process that begins with a distraction or a change, registered at the point of entry into the body (i.e. listening, seeing, physical sensation, or smell). She refers to this as the “state of preparedness,” “alert attention,” or the beginning of emotion (p. 193). Once the change is recognized and named (culturally or contextually) the feeling is changed. Ellsworth maintains that emotion begins at the precognitive level and is a process that takes place over time. So by this we are led to suppose that emotion originates in a pre-rational, suspended state only to be sorted out by cultural explanations, expectations, and experiences:
- One’s answer to the question of minimal cognitive prerequisites depends on one’s definition of cognition and on one’s definition of emotion. . . If sensory information processing is considered cognitive, then most if not all emotions will show some “cognitive” contribution. If one defines cognition as involving conscious propositional analysis, then a larger proportion of emotional experiences will be defined as noncognitive, at least at their onset. (Ellsworth, 1984, p. 193)
Some would argue that emotions are based on appraisals, or cognitive associations and values instilled in an individual through cultures, environmental factors, memories; Ellsworth presents that there is also evidence against the proposition that there are any cognitive prerequisites to emotion. Although I believe both are true, for the artist and one experiencing art of any medium, emotion begins at a level where one agrees to suspend their cognitive prerequisites, agrees to accept the “distraction or change” in an open and minimally systemized pre-rational state, in other words, a cognitive process to suspend cognitive rules or patterns. At that point, the work of art sets the “cultural rules” the allowable appraisals evoking emotion through the artistic environment. We can then participate using the cognitive processes we use in “real” situations.
Where appraisal theorists have difficulty is in coordinating passages in music with particular emotions (Ellsworth, 1984, p. 195). We know people experience emotions from listening to music such as “sad,” “fearful, “ “triumphant,” and “happy”. Ellsworth suggests that these responses would not be accounted for by appraisals of the music, that stimulus appraisals do not cause the emotions, but become part of the emotion. She suggests that eventually there may be a way to find cross-cultural commonalities in emotion by looking at pre-appraisal responses.
As one who experiences art, we can validate the influence of deliberately employed appraisals, but as one who is making art this presents a greater mystery. I believe artists seek to suspend certain appraisals when they engage in the making of art, but what leads them to this in the first place? Why the desire to maneuver the appraisals of others? Why the need to engage in the new culture of the work of art, or the redesign of the artist’s native culture through the process of art? I do not have absolute answers to these questions for this essay, but I have some theories from my own experience, and from my own reading of other artists.
To suspend one’s appraisal system is to suspend one’s inhibitions, and in order to create and truly create, a certain portion of inhibition must be kept outside of the creative site, or overcome completely. Actors speak of stage fright and then in order to “become” their character the restrictions of their own personality become the inhibitions that they must silence. For a painter he or she must silence that inner critic, the voices of “better artists”, or doubt and worry about the finished product.
Inhibitions and fault lines
Robert Solomon (1988) discussed emotions as judgments, but not as opinions. They are complex in that they seem to be interconnecting mini-cognitions that relate and lead in a string and they are not unique to humans. “The effort needs to be made to spell out the system of judgments that constitute a single emotion” (p. 187). This string of judgments can evolve over time, minutes, years, and generations and speaks to the potential uniqueness of emotional experiences that support the notion of cultural variances contributing to internal culture development.
In viewing emotions as a system of judgments or appraisals, in such a tangible way it becomes easy to find the “fault lines” as Beck illustrates (Beck, 1979). These fault lines as he describes are “the vulnerabilities along which stresses accumulate and may set off tremors or eruptions” (p. 76). But also these fault lines are the spaces and pauses between the judgments. Here is that edge where the artist experiences crisis and finds solace in the internal culture he or she has created. This crisis begins as a vague mood, an objectless emotion as Lamb (1987) describes. When we are unaccountably consumed by an objectless emotion, the “fault lines” have been faded or eroded and the emotion becomes a state of being, a “seeming”. The emotion takes up a greater psychic space and has an affect on other appraisal chains. The state of being, then a cultural space for the artist can set the tone for creativity and be reflected in the art for the duration of the creation of the individual piece or series, it can even account for a “period” in an artist’s life.
Pablo Picasso is one example:
- At 9 o’clock on the night of February 17, 1901, in the back room of a Paris wine shop, Picasso’s friend Carles Casagemas shot himself in the right temple. The suicide stunned Picasso. Dogged by poverty and failure himself, he sank into a deep despair. Somehow, he continued to work. And, reflecting his mood, he began to paint in melancholic, cold tones, predominantly blue. . . . Abruptly, in 1904, Picasso’s life changed and his art changed too. He fell deeply in love for the first time, and as his mood brightened he adopted a warmer palette, painting tranquil pictures in delicate roseate tones. (Wertenbaker, 1967, p. 40)
Objectless emotions (Lamb, 1987) become clarified when addressed through art, but set the environment for the internal culture where the artist lives, works, and interprets the world. Fears too become strong agents to internal changes and crises and can be fatal to the creative process or bring in a dominant “objectless mood” that disengages the artist from his or her abilities to create.
The audience is a critical element in any artist’s internal culture and the primary consideration when discussing inhibitions. Audience provides mirroring to the artist, validation of his or her reflections and communications, appreciation or disapproval. The audience supports the artist financially and plays a major role in the artist’s egoistic development. Matthew Fox (2005) suggests that an artist needs this period of egoistic development as a “build up of heart” where the artist gathers the courage and faith in his or her vision and inner resources to move forward from external transformation to internal transformation (p. 72). Consideration of audience is projection, and where projection is active, the becoming or growing at home with one’s Self and one’s truth is rendered inactive. In a good sense birthing is prohibited, creation and connection to one’s inner culture denied. What the audience provides in as artists’ private culture are the expectation equivalents of society in the larger cultural cosmos.
- In my own experience I began my development as an artist in the theater. My father and family of origin supported this career path; they loved the idea that I would be an actress someday. But my need for the arts had to do with my need to develop a world that was secure for me; one I could grow freely in, trust clear boundaries, and not have to withstand abuse or humiliation. Standing on the stage held none of those benefits. Exposure to an audience reduced me and stifled my creativity, only added to my sense of violation and humiliation. The crisis came with this realization and I turned to the visual arts, painting where I could make my art privately and deal with exposure outside of my creative process. My family strongly disapproved of this move. Now looking back the crisis leading to the change in artistic venue represents my saying “no” to violations on all levels. Those who were most abusive to me as a child protested my path change the most. Later in my career, peak experiences such as museum purchases and exhibitions, my achievements were met with their disregard, disinterest, and dismissal.
- . . . wanting to be understood is a basic need—an affirmation of the humanity you share with everyone around you. The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, “you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy” .(Bayles & Orland, 1993, p. 39)
Karen Wilson Scott (2002) in her study, of adults over 50 and their commitment to challenging life pursuits suggests that in late career the artist can set aside the inhibitions of the audience to move toward fulfillment, satisfaction, and self-actualization. She refers to Carl Rogers for an illustration of that departure from egocentricity to authenticity.
- The individual moves toward being, knowingly and acceptingly, the process which he inwardly and actually is. He moves away from being what he is not, from being a façade . . . He is increasingly listening to the deepest recesses of his physiological and emotional being, and finds himself increasingly willing to be, with greater accuracy and depth, that self which he most truly is. (Rogers, as cited in Scott, 2002, p. 262)
Those who continue to paint but set aside their ego, desires for adulation, and fame cross a threshold into a spiritual maturity that has not often described in the history books (Ryken, 2006). Though I believe this transformation has always been part of the artist’s experience, artists and society have only recently had the language and freedom to articulate this phenomena of how and where the artist progresses.
Transmutation and transformation
Transformation begins when a work of art emerges from nothing to something (Bayles & Orland, 1993, p. 106). Transformations experienced thousands of times by the artist in his work, flat to space, raw color to intricately related color, or a mere gesture evolving into a richly rendered painting, eventually penetrate the surface tension of that experience to include the artist himself. At some point the work-process becomes the living-process, there is lift, and the journey leaves the ego behind. The artist experiences chaos, disorientation and a sudden awareness of something more (Dunn, 2004, p. 49), a new language and conversation with what can only be described as divine. The artist created the private culture, and the private culture welcomed the artist home.
The trade-off in the transformation far surpasses the actualizing of one’s own potential. Yes, once an artist gets beyond the ego they acquire the courage to take greater risks in the work itself (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997), and the more sustaining gift is in the experiencing of what some might call divine joy, but feels ideal as a loving with no conditions. According to Patrick Sherry (1992), the artist benefits in two ways, first he or she experiences the “noetic fruits” of mystical states, spiritual development, emotional and psychological development, secondly as a presence and source outside of his or her self being experienced as the culture that is nurturing and home-like.
Though no manuals exist, no legends, or art “sages”, artists by means all their own arrive at the transformative site and know in the experience that they have passed through a one-way door and can never return, nor can they stop or neglect the process set in motion. In a sense they have become their own art, it is in their skin, their hair, and their bones. They paint as they eat, work, or attend to every-day tasks when the physicality of “product-making” may not ever materialize. Transformation therefore is the juncture that shifts from external reasons for creating to internal and soulful reasons. It was crisis that brought the artist home. The artist continues because there is a two-way exchange between self and internal culture that now has become a vital piece to living and sustenance.
John Welwood (1985) gives an interesting perspective to the mechanism of transformation when he discusses transmutation, as approaching emotion as a vehicle for self-illumination. He offers that transmutation implies converting something “seemingly worthless into something extremely valuable, like lead to gold” (Welwood, 1985, p. 85). It is this sense that an artist takes his or her culture of origin and converts it to a priceless diamond, a world that allows for the flow of creative energy and connection to spirit.
Rollo May (1975) offers that creativity is part of our true nature and a function of our psyche toward actualization (p. 40). Most of the great religions regard the creative process as a connection to God within, a divine source. They teach that we cannot help but behave as God the creator because we were made in His image and likeness. It may truly be that this endeavor to build our own world and live as artists is the effort to return to a pre-birth divine source. Who knows? From my own experience I know I have experienced divine conversation, transformation, and a transmutation of crisis and pain into peace and beauty.
Those of us who engage in the artistic process stand on the very edge of our limitations and ask the question, only to then leap out into the vast space to begin the "free-fall" of conjuring an answer. There are no guarantees, but we can never know or learn if we are not willing to risk, suspend our inhibitions, and learn from our observations of that very fall. My efforts here are to catch one “thermal” and understand the cultural conditions (or interpretations) that would ignite an artist or motivate one to become an artist. My efforts are to try and understand the emotions that train and form the artist toward the process of developing their private world, as a “counter member” of a larger culture, a medium or responder to the larger culture, and most certainly a healer of the larger culture.
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