Monday, November 3, 2014

Impro and the Cultural Destruction of Creativity

Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It'll be perceived as 'childish' and no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he's fourteen it may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears 'sensitive' or 'witty' or 'tough' or 'intelligent' according to the image he's trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we'd be able to see what his talents really were.

We have an idea that art is self-expression — which historically is weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to se his Mask, they wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this is crucial. When he'd finished carving his friends couldn't say 'I'm a bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo', but only, 'He made a mess getting that out!' or 'There are some very odd bits of bone about these days.' These days of course the Eskimos get booklets giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It's no wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It's not surprising that great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what he is.

Schiller wrote of a 'watcher at the gates of the mind', who examines ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind 'the intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.' He said that uncreative people 'are ashamed of the momentary passing madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be capable of furnishing a very serviceable link.'

Keith Johnstone, Impro, pp. 78-79. One of the most important books that exists.

11 comments:

  1. Oh, wow! I never noticed that before but he's right ... people did used to think of art not so much as artists expressing themselves, but as, like, an idea using an artist to express itself.

    That way of understanding it seems like it requires you to believe in, like, Platonic Forms or something ... free-floating ideas outside the heads of any one person ... which I don't believe in, but the new way of understanding it has the baggage attached to it that Johnstone mentions, which I had never noticed before.

    It also occurs to me that this way of looking at art would seem to imply that there are creative people and uncreative people, that only a few people are Artists, and those people create all the art. When to me it's like, maybe that's true, but what I think is probably more likely is that everyone has some creativity in them, and that inspiration can strike anyone.

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    1. I think people vary in their innate capacities, but I also think that there are methods of disinhibition (some of which Johnstone talks about) that can "unleash the creativity" of everyone a little bit more. I'm working on a long piece about this!

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    2. I'm very interested in this - particularly in how it may relate to songwriting - and how both may be related to the ideas that George Hansen has about the paranormal.

      I've been keeping a log of quotes and related anecdotes from rock stars for a while, that seem to validate these loose theories.

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  2. Hello Sister Y. Every Cradle is a Grave is currently out of stock on Amazon. Is this likely to change anytime soon?

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    1. Is it available as an eBook?

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    2. It's just gone to print - see my most recent post for links, and there should be plenty of copies available soon. Thanks!

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  3. I am thinking about how to mix rationalism and these ideas and I've found more paths than I expected:
    - Macro level: all the "commons movements" that are growing today and that idea of culture as a entity greater than us, and shared by everybody (Jung, are you there?)
    - Micro level: intelligence as an emergent property of a system greater than "I". Not all my mind is "I", so I'm not worthy of everything I do.

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  4. Speaking from the personal experience of someone closing out the 7th decade who has functioned as an 'artist' for a lifetime, I can report that it has always seemed that ideas and inspiration are in the ether, so-to-speak, and available to anyone who can manage to tune in, usually inadvertently. A corollary to that observation is a strong antipathy to the notion of Intellectual Property as another false constraint on the common creative impulse.

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    1. Yeah, I was thinking that bit about IP as well.

      "Ideas are, like, expressing themselves through us" is an awful convenient philosopy for those who just cannot with the messy business of, like, asking for permission and stuff.

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