Practical Theory. Entering the open state, a brief discussion on some of the things that stand in our way.
In order to begin developing our abilities as artists its important to understand that the creative process can be divided into two observable states, the emotional aspect, and the logical component. This idea stems from Cartesian Dualism by the way so if you want to know more about the philosophy behind it there's the place to start. Anyway, when we first attempt to find that place within ourselves where the creative potential dwells, we often start out by searching for the methods and techniques that allow us to ground our thoughts, impressions and feelings in some form of recognizable methodology. Typically this means that we seek out those who have gone before us in order to begin establishing a basic pattern on which to model our behaviour, but without going to far into the Zone of Proximal Development this doesn't always work the way we want it to because the way that observational learning can influence the outcome means that we can become emotionally invested in those actions which serve no functional purpose but instead serve only to reinforce our socially conditioned expectations.
Okay I'm going to digress a bit as I feel I need to explain a little more about what it was I just said.
One of the biggest obstacles to becoming an artist is not learning how things work or what you need to do in order to be able to be creative, its overcoming and dismantling the unrealistic and untenable expectations that we are constantly being exposed to either in our personal environment or in our professional lives. To better illustrate this concept, take a moment to consider the differences that exist between the artistic ideology in the western world, and the one that exists in Japan. In the west, a lot of artists are considered to be lazy, selfish, childish, or outright unproductive members of society. And many of the reasons for this are rooted in the Industrial Revolution and the belief that art should be a commercial product and that success is measured purely by sales rather then merit or achievement. And while that's not even the tip of the iceberg in terms of the flak that I've been on the recieving end of as an artist, it doesn't help that many artists have in turn sought to perpetuate the belief that the one's who make it are the chosen few, the elite, the gifted beyond the ken of mortal men simply because they couldn't bother to find the words to explain to others how they do what it is they do. Now, while that's a problem that's not easily resolved, it can at least be understood in terms of scientific rationalism and the holy grail of science, reproducible results. Trust me when I say this, but trying to find a way to reproduce the results of any artistic experiment is nigh impossible because when even the simple act of observing an experiment alters the variables involved you're never going to be able to get a perfect reproduction no matter how many times you try it. What you do get however, is a system based on really interesting paradoxes that express themselves in exactly the same way wherever you go in the world so let's hear it for art history and the various movements that have arisen over the years that give us insight into how both societies and individuals relate to the idea of art.
Now in order to establish a baseline for comparison, its important to understand that the aesthetic values of art are often rooted in cultural movements and periods of social disruption and upheaval. By which I mean that while Japan has a culture and history of art that goes back over a thousand years, the United States of America is in the unique position of not only being a relatively young country, but of having almost their entire cultural legacy be based on trade with other nations. Yeah, I'll be talking more about my thoughts on that later as its a really fascinating subject to study, its just I've digressed far enough already. So while America has the industrial revolution as its turning point for the establishment of the modern aesthetic value of art, for those in Japan it was the Meiji Restoration and the modernization of their entire society that followed. For the French it was the moment the Impressionists challenged the power of the Salons, but now I've just gone off topic. In Japan, the artist is celebrated because they are in large part considered to be craftsmen and always have been, and because craftsmen are productive and valued members of society that means the social expectations and obligations surrounding them are completely different. Because when art is treated as a spiritual discipline rather then a purely commercial enterprise, the associations that are formed by our mind's motivate us in very different ways. Which is why its so damned important to be aware of the fact that a lot of the work that goes into producing a piece of art goes unrecognized purely because its happening on a level most of us don't even know exists let alone have even heard of. The level I am referring to of course, is the Open State.
Now John Cleese described it best when said that artists need five things in order to be creative. Space, time, time, confidence, and humor. And I'm going to try and summarize his ideas as they bear repeating and as many people should hear him talk about them as as possible. We need Space in order to be creative as we can't become playful if we're under pressure. We need Time that we can dedicate to being in that Space where the rest our lives are put on hold until we can pick them up again. We need Time to deal with the discomfort that arises from not being able to come up with anything and the anxiety that arises from not being able to perform at a level that satisfies our own expectations. We need Confidence in order to overcome our doubts as nothing defeats creativity like the fear of making a mistake. And Humor, as the evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us into the open state faster then anything else.
Now, when I first started writing these ideas helped to validate all of the things that I was experiencing at the time as I used to sit in front of my computer screen for hours at a time while waiting for a word or an idea to jump out at me which in terms of my being productive as an artist drove me up a wall because it meant I wasn't actually writing yet. But as I later came to discover, the process by which I was trying to enter the open state involved transitioning between the internal and external worlds, and that the distance I was trying to cross that existed between them was filled with all manner of dangerous obstacles that I had either internalized based on my childhood experiences or had simply picked up and perpetuated based on the emotional environment that I found myself in. The belief that I wasn't being productive enough, the idea that all artists had to starve in order to succeed, all the negative, unwanted, or unresolved trauma I'd ever experienced throughout the course of my life, it was all waiting for me behind a locked door inside my palace of memory. And the thought of opening that door, of experiencing again and again all those painful memories terrified me. But behind that very same door, inside a room where I had hidden away all the things I didn't want to see, lay the wellspring of my own creativity and I'd be damned if I was going to let a few old ghost keep me from the life I'd chosen for myself.
Now, having read the stories of those artists who either committed suicide or overdosed on drugs and their reasons for doing so, I've come to the conclusion that one of the most important things we can do for ourselves as artists is to develop a background in either Psychotherapy or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, preferably both, not only because part of the creative process involves being able to shape our thoughts in specific ways while examining our relationship to them, but without a strong emotional anchor that will keep us grounded in the mundane world, we often run the risk of losing sight of ourselves and unravelling our own egos. Which is usually what happens when we immerse ourselves in the kind of research that would make most people lose their lunch just hearing about it. Fortunately I'm a high-functioning autistic individual with aspergers so not only does that give me partial immunity to even the most mind numbing horrors people can come up with, but because I didn't find out until well into adulthood my ability to recognize the theory of mind in others is unbelievably skewed. Emotional detachment that borders on the level of Alexythemia, its like the world's worst superpower . . .
Still, while I may not be able to understand the thoughts and feelings of others in all but the most abstract of ways, its allowed me to develop my abilities as an artist enough that I can actually communicate with others in a meaningful way.
Back to what I was originally saying. Since artists are those who transform negative and unwanted experiences into meaningful events, its important to understand the role that memory plays in the artistic process, because whenever someone says write about what you know or draw from your own experiences, do not do it! Seriously, I cannot stress this enough. Putting pieces of your self into a story or a work of art is fine if it allows you to externalize your fears and doubts in order to have them recognized and validated by others, but if you market your own personal pain for profit, then mining your own life for misery is going to be the least of your problems. After all writing and telling stories is at its best when it gives us examples of how to deal with and eventually overcome hardship. Unless its for the purposes of entertainment because then the only thing that matters is sex, violence and explosions. But hey, who doesn't love a good sexplosion now and then.
Okay, serious time again. The process by which we try to remember something that has happened to us is remarkably similar to the one that we use to imagine things that could potentially happen to us, which is why anxiety kills the creative process instantly as you cannot be in a relaxed and receptive state of mind and be anxious at the same time. What happens is that anxiety overrides our emotional states and conditions our minds in a way that causes us to experience fear whenever we even begin to consider the possibility of entering the open state. Its also part of the reason why the artistic process is approached as a ritual action rather then a scientific method, because not only are we dealing with third person learning, but observational learning again. Seeing something being done is not the same as understanding the reasons why a thing is done and unfortunately when it comes to art, observational learning is the most commonly used form of instruction not only because its the simplest system available, but because its long been legitimized in people's minds as the traditional method, which brings me to my next point.
Show of hands, who knows what the five points of articulation are, or better yet, what the three ranges of motion are? Here's a hint for anyone whose never so much as heard of these concepts, they all involve areas of the body artists use the most while drawing and are the easist to observe in action, and yet all rely on tacit levels of awareness to be able to make use of effectively.
Now as someone who has spent a good chunk of time trying to rediscover information that traditional methods tend to omit this is just one of the reasons why I'm not fond of the way the artistic process is typically taught to people. Not only does it fail to extend a sense of understanding to those who would otherwise get it if only the concepts involved were easier to relate to but it obfuscates the issues that people are going to experience on so many different levels. And with obfuscation, comes frustration, and with that sense of frustration, a sense that you're never going to get it and its stupid to even try. And if that sounds in any way like a voice inside your head then find that little fucker and send it on a permanent vacation. Its called the Inner Critic and we've all got one. Mine is taking a dirt nap on a tropical island somewhere, he's even got a Mai Tai and a beach umbrella.
Anyway, because the artistic process is based on learned patterns of behaviour, adults have a much more difficult time unlearning all of the attitudes and expectations as to how it actually works then children do. There are reasons for this, I'll go into them later and I really hate saying that because it breaks the narative flow. So, one of the things to be aware of when we're first starting out, is that when we compare ourselves to others, we not only invoke the extension of self, but we then hold ourselves up to an invisible standard that allows us to rationalize and justify all of the reasons why we could never do something. The problem that arises from this, and strangely enough the solution it presents, is that our own internal measure of what is considered normal is more often then not determined by our environment then it is our own personal experiences. Which is one of the things that can drive all artists crazy as the normalizing effect of looking at something for a prolonged period of time is what allows us to actually evaluate it in the first place. Which means its not that artists who are just starting out have an impossible standard that they're holding themselves to, its that they don't now how to establish any reasonable expectations for themselves based on their current level of ability. Society also tends to tell us what the measure of our abilities should be based on our age and where live all the time, so its not like having that constantly drilled into our heads helps us figure things out. Oh, and lest I forget to mention it, the illusion of credibility has all kinds of implications for whether or not we're able to apply other people's experiences in our own day to day lives. So once the idea that something someone else is saying doesn't work enters into our minds, it creates a seed of doubt where everything else that they say becomes suspect. Which in turn leads to the intimacy of betrayal and the loss of esteem in anothers eyes and I think I have to stop now otherwise I'm going to start talking about the calculus of power and how it applies itself to artists.
So before I go let me finish by saying that conceptual awareness is a key part of being creative as nothing paralyzes the mind quite like encountering a problem for which we do not have a solution. We can learn any number of techniques that can help us become better writers and artists, but when it comes to balancing our own lives, well that takes, experience. Ciao.
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Practical Theory, an artist's guide to understanding the hidden world of art, is a blog in which I'll be discussing all the weird, strange and semi-mystical things I've encountered while researching the emergent principles inherent in the transdisciplinary nature of art. So if you've ever wondered why art works the way it does, or if your just a fan of seeing if words can be weaponized in a way that can make people's head explode, check it out!