Creation: A Journey to the Reflecting Pool

We pride ourselves on being the scions of logic and science, the descendants of an unparalleled age of theoretical and empirical knowledge, the beneficiaries of technologies that continue to revolutionize our minds and our lives. Our successes have served to reinforce the supremacy of logic and methodology, of the immense value of the progression of associative thought, each step carefully and linearly constructed upon the foundation of all that has gone before all that has been tested and proven, and therefore safe. Each day we strive to become more technically excellent, to bring virtuosity to our work and our lives. This is the civilized, adult prescription for progress, because, after all, only children and primitives dream and fantasize, illogically painting those dreams and fantasies onto the material of their daily lives.

But creation, or its fountainhead, creativity, comes from those who can and do dream, fantasize, laugh, feel pain, experience joy, and display technical mastery. We already know that technical mastery is the vital ingredient that allows us to translate the vision into a form that resonates in the empirical and/or mythical understanding of others, and thereby makes it accessible and comprehensible to those who in turn can absorb it into their own vision. This is the essence of the "sympathetic magic" that enlivens the dialogue between the artist and the audience. That magic is, above all, the ability of the artist not only to make a statement about his or her soul and its relationship to the universe, but also to ask new questions of the audience, and thereby grant them the privilege of their most important task, that of participating in the dialogue in order to discern for themselves the meaning of the work and its connections with their own lives and thought. The intention, for instance, of folkloric riddles and parables, is not to obscure the meaning, but to make more illuminating the message by encouraging the audience to arrive at those meanings by their own efforts.

Technical Expertise and Poetic Fantasy

When the styles of an art have become conventionalized, the audience is excused from the need to exert its intelligence and imagination. Recognition of formula replaces sympathetic magic. We have learned that works of art that require little or no effort from their viewers are the least instructive and therefore usually the least memorable, irrespective of how momentarily pleasing they mignt be.

"...explicit works of art with an emphatic, pointed message contain all the elements in ready-made form which otherwise the audience would have to contribute. The surest symptom of decadent art is that it leaves nothing to the imagination: the muse has bared her flabby bosom like a too obliging harlot - there is no veiled promise, no mystery, nothing to divine." (Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1964, p. 342.)

If the act of creating requires technical virtuosity, both as a medium for bringing it into existence and as a lens through which medium-specific forms can be critically assessed, then it also depends on relaxation of controls, indifference to the canons of logic, and the suspension of disciplined reason. It requires the ability to "let go," to allow the fluency of receptive ideation and childlike vision to bring synthesis and renewed life to our art. While we are awake, being rational, neither dreaming nor fantasizing, the choice of images relates chiefly to the need for action, and is therefore restricted to "usefulness." But in dreaming, there is no obligation to be rational, and the range is therefore less limited. To have the maturity, education, expertise, experience and sensibilities of an adult, and to integrate a reintroduction of childlike vision, where all is possible and all is wonder, is to greatly expand the personal universe of creative potential. In a moment of introspective modesty, explaining how he in particular came to discover the Theory of Relativity, Einstein said "I ... developed so slowly that I only began to wonder about space and time when I was already grown up. In consequence I probed deeper into the problem than an ordinary child would have done."

Aside from the amalgam of technical expertise and the "lawlessness" of poetic dream-fantasy, a vital role is played by a third component, humor, and the use of humor to progress from the ridiculous to the sublime. If there is a single element that unites all considerations of the creative process, it is the ability to discern the ways in which wit inverts logic and subverts emotional expectation to provide the delightful surprise of new perspectives. Humor is the force which most sympathetically provides us with an entry into creativity, and which most humanizes it, adding the role of the jester to the fraternity of the sage and the dreamer, to form not a brotherhood of three persons, but a montage, each of the elements being inseparable from the others.

We are all creatures of metaphor, by which we transfer our understanding of a set of causal events from one sphere of knowledge to another. We trust that the sequence previously and successfully followed will at least provide insight into new problems, and we create metaphorically by the representation of thoughts, events, and images through the use of indirect means, through illusion, which is often of greater value than "fact." In an exquisitely Gallic statement, André Maurois said: "It is not sufficient to have illusion. You must have enough of it to avoid having too much." Clearly, the area of a photographer's print or painter's canvas is different from the subject represented, the pigment different from the colors seen, and the proportions rendered in two dimensions. The writer, in composing dialogue, does not render the voices, nor create temperature, texture, scent, or movement. And yet, by the skilled employment of metaphor, and the use of "sympathetic magic" - where there is emphasis by exaggeration, and economy by selection and simplification - an artist can often draw from an audience some resonance of universal, intellectual and emotive recognition despite the uniqueness and even ethnocentricity of an individual work. It is this resonance, in the experience, education, aspirations, culture and mythology of its audience that earns for great art its appreciation.

The ingenious vitality of twentieth century American music, for instance, not only owes its life to its own folk and classical forebears, but has endowed those forebears with renewed vitality. It hasn't replaced them or made them obsolete. On the contrary, their place in the history of music has become more secure and more honored precisely because new forms have, paradoxically, prevented their decay. In the same way, the majestic genius of Leonardo da Vinci is not in any way diminished by the works of art and science that succeeded him. On the contrary, all the greatness of what has followed Leonardo has served to enshrine his talent and our great debt to him. It was he, after all, who wrote in the Treatise on Painting, that "to create by formula is to create confusion."

Contemporary and Classic Photography

The perception by so many that contemporary photography is a threat to photography's classic style and imagery, and a challenge to its continued existence, is an unjustified fear. The bold new visions of electronic imaging do not constitute a diminishment of the labors of Carleton Watkins of Stiegliz or Holland Day; they simply add to the repertoire of expressive and aesthetic possibilities, giving us a constantly renewed freedom to look, learn and admire from ever-new viewpoints. The act of producing, and being receptive to, new forms, does not necessarily subvert the old forms, but just their inherent limitations. It is therefore also an act of preservation through renewed perspective, without which the "classical" simply becomes old and worn, discredited by formulaic repetition, and rendered lifeless by its more myopic, and often most vociferous defenders.

The battle between the traditionalists and the modernists is a battle fought by the wrong antagonists, in the wrong place, and for the wrong reasons, like most military battles, and like them, shouldn't be fought at all. The problem isn't in choosing one "side" or another, but in the foolish rejection of the immense value and mutual interdependence of both. The character of the creative act is that it is not only innovative, but that it must necessarily occupy a place in the continuum of the medium in which it innovates, and in turn become the basis for further renewal. Yesterday's creative discoveries are today's truisms, now simply the latest chapters in the continuing book of common knowledge.

The photographer, as visual artist, is exceptionally fortunate, because innovation in the visual arts is more immediate and more transitory than in science, where innovation must be absorbed into a more structured, cumulative order. For the photographer, then, the moment of creative innovation is necessarily both satisfaction and an undeniable imperative: the former derived from the joy of innovation, and the latter because artistic innovation being short-lived, there is a relentless compulsion toward the next innovation, and the next. . . I pray that it is redundant, though I fear it is not, to insist that those who see photography as "instant art" confuse the mechanical moment with the creative process - one that begins long before the shutter release, and often continues long afterward. It is a gross misapprehension of the photographer's art to regard the moment of shutter release as anything more than one step along the way, a step which is much more often anticlimax than climax.

The creative photographer is frequently one who is able to use the technology of the camera to subvert its automaticity and make images that do not necessarily tell stories in a conventional sense, but which, as British photographer Edward Bowman has written, "produce a kind of visual poetry in which ambiguity, suggestion, and association of ideas are of far more importance." The passion to reduce art to the security blanket of predictable technology is no more evident than in the question asked so often, though moderated by an intended compliment: "I love your photographs. What kind of camera do you use?" I long for the day when one of my readers will say: "I love your writing. What kind of computer program do you use?"

We should, therefore, take great care to differentiate between the creativity of the spirit and the tendency, since the Renaissance, to cling to a consuming belief in mechanical techniques. Ultimately it is the former which gives continued life to the latter. "To the extent that we lose this free, original creativity of the spirit as it is exemplified in poetry and music and art," writes Rollo May, "we shall also lose our scientific creativity."

"What if imagination and art are not frosting at all, but the fountainhead of human experience? What if our logic and science derive from art forms and are fundamentally dependent on them rather than art being merely a decoration for our work when science and logic have produced it? (Rollo May, The Courage to Create, New York: Bantam, 1976, p. 150.)

Creativity is an act of liberation: it is the defeat of habit by originality. In the process of defeating habit, it is also an act of destruction of those things in which many people will have a vested interest. This is at the center of why the act of creation is also an act of courage, and also why it so often produces reaction, anxiety and guilt, as well as joy. Creativity is the process by which we bring something new into being, but it is more. It is also a creed by which we think, work and live. It is not merely a weekend activity in which to find occasional relief from the habituation of "normality." To be creative requires, according to Rollo May, not only "talent," which, like "intelligence" is only potential, but an intense encounter, a very high degree of absorption with an object, idea or situation, and engagement, an act which makes the creative process real rather than being simply an idea about which nothing is done. Paradoxically, the act of making the creative process real in photography, as in the other art forms, is to successfully create illusion, just as the creative scientist strives to dispel illusion. And, just as the scientist seeks objectivity, the artist must be subjective, while at the same time trying to provide us with the connection between his or her subjectivity and ours.

The importance of the illusions of art is no illusion, and plays a vital role in the lives of human societies. Otherwise, why, despite the drama of our individual lives, do we seek the art of the dramatist and why, with the vision of reality all around us, do we seek the interpretations of the artist? It is because, as André Malraux has said, "The artist . . . is not the transcriber of the world; he is its rival." This is of particular interest to photography, with its history of perceived realism at the center of its aesthetic.

Creative Freedom and Permeable Boundaries

If creativity demands freedom, it also demands boundaries, and in art the creative act is given structure through discipline and through form. Pure spontaneity and chance favor invention only in minds that are already prepared for discovery by patient study and perseverance. I believe it was the golfer Gary Player who said "The more I practice, the luckier I get!"

It was the medieval university that gave us, apparently forever, the modern structure of divisions among discrete "disciplines," and to which we owe some gratitude for having fractured knowledge and intellectual enterprise into digestible portions. The immense expansion and strengthening of the individual preserves of disciplines, each with its own perspectives, jargon and taxonomy, have also, unfortunately, led to jealous territorialism, the construction of barriers, and an age of specialization and "professionalism" that tends to relieve us of the obligation to acquire insight into other professions or to mesh our professional lives with the larger issues of ethical being.

"The trend nowadays," writes art critic Suzi Gablik, "is for an ever more one-sided type of professional achievement which, at its highest point, often permits the personality as a whole to fall into neglect." She continues: "If creativeness lies equally at the root of artistic talent and life experience, the most important object of productiveness will be the human personality itself . . . The work of art, then, is merely the evidence of the individual's self-transformation - the tracks, but not the actual animal. Build living Buddhas, says the Zen maxim, not pagodas." This sentiment is closely supported by Johannes Itten, who has written: "It is not the means of expression that count in art, but the individual in his identity and humanity. First comes the cultivation and creation of the individual, then the individual can create."

As we approach the end of the twentieth century, there is evidence that the walls among the discrete disciplines and individual art forms are beginning to weaken, or at least to become more permeable. This may be in reaction to extreme specialization. But it may also be a recognition of greater individual responsibility for the repertoire of our capabilities, as well as an acknowledgement of the symbiotic nature of human knowledge. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the arts, and I fancy that the peculiarities and imaging power of photography have had a significant effect on this movement. We have been accustomed to thinking of "mixed media" as a bold combination of the materials of two or more art forms, and I wish to suggest that the term applies equally to an art form which, using only its "own" materials, employs also the perspectives or thought forms of another medium, or other media. Thus, those photographers who followed or follow the pictorial tradition, using a "painterly" style, are mixed-media artists, though some may have been suffering from a simple case of brush envy. By the same token, the works of many painters, from Degas to Andrew Wyeth, Philip Pearlstein and others, show a decidedly photographic influence.

In 1954 Sir Leigh Ashton, then Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, wrote "Photography is a mechanical process into which the artist does not enter." He was dead wrong in both senses. I recall a remarkable exhibit a few years ago in a gallery of the Friends of Photography in San Francisco, a sculpture called "Allegory After Courbet" by John De Andrea. it consisted of a clothed, seated figure of a man examining a plaster cast of his own facial features in his extended right hand. Behind him, eyes in the same direction, was the standing figure of a nude woman. Though colored in shades of grey (monochrome), they were so realistic as to be frightening, though there was nothing apparently aggressive about them. I stood there for many minutes, expecting one or both "persons" to turn a disparaging gaze at my intrusion, and I felt a tingle of irrational fear. Curator and photographic historian John Bloom wrote "De Andrea's sculpture is really an inversion of conventional photography. The artist has taken literal representation, the backbone of the medium, to an unnerving extreme. The precision that we attach to the camera, rather than to the human eye, here has been uncannily fleshed out."

The Reflecting Pool

How and where are we to discover the reservoir of all of our creative resources? At this point, we arrive at a bend in the road, and as it sweeps down to a valley we begin to see the curves of the reflecting pool. The reflecting pool does not divulge my image, so it's no use for narcissism, nor does it reflect, upright or inverted, the physical world that surrounds it. it is rather more enigmatic, never transparent, occasionally translucent, sometimes shimmering as a source of light, sometimes so absorptive that it hardly looks like a pool at all. It offers reflection in other, mysterious ways, yielding not an image, but a series of thoughts, dreams and fantasies that can be made into images of many kinds, and it does so only when one is brave enough to draw from its liquid. The act of drawing does not deplete the pool, but replenishes and enriches it. it is really a public pool, available and open all day and all night to anyone who has the curiosity to sit on its edge and risk being exposed to its many mysteries. There are no divisions in the pool, no obstacles that would impede the free movement of its fluids from one part to another in either breadth or depth. When drawing from it, one can never be quite sure of the color or texture or complexity, and each ladleful is different from every other. Occasionally a parched enthusiast, deprived by a lifetime of discrete discipline, falls into the pool and almost drowns, then emerges to the wisdom of greater care. Some flee from the experience, seeking refuge instead in waters that are historically and predictably colorless, odorless, tasteless, and contain only the reflections of recognizable objects from the known world. The reflecting pool is located only at the end of a long and arduous journey. it can be found only by those who make exploration their life's work, for the sake of finding the relationship between themselves and the fellowship of the creative universe. To arrive at the reflecting pool is the start of a new and richer journey.

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© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. This article was originally published in LensWork.

Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.