The title of this chapter is a barrage of lofty terms, words that have long been at the heart of the artistic experience in theory but sometimes on the perimeters in study, practice, and product.
Inspiration is by and large the result of observation. I return to the wisdom of Rachel Carson:
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. (42-43)
I believe that the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson is describing and lamenting its loss is never completely lost to anyone. I believe the seeds of this joyous perceptual awareness lie buried in everyone — deeper in some and shallower in others. As a student of art and design you are probably already on your way to rediscovering this awareness. It can be done and its rediscovery is critical to any person wishing to live fully. While this sense of wonder is crucial to everyone’s enjoyment of daily experience, for the artist or designer it is also the foundation of inspiration and creativity.
The mind needs to function as a sponge, absorbing information and sensations to be stored and later put together forming the inspired idea. The gathering of information to form the basis of inspiration can take many forms. Observing, reading, traveling, eating, watching films, viewing art, contemplating nature, making love, sleeping and much more can all be inspiring experiences in different ways. While there is no magic involved in this process, sometimes new associations of inspired thought seem to crystallize at unusual times; long distance driving, soaking in the tub or taking a shower. Psychologist George Pransky believes that these times of inspiration are no accident. He believes that they occur because the mind is at rest and open during these times. He calls this receptive thinking in opposition to analytical thinking, in which we are consciously trying to solve problems or dwelling on information from the past or worrying about the future. Pransky holds that in analytical thinking we tie ourselves to current knowledge are not truly open to new association our minds are capable of making. When we relax our minds and are receptive to whatever is happening in moment, the mind is then capable of jumping beyond the known and putting together experience to form inspired, truly creative ideas (Pransky). While this may at first seem a bit strange, many artists describe this or very similar experiences as being their optimum working states of mind.
It has been said that the only truly original works of art were done on a cave wall and artists have been stealing from one another ever since. In some ways the statement is basically true, but I would substitute the word “learning” for “stealing.”
Students often have a distorted idea of originality as something that strikes an artist like a lightning bolt – a divine kind of experience. Such is usually not the case. Original ideas are worked for; they are the results of a mind capable of making new associations from existing materials and stimuli. As suggested by the cave wall example, artists learn a great deal from each other and from past artists. This is especially true in methods and techniques, the mechanics of making art. There is no shame in this process of learning from other artists. In many cultures the only way of learning to become an artist was years of patiently copying the works of master artists. In Western (European/American) culture this learning procedure fell into disregard during much of the 20th century, but I believe master study can still be a very useful learning experience.
As mentioned in the last chapter, in the past few decades the art world has been showing a great deal of eclectic art that has borrowed heavily from the past. These revivals of past style have produced some very enjoyable and interesting works, but the work has been short on what some people would consider originality. In some ways this is a strange twist from the first seven decades of the century when individuality was the supreme goal of art making. The extreme stress on individuality was a logical reaction against the growing conformity, mechanization, and sameness that was engulfing so much of modern life. The artist became the symbol of non-conformity, of originality. This stereotyping had its origins in the Renaissance with artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the modern model was formed with extreme individualists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Toulouse-Lautrec. In the 20th century Picasso took the role of individualist supreme and played the part flawlessly and cruelly for over six decades.
It is often thought that the originality of some of artists, and some of those just mentioned, developed due to mental illnesses of various kinds. In limited cases there may be some truth in this, but in most cases I believe it is not true. In so much as the illness was a part of their total personalities and did influence their perceptions, the illness did impact their work. But in most cases I believe artists who have suffered with mental illnesses have achieved greatness in spite of their illness rather than because of it. The problems that the illness inflicts on the artist are far greater than any benefit to be gained from it. One type of mental illness that occurs in artists more often than the general public is manic-depressive illness. This tendency for dramatic mood swings can range from mild to life threatening. It is not known why there is a heavier occurrence in artists. It may be that people with these tendencies gravitate to the arts because the arts are known to be more accepting of people with abnormal behavior, or there may be something within the profession of being an artist that may help to simulate the inclination toward mood swings already within the individual.
The writer Wendell Berry gives this somewhat heretical view of originality:
We must see that no art begins in itself; it begins in other arts, in attitudes and ideas antecedent to any art, in nature and in inspiration. If we look at the great artistic traditions, as it is necessary to do, we will see that they have never been divorced either from religion or from economy. The possibility of an entirely secular art and of works that are spiritless or ugly or useless is not a possibility that has been among us for very long. Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, in the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the artists themselves…. The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call “self-expression.” They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life. Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius. (112)
The heretical aspect of this statement is, of course, the demeaning of “self-expression” and the “modern cults of originality and genius.” The 20th century has seen these very qualities as the highest goals of art. Berry looks at this deification of originality and says the results have been in many cases the degradation of not only art but also of people.
Rabindranath Tagore offers a differing viewpoint and calls for the preservation of the uniqueness of the individual:
If this individuality be demolished, then though no materials be lost, not an atom destroyed, the creative joy which was crystallized therein is gone. We are absolutely bankrupt if we are deprived of this specialty, this individuality, which is the only thing we can call our own; and which, if lost, is also a loss to the whole world. It is the most valuable because it is not universal. … The universal is ever seeking its consummation in the unique. And the desire we have to keep our uniqueness intact is really the desire of the universe acting in us. It is our joy of the infinite in us that gives us our joy in ourselves. (Tagore, S, 70)
In the previous chapter’s discussion of visual perception it was stated that the basis for understanding the world is the ability to use mental models to compare visual information. In a very similar sense some psychologists believe that the ability to form associations is one of the primary characteristics of creativity. It is the ability to draw associations between similar and apparently dissimilar objects, concepts, actions, or reactions that we can arrive at new theories, systems, and products. This system of association helps us make inferences that permit us to put together seemingly unrelated information to form a new or different theory or idea. Association is a way to store new knowledge and use that new knowledge to change perceptions (Myers 154).
This ability is essentially one of forming new connections between previously not associated areas. These connections can be some of the richest areas for art. John Myers has put it this way:
Broad connections sharpen our art by giving it transfusions of the blood of life from sources outside ourselves, outside our social circles, our country, and outside the arts.
If I am a man, a connection is knowing and feeling how a woman feels; if I am a white Caucasian, it is knowing and feeling like a black person; if I am a Republican, it is knowing and feeling like a Democrat; if I am a citizen of the United States, it is knowing and feeling like an Iranian.
It is knowing and feeling the likeness as well as the differences among things: apples and oranges, pine trees and cyprus trees, leaf cells and body cells, the animate and the inanimate (183).
A grumbling sometimes heard among university art students is “Why do I have to take all this non-art stuff?” That is English, history, natural and social sciences, etc. Myers’ statement eloquently answers that question. The myth of creativity being an innate gift is for the most part just that, a myth. Creativity comes from an open, active mind. A mind that is eagerly exploring new information and making new associations – new connections. Apart from a few exceptions, art is not about art. It is about life. And according Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Life is concern. …A man [person] entirely unconcerned with his self is dead; an man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast…. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. (109)
Art is about religion, history, science, psychology, mythology, business and all other areas that human beings become involved in. The creative artist and designer is a life-long student of life.
For many people aesthetics has been an intimidating word with esoteric overtones and perplexing meanings. The word “aesthetics” is derived from the Greek “aisthetikos,” defined as “pertaining to the senses” (Bevlin 8). From the very early use of the word and concept, aesthetics was related to the study of beauty: how it is defined and how people experience and understand beauty (Block & Atterberry 16). Modern times have seen an expansion and modification of that definition. Now the study of aesthetics spans the entire range of human reaction to art. This includes not only the delight, admiration, ecstasy, tranquility, or intrigue that might accompany the study of a work of beauty, but also the shock, disquiet, revulsion, disgust, or even disinterest that might be provoked by a work of art without the traditional sense of beauty (Bevlin 8).
In the late 20th century it is not unusual to find a large portion of the general public and even a good number of incoming art students, who hold to the belief that all art should be what they think is appealing or entertaining. In the late 20th century a great controversy brewed over government financing (grants from the National Endowment for the Arts) and censorship in the arts. At the core of this controversy is a narrow interpretation of aesthetics. Those who would censor and restrict or eliminate government financing have a view of the arts that focuses on what they believe is worthy and non-offensive work. They seem to believe that this view should be forced on the nation as a whole. It is difficult for some people to accept that shocking, disquieting, ugly or even repulsive works of art have merit. If one looks at art as an expression of life, it is obvious that it cannot only deal with the beautiful. If it did it would be ignoring many parts of our thoughts, experiences, emotions and desires. But this is not to belittle beauty, which I have grown to hold as my preferred aesthetic and the one I believe can give me not only enjoyment but also better health and the maximum potential for growth as an artist and human being. The Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, has expressed this eloquently:
Beauty steeps us in the highest levels of human thought and possibility. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. Without it, a person can never be fully human. (63)
No matter how perfect the symphony, how excellent the painting, how compelling the writing, how magnificent the scene, if we fail to develop a lifestyle and a heart that nourishes itself on beauty, life will be barren indeed. Beauty lies all around us. It simply waits to be born daily in us. (60)
This leads us to a recurring theme in the early chapters of this book: tolerance and understanding. Art can be an important avenue in learning how to broaden your understanding. The multiplicity of expression in the art world reveals that there are many ways of approaching and perceiving life. It is inevitable that there will be many that do not match with our own preferences. We can learn from these varying approaches and we can certainly reject some of them. But it is important to remember that our personal rejection doesn’t invalidate these opposing ideas. What is valid for us does not have to be valid for everyone. For me this seems true not only in art but also in philosophy, religion, government, economics, and personal relations. Tolerance and understanding do not mean acceptance or acquiescence to ideas you don’t believe. On the contrary understanding gives you the right to hold beliefs as strongly as you wish, but tolerance acknowledges the right for others to hold beliefs different from your own. These are concepts at the center of individual and collective freedom.
Another aspect of aesthetics has been called the “aesthetic experience” (Maquet 50). This is an experience that has the power to remove you from everyday life and eliminate competing mental and physical concerns. It is an experience that encompasses your mind and holds your attention. It could be the tranquil, harmonious beauty of early Mozart or the thrashing, crushing power of early Metallica. It could be a dense textural, figurative composition by Andrew Wyeth, or a sparse, minimal non- objective composition by Elsworth Kelly. If a work of art is an engrossing experience for you, you are having an aesthetic experience. Design plays a large role creating such an occurrence. The use of color, line, shape, space, value, texture, and mass can have a great deal to do with holding viewers and transporting them into the world of the art. These elements stimulate the emotions and/or the intellect and create the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience takes us back to George Pransky’s concept of receptive thinking. An aesthetic experience is an experience of receptive thought. We are taken from our analytical thinking and transported to the world of the art where our minds can openly experience it. One of the ways this happens most often within our culture is in the world of film and TV. When experiencing an engrossing film our minds are not wandering into our own thoughts, it is experiencing the world created by the filmmaker — it is an aesthetic experience. It can be one that entertains us, deepens our understanding, or poisons our minds, regardless of which, it is still an aesthetic experience.
This experience is cross-cultural; all peoples have aesthetic experiences that fit their traditions and culture. These aesthetic traditions have varied as widely as the organic, natural aesthetic of the tea ceremony of medieval Japan to the elaborate, decorative aesthetic of Rococo France. The last decades of this century in the United States have seen the rise to dominance of an extremely unfortunate aesthetic — the aesthetic of violence. The entertainment industry of the nation decided to capitalize on the very old knowledge that violence has the power to create an aesthetic experience. Viewing violence and vicariously participating transport the audience transported from their everyday world into an adrenaline-filled world of brutal excitement. Especially in a society where many people feel powerless, this quick fix of brief highs temporarily fills a void with fulfillment. The negative repercussions of this dominant entertainment in our country are many. Heschel has expressed it in broader perspective:
Modern man may be characterized as a being who is callous to catastrophes. A victim of enforced brutalization, his sensibility is being increasingly reduced; his sense of horror is on the wane. The distinction between right and wrong is becoming blurred. All that is left to us is our being horrified at the loss of our sense of horror. (192)
Within another realm of aesthetics is the feared question “What is art?” The answer varies from person to person. There is no answer and there are many answers. Marjorie Elliot Bevlin states, “Art is concerned with the creation of a work that will arouse an aesthetic response”(8). John Canaday gives us the following functions of art: “To bring order to the chaotic material of human experience” and “To clarify, intensify, or otherwise enlarge our experience of life” (3 & 5). Lois Fichner-Rathus gives the following imposing list: art as beauty, art as truth, art as elevation of the commonplace, art as expression of the universal, art as reflection of social and cultural context, art as immortalization, art as order and harmony, art as the product of heart-hand- mind, art as the source of intellectual stimulation, art as meeting the needs of the artist, art as recording and commemorating experiences and events, art as expressing religious values, art as social protest, art as decoration, art as commerce (V). To all these definitions I would say, yes. Art is all these things and more. To answer the question from an even broader viewpoint, Rabindranath Tagore has said, “’What is Art?’ It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.” (Tagore, WR, 139)
A debatable separation in defining “what art is” involves the many divisions created within the large realm of art: the difference between art and design, fine art and applied art, art and craft, fine art and commercial art, and other borders that are formed to create insiders and outsiders. I have no problem calling whatever falls in any of those areas art – even to the level of hobby art and crafts. These, too, are art and serve the function of amusing, entertaining, and giving gratification to many people. Do hobbyists create work of the same high quality of many professional artists and craftspeople? Certainly not. While I have no problem in calling a wide range of activities art, I believe there is a wide spectrum of quality in that range. I believe that there is “good and bad” art. Making these judgments is a subjective exercise but I believe a necessary one.
An irritating attitude held by a few people in the art world is that anything functional or commercial cannot be considered “art.” Our recent list of what art is puts to rest this narrow and somewhat “uppity” view. The snubbing of commercial art seems pointedly out of place in our society. In many early societies art functioned as a necessary component within the whole society; the religious, political, and social uses of art made it essential to the functioning of the entire society. Examples abound; the indigenous tribes of the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific provide dazzling and immensely diversified cases. In larger civilizations, it is difficult to think of an exception to this rule. From the Egyptians to the Renaissance, art played a vital part usually allied with religion and government. With the rise of the industrial age, the role of art in society diminished, and this still seems the case today in our “post-industrial” society. What role does the contemporary art of the galleries and museums play in our society? While it may play an important role in the lives of many individuals, how does it affect the workings of our civilization? Well, there is the monetary function of investment and auction, and if one wishes to be more philosophical, the avant-garde sometimes serves as a kind of barometer or “canary in a coal mine” for the rest of society. But in practical everyday terms there is little relationship between the fine arts and the day-to-day workings of our society. On the other hand, the commercial arts, and especially advertising design, play an enormously important role in making our capitalist-consumer society function. For better or worse, commercial art is one of the driving forces in the cycle of money and goods. Advertising design distributes the information and creates the desire for the new and the dissatisfaction with the old that makes consumerism work. Commercial art serves the economic system of today in a very similar to the way art served the Catholic church of the middle ages, or the way art served the religion and government in city-states of ancient Greece. In some ways consumerism is the new contemporary religion being served by art.
In future centuries, if we can sustain ourselves, I wonder how art historians will study our times. Will they look at the “fine” arts or the “commercial” arts as truly reflecting the essence of our society? Will they look at our contemporary museum art or at Calvin Klein and Nike ads?
The final term in the long list of lofty words that make up the title of this chapter is “integrity.” As with all this list, there is no general consensus, by those in the arts, as to its meaning.
A broad definition of integrity is the quality or state of being whole (Bevlin 26). This definition implies a pure and unaltered state — the quality of wholeness in a philosophical sense. Integrity can relate to all aspects of design. Integrity of materials suggests materials that are used to their optimum, materials of which the designer’s knowledge is complete and whose qualities are not compromised by misuse or distortion. Metal is not made to look like plastic, plastic is not made to look like wood or tile. Materials are to be used in accordance with their limitations and advantages. Materials in architectural constructions must be strong enough to handle the stresses that will be applied to them. Outdoor sculptures must weather the elements. Paintings should not crack, flake, or peel (Bevlin 26). All materials have an innate quality of integrity that is either used or abused by the designer or artist.
A classic area of integrity in design is that of integrity of form, the shape and mass of the designed item. The famous Bauhaus school of design that functioned in Germany between the two world wars formulated the dominant theory of integrity of form in the 20th century. Their famous decree was “form follows function.” The clearness and directness of the statement itself reflects the integrity of the concept. In their designs, primarily architecture, textiles, furniture, and household items, they believed in stripping away all unnecessary and decorative elements. They wanted to pare the design down to the essential so that the form would be an indication of the function. The item was to be a direct reflection of the function, the materials, and the machine process used to produce it (Bevlin 28). In Bauhaus thinking a chair didn’t need embellished carving and spindle legs. It didn’t need elaborate upholstery or claw feet. A chair needed to support the seated human figure and design should attempt to accomplish that objective with simplicity of shape and economy of materials. This concept became so ingrained in 20th century design that its revolutionary nature is sometimes forgotten. We need to remember what a dramatic break this was with centuries of elaborate and decorative design as seen in the styles of the Art Nouveau, Romantic, Rococo, Baroque, and Renaissance.
In a way the Bauhaus was really returning to a rule of a nature in design. “Form follows function” has always been the ultimate rule of nature’s designs – from the tiniest to the largest. The process of natural selection in nature is a process of refining form to facilitate function; that is, to create the most functional designs possible in relation to the environment. One of the most fascinating places to observe this is in the structures animals and insects build. The efficiency and simplicity of the constructions are models of form following function.
Directly related to integrity of form is integrity of function itself. The use of materials and the item designed leads to the functional integrity of the product: how does it work? Does the drawer open and close well? Does the coat keep you warm? Does the car run dependably? Does the computer perform the functions it is supposed to? Modern life is plagued with innumerable examples of poor integrity of function but also with many astoundingly good ones.
A final area of integrity, the integrity of the individual producing the work, is one that is usually ignored in discussions of art and design. Integrity and honesty have much in common. Both deal with the concept of wholeness as mentioned in our original definition of integrity and, indeed, in our original definition of design itself. An honest person is a whole person, one who has not broken her or his integrity into pieces. Integrity is an area where some people see a deep crisis in our society. Integrity can be interpreted as a spiritual sense of wholeness and commitment as expressed by Heschel:
The central problem of this generation is emptiness in the heart, the decreased sensitivity to the imponderable quality of the spirit, the collapse of communication between the realm of tradition and the inner world of the individual. The central problem is that we do not know how to think, how to pray, how to cry, or how to resist the deceptions of the silent persuaders. There is no community of those who worry about integrity. (251)
To have integrity as an artist and designer is to have an honest approach to the concept, the production, and the distribution of your work. Integrity can and should extend beyond individual integrity and encompass the artist/designer’s responsibility to society and the environment. The ramifications of one’s art and design must be considered in a broader sense. The integrity of one person does make a difference. It makes a difference in what that person does and in the example that person sets for others. Integrity is a gift to yourself and to others.
In the commercial arts designers can make a major difference in how responsibly our finite resources are used, in what materials to design for and what materials not to, and in how to design for the use of more renewable resources rather than continuing to design for nonrenewable materials. The designers can rethink package design in our society and eliminate the excessive packaging that adds to the snowballing garbage problem. Designers must decide what they will promote and what they will not. Will they create beautiful, luring advertisements to encourage people to smoke? Will they distort sexuality to sell nearly everything? Will they produce dazzling, creative ads that induce people to excessive alcohol consumption? These are questions of integrity.
PROJECT #1: INSPIRATION, ORIGINALITY, CREATIVITY, AESTHETICS, and INTEGRITY – IN ONE ARTIST’S WORK
objective: To apply the five concepts of this chapter to an artist or designer.
1. Write a report on a nationally or internationally recognized artist or designer, one whom you admire and would like to learn more about. You may choose from any field of art and design. It should be an artist or designer who you can find adequate materials to research.
2. The report should have four primary sections, one for each of the categories: inspiration, originality and creativity (combined), aesthetics, and integrity. Each section should explain in detail how the artist’s work and/or life relates to the concept. The report should be based on some library research but most of the report will be your own personal analysis. Some of the concepts are not going to be obviously explained in research information that has been written about the artist. You are going to have apply your understanding of the concept to the artist’s work and formulate your own opinion.
3. All areas of the report using written sources (books, magazines, and minimal Internet) must acknowledge those sources using footnoting or the Works Cited procedure (as used in this text). This citing must include all direct quotes and all information that you have summarized from other sources.
4. Photocopies of the artist’s work should be included with the report as supportive visuals. The report is to be word processed in 12 point Times New Roman font and presented in a clear plastic report folder with a title page listing your name, the project title, and your topic’s name..
5. The report will be due at mid-term (date to be announced in class)
The report will be evaluated for the depth in which you cover each area, format & presentation, writing skills, and source acknowledgement.