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Speak Out: Creativity

By Marie Liu
ART TIMES Summer 2014

While reading the Spring 2014 issue of Art Times, I was struck by a contradiction that was revealed in several articles. “Looking at Art” attempts to demystify art and encourage its importance and usefulness to a wider audience; while statements within the “Profile” piece perpetuate a common belief (what I consider a misconception) about creativity and its exclusive and elusive nature.

The “Profile” article presents the following quotes by Mr. Steiner about creativity. “Truth is, we have not yet uncovered or ‘explained’ creativity or its inner springs. Humans, some humans, seem to possess creativity but neither they nor the ‘scientists’ seem to be able to explain it - and since it’s so elusive, why jeopardize it by speaking about it? Maybe the spring might dry up.” And “Serious artists have long known that this inner, inspired - ‘divine’ if you will - light that lies at the bottom of creativity is utterly erratic, elusive, indefinable, volatile, temperamental - even untrustworthy at times. They also know that instructors can only teach would-be artists the mechanics... Artists are truly born, not made.” Although I agree with the divine and magical quality of creativity, I also defend that it can be taught, fostered and developed.

Meanwhile, “ Looking at Art” discusses the long standing problem, which is a lack of interest in fine art by the larger population and how to remedy that. “...the simple fact is that art - its making, its creators, its enjoyment - is an unexplored territory for a great part of our population”.

It would seem that these two ideas would tend to work against each other. Seeing them presented alongside, within the same publication, brought this hypocrisy (My emphasis) to my attention very sharply and I believe calls for us all to examine and reevaluate our ideas about creating art (exclusivity) and how our perception of such ideas relates to the current situation (less interest in art). Firstly, can we expect more interest from a population that is discouraged by statements that convince us that certain chosen few are endowed with talent - the rest are so called “would-by artists’ (sic). Secondly, I believe that such statements are untrue, dangerous and to dispel them is in everyone's interest (except the chosen few).

As an artist who also teaches it, I have seen that the surest way to grow an art appreciator is by learning and engaging in making art. Learning the techniques and concepts enriches the students (sic) experience of art, without which the experience is thin with either ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’ a piece of art (not very fulfilling). An argument no doubt for more art is public schools.

I have met plenty of people that dream of being artists, but are discouraged because they are humbled by the notion that ‘you have to be born with it’. What a waste of unexplored potential. Inclusion is the key to engagement, exclusion breeds contempt. Perhaps in ages past, when monolithic religious and political structures dominated society and dictated that the few will interpret (from on high) for the populace, such ideas of creative exclusivity was (sic) accepted. But clearly the modern age is anxious for a more democratic and inclusive idea of our own potential.

The creative process can be taught and learned. Once aware it is liberating. No longer at the mercy of the elusive muse, fear of failure or ineptness. Once it is proven to be true (and it will prove itself), faith in it overtakes fear and one has power. By teaching an awareness of the simple stages that move an idea to fruition (creative process) we would be mining the invaluable resource of the mind far better than teaching to the test. By knowing the steps to be played out, we can be more confident in our ability to learn new things, create and thereby aspire to reach new goals. All this potential begins with a new understanding of creativity and why we are not incorporating this process into the educational system seems crazy to me. The greatest resource we have to evolve society and answer our tough problems is the mind and its capacity to create and discover and invent.

Study of the creative process and mapping its stages is not new, but admittedly insufficient. I have been researching it myself for two decades precisely because it seemed fickle and elusive. Wanting to be a serious artist, yet not ‘born with it’ left me with two choices. Either give up a dream or find some way to harness the process. I began to recognize a pattern emerge and have tried to refine it thru continued study of the subject.

The pattern is as follows (although far too brief a description, I will keep short for the purpose of this letter). An idea comes. Often as a result of an event, a need, desire, challenge, (the list goes on) and sometimes (but not often) an idea comes out of the blue (our popular myth about inspiration). Let’s think of INSPIRATION as anything that gets the ball rolling. Don’t wait around for a bolt of lightning to strike, you get your ideas from all around you and from a variety of situations.

Next (if you want to bring this idea to fruition) you will enter a stage of SATURATION. This period is one of research, thinking, gathering, sketching, pulling in details that will inform and help to flesh out our idea. The more ingredients that go into the slow cooker (our mind/brain) the better.

At a certain point this period exhausts itself, whether a solution or satisfactory result is reached or not. A release from this gathering phase is a critical step. We now enter the INCUBATION stage. Let yourself take a break, forget about it, do something else. This allows time for the stew to cook. The right brain will continue its job - to reformulate the ingredients in nonlinear ways that the left brain is not capable of.

This rest will invariably lead to an unexpected and sudden ILLUMINATION, a moment of clarity and resolve that carries with it a sense of sureness. This eureka moment is believed to be something that comes out of the blue - but quite the contrary. The work of gathering and releasing have (sic) led you to this moment resolution (sic).

ELABORATION is simply rolling up your sleeves and making it. Bringing if from your mind to the material world. This is the performance, painting, book, etc. that will allow you to show your idea fully formed to others.

Once this product is out there, its own entity, one will enter the stage of EVALUATION, by yourself and others. Judgment and critique may lead to further refinement and the process may begin again or it is deemed to have had the desired result (in which case more ideas tend to stem from it and the process begins again).

This pattern is revealed not only in the making of art but throughout all fields of endeavor: science, math, physics, medical - you name it. Wherever discoveries are happening there is this pattern. And further, we all use this process every day in figuring out things that we didn’t know before, like preparing your own taxes, fixing things, solving a problem, etc. In micro and macro ways this process is at work all the time - in nature, physics, our lives. This is why it needs to be taught and understood to be an organic process that comes naturally to all, if we don’t listen to the voices (sometimes our own) that stop the process from unfolding. Can you see the difference it could make on so many levels, in art and civilization, and why we need to change the dialogue about creativity to reach a new understanding that allows it (sic) magic to work for us all the time.

(Marie Liu——lives in Milford PA.)

(Editor's Note : "Hypocrisy" is a new characterization of an ever-growing list that has defined my artwriting over the past 35-years. Ah well, live and learn. On the upside, however, we must be thankful for Liu's simple "modern age…democratic and inclusive" formula — Inspiration, Saturation, Incubation, Elaboration, Evaluation=Illumination — for elucidating a problem that has been plaguing artists, philosophers, psychologists, aestheticians, scientists (and me) since Cennino Cennini's little book on painting, Il libro dell’arte , was written ca. late 14th/early 15th Century. It has always been that first step, however, "inspiration", i.e. "creativity" and the knotty problem of its source and why it is so unequally distributed throughout the world that has occupied thinkers for, lo, these many centuries. And yet, after only "two decades" of Liu's "researching" the "creative process" she has wrapped it up for all of us — simply call it "the first step" — how lucky must be her students! Finally, it might have been well for Liu to note that the "hypocritical" quotes she serves up are from two separate essays; the first, about "Looking at art" which is, as I noted, a common human skill, and, second, about "Creating art" — and I mean "art", not just spreading paint over surfaces or gluing things together — which is a gift (that Liu, most assuredly possesses) far from universal and most often decided by history — and not by "modern age, democratic" fiat.)