Where it stops, nobody knows…

New publications being discussed currently on many talk shows, (mostly on OPB and Comedy Central), are abuzz with dialogue about curiosity, creativity, psychology, science and art. From many different angles experts are exploring how the brain works, what sparks creativity and what it means to discover.

Swimming around in this rich pool of theories and studies, the ideas I’ve held about the value of the painting process and the things that artists, (who express not in words,) have quoted throughout art history are trying to connect in my brain.  Unfortunately, in the fog of old age and youthful indiscretions the synapses aren’t quite firing quickly enough to build the desired bridge of thought. (Mixing metaphors, I know–just think Dickensian London in the dark by the Thames and you’ll get the picture.)

So I’m going to combine stories/concepts from various sources for our exercise this week that will encourage letting-go in order to prod the unconcious into action. In one way or another, the scientist, the artist, the psychologist and even the athlete agree that “…everything that leads you to insight happens unconsciously.” Mark Beeman, Ph.D. Associate Professor Brain, Behavior, and Cognition. The unconscious is not about control or skill it is about releasing expectations. We practice both skill and letting-go in our class, but we practice letting-go more often because it is the thing we cannot see, the thing we do not trust. Painting, if it is to be worthwhile, is not about reproduction but it is about something.  Whatever that something is it involves insight—that which is not yet known.

“Every creative journey begins with a problem…a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not (sic) knowing the answer…” Jonah Lehrer from his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Bob Dylan was burnt out.  Sudden fame and the exhaustion of a European tour had him ready to quit the music business.  He made a decision to stop songwriting and, after a break, find a new path.  In solitude in a cabin in Woodstock, where he didn’t even bring his guitar, with absolutely no goal in mind and nothing to lose he began writing in an empty notebook that he now had no obligation to fill. The words flowed.  He suddenly felt as if he had something to say, what Lehrer  calls “the itch of imminent insight.”  Dylan describes it as “vomit”–an uncontrollable outpouring that began with: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine…” The lyrics for the album of Hwy 61 Revisited were delivered. Because he had no goal, no pressure, he was free to follow an unseen and unknown ghost down a path that felt almost silly. Then he realized that it was possible to “celebrate vagueness”…..

Peter Land, a cartoonist, was creatively stumped.  He was brainstorming with his friend Kevin Eastman back in 1984, begging for ideas.  Eastman saw a turtle figure on the desk and told Land to draw a turtle. Eastman then added the disparate concept of Ninja. (It was in the early eighties that the Ninja movie reached its peak.)  Further play had them both adding nunchucks, blindfolds, etc.  They amused themselves so much they began to think they might amuse others too.  With a modest tax refund they printed 3,000 copies of a comic strip based on four turtle characters dressed like Ninjas named after famous artists adding “Teenage Mutant” to the title.   You know the rest.

“Let’s get the data, then determine the hypothesis” is what neuroscientist Stuart Firestein believes is the path of greater discovery. Instead of the scientific method we learned in school, he believes when you are invested in a hypothesis, findings from experiments are read with a bias in order to prove that hypothesis instead of being open to the undiscovered. So skip the hypothesis. Likewise, when you set out to reproduce an image rather than letting that image simply inform a new image, the likelihood of creating something original and authentic diminishes. You spend so much time trying to get it “right” that you don’t see how getting it wrong can be much more interesting, evocative and resonant. Mr. Firestein teaches a course called Ignorance at Columbia University. Ahhh, a certain respect for ignorance—(smart ignorance).

We are going to use combination of uninvested, conceptual blending. And we’re going to revel in not knowing the end.  Fresh substrate, please.  I have no idea how this will work out…..

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