One of my favourite quotes is, “If you want to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe,” by Carl Sagan. I’ve made it my own by replacing the apple pie with painting. You can’t paint a painting from scratch without first creating the universe. To me, this quote speaks to how interconnected and indebted everything is. It evokes the relationship between original, old, and new identities. How we should be humble when we make, because there is always the “out of our control” influence of the universe around us, as well as the underlying and seemingly automatic parts of our psyche that help determine the choices we make.
If we define creativity as “something from nothing,” we may only ever have the facade of this idea. We don’t facilitate any true beginnings, because what’s new is always owing and in relation to some preceding factor. Because of this we are never fully free to “start from scratch”. Our newness is an extension of existing circumstances and materials.
This relates to our freedom and control. When it comes to art making, it’s indicative of life in general—we are both free and unfree. I’m free in that my mental state seems to play a part in a variety of choices, and unfree in that my mental state is restricted by the nature of what’s already there internally and externally to work with. This is a matter of being in and out of control.
We always have existing variables and propensities to reckon with, to react to. Before we start every piece of art, there is metaphorically speaking someone handing us art supplies. Creativity always begins with some determined factors, which make sense when thought of as choices determined by the artist. But when this determination comes from beyond the consciousness of the artist, this may seem to contradict our core preconceptions of what creativity traditionally entails—sovereignty, autonomy, and activeness.
Art isn’t always a production though, it’s also capturing: selecting or highlighting what’s already there. It allows passivity in the face of some other energy or muse. This unveiling, this discovery with as few footprints as possible, is in a sense scientific in that the aim is to observe and relay rather than insert our own voice.
Perhaps our creativity lies in how we figure and frame what we discover? There is an interplay between input and output, with the artist in the middle. We react to variables outside of our control and determine their new shape. I find a card game metaphor helpful to illustrate this: we’re given cards that we choose how to play. The rules of a game facilitate the continuity of this process; the rules provide restrictions that inevitably allow near-infinite combinations of play.
In this process, as artists and as people, we have or don’t have choice. These actions of control may not be conscious, or they may be ironic in that we choose to give up our choice. Still, we have a relationship to choice-making and receiving choices. I’m fascinated in that “other” part of self which seems to have its own motivation. There seem to be preferences without the conscious realizing it, some of these preferences “we” become aware of, and some are forever outside our grasp. What system of priorities is my unconscious using?
Whatever those motivations are, we have the ability to step back and think about this thinking. We can rethink what’s been presented to us by the underground portions of our mind, and through this refiguring and recolouring we “play our cards”. Our control with our unconscious is in that our reactions to “it” are influential. There is an internal conversation. We’re receptive with our unconscious and then we make choices based on what’s presented. We’re by us to us, again and again.
That is one way to analyze our situation. Though there are many different theories and approaches to defining the self. There are academic perspectives, religious and spiritual perspectives as well as artistic perspectives, each with their own biases due to what they do and do not focus on. When it comes to free will, not everyone agrees that we have choice, with the hard determinists claiming that it is all a sort of sterile chain of cause and effect and that our experience of freedom is an illusion.
Similarly, a materialist would contest that there is no reality other than the material, and that all emergent effects and causes can be traced back to granular material circumstances. Then there are the behavioralists, who are true to their name in that they think we’re best understood by looking at our behavior. What’s important isn’t theory or identifying the mechanics of self, but the product/output of these mechanics. There are also the systems that have been proposed that partition us into egos/superegos etc and suggest an inherent architecture to our personhood. I’m doing this to a certain extent by dividing the mind into the conscious and unconscious. There’s also the persistent idea of an immaterial soul, which is a hard thing to talk about with any precision. And there’s the artistic view which often keeps things poetic and open.
Today’s psychological practices seem to employ whatever method works. In a sense this is akin to how we have different ways of making that are useful depending on what the artist is intending to make.
From what I’ve gathered from my limited time as a person, there is a certain futility in any attempt at presenting an all-encompassing definition of selfhood. I can define myself as I want while empathizing as best I can with other perspectives. I can make claims such as that we’re doomed or lucky to be ephemeral, or part of something beyond, some divine clan. Either way, I’m not naive enough to believe that the story I come to is the full story, that I have the God’s Eye View on my being. How I would be defined outside of my lens is an absurd thing to try to imagine though, like Kant’s “Thing-in-itself”, the question being—what am I when I’m not looking? (This requires me to look!)
It’s difficult to define the mind, because we need to use a mind to do so, and if we compensate for the bias of our observational instruments, we’ll have eliminated what we’re trying to observe. Because we are in some sense a mystery, this comes with a lack of control, and with lack of control comes a lack of choice.
At the very least I have the experience of choice in how I react to internal and external factors. It’s important that I’m open to the possibilities presented to me, but also important that I allow the possibility that a suggestion is wrong or needs to be left room for future insight. Just because I don’t choose what is presented, doesn’t mean I can’t choose how to value it. As to what compass or system we use to decide which thoughts are to be dismissed or followed, that depends on our motivations and values. Perhaps, a balanced life is found in having conscious motivations that are in harmony with our unconscious ones.
When we over mediate our thoughts, it can be like water building up stress against a dam. In mindfulness traditions, we’re taught to observe our thoughts as if they were floating effortlessly along a river. We’re encouraged to view these thoughts without judgement. I see an analogy here with the passive portion of an artistic practice. We need a certain openness to grow our work, there needs to be space for it. Like a conversation, we listen but also talk. As for the active, there are the judgements or choices we make from the information that’s available to us. We listen, we react, and then engage in an art making process that can be both receptive and productive. Channeling as we work, giving up or relinquishing control.
Letting the thoughts flow with the water is a submission or letting go of sorts, and we can gain a lot by giving up pieces of our control like this. Sometimes with art making that control is given up by accepting restrictions, and I find there is an ironic freedom that comes with submitting to rules when it comes to making images. We can be paralyzed by having too much choice. Having confines or structure by limiting elements allows an order for other elements to thrive in. We can choose different variables to use, such as giving yourself a timeline, only using certain materials etc.
As artists, we make figurations and frame specific views, we use language and other symbolic systems to distort and reveal elements, lending an intentionality to what is otherwise unconscious or unseen. We work with existing tools to imbue and signify. We do this by making choices, and exploring parameters. The unknown is mediated internally and then becomes integrated as we recreate our conceptual world into the sensory one by making our thoughts into tangibilities. Then they are transmuted once more into thought, often very different in the minds of each viewer. An artist is found in between the visible and the invisible, interior and exterior, transforming elements as they react to the inputs of the physical and metaphysical world.
We are both in and out of control when it comes to life, and this is indicative of how we operate with creativity. The factors that are outside of our control are outside of our physical self, but also in our heads—in that we collaborate with a certain “otherness” within.
We listen to the work as it develops, making choices as reactions to the cards that we’re dealt. These cards whose identities shift as they’re shuffled, whose unfiltered form could only be found at the beginning of a universe. Then we play, and wait for a response.
–John F. Gerrard, October 2021