Archive for September, 2010

The Creative Decision

September 1, 2010

In the arts, the word creative gets wide use but nonetheless has a rather exclusive air to it. On the one hand, there’s an assumption that if it’s art then it’s self-evidently the product of a creative impulse. On the other, a negative criticism of any artwork that is not liked is that it is not very creative, which implies a sort of scale of creativity from mundane to genius even among artists.

I tend to avoid the term art as much as possible. The standard definition appears to be that it is art if the maker/presenter says it is. At best this is narcissistic, at worst it can give an inflated value to a pile of poo. And to speak of the creative arts would seem a tautology, though we do, accepting the implication that some arts are not creative.

Art and artist are words that we must necessarily use whether we are discussing painting, printing or photography, when we want to refer to a product, a genre or a person. Art and non-art are held to be polar opposites, whatever non-art might be. But the word art contains implied exclusions, including the suggestion that anything derived from a scientific approach cannot be art. Well, tell that to the Raku potter.

But beyond fine art, or art that is an end in itself and serves no practical purpose as an object, the art word is as relevant to the cook and pastry maker as it is to the mathematical theorist as it is to the sculptor or musician. Or the dancer and the surfer dude. Or it should be.

My suspicion is that all this defining of terms is nothing but a smokescreen, imposed by Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci at the height of the Italian Renaissance to persuade ordinary folk that being an artist was a specialty and that the lesser arts were mere crafts. Crafts can be learned, art is inspired, etc, etc. This has been continually reinforced by successive generations of Romantics who fixate on a belief in inspiration, whether as some form of external flaming tongue or as a so-called heightened state of consciousness.

I take issue with this, firstly because there are no flaming tongues and secondly, a heightened state of consciousness, (an unfortunate expression) is nothing more than an alteration in brain chemistry.

The first time I saw Tony Smith’s Die, a sculpture created in 1962, I thought to myself that at last the Renaissance was over. This was an anti-art, not in the sense of a found object like Duchamp’s Fountain, but rather an object intentionally created to compress all that mankind had learned since we first scratched out a hunting map in the soil. It seemed like a black hole that had sucked all knowledge inside itself and closed it off – and a fitting end to both Modernism and the Renaissance.

I’m exaggerating a little, perhaps, but the cube was both art and ‘thing’. The only meaning it could have was whatever the viewer sought to impose on it, since, apart from its cuboid form, it offered nothing. I daresay it prompted arguments over whether it was art or not, and it might still today, but it was clearly a product of Smith’s own creativity. And that is perhaps the key point to explore.

Creativity is what matters. And indeed there is a scale of creativity, though a little different from what I described at the beginning. Not from mundane to genius, but from indecisive to decisive. This has been known for some time, but it required the insight of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson to bring the idea back into public consciousness. He found it in the writings of Cardinal de Retz (17th c.) who had written of “un moment decisif”. Cartier-Bresson elaborated on this, saying that for him, “photography is the simultaneous recognition, in the fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organisation of forms which give the event its proper expression.” A faint irony being that photography has had a hard time being accepted as an art at all.

Creativity and being creative is all to do with making decisions, decisions that are frequently complex, though not always calculated. Working with my students I can often see how indecision prevents them from making progress. They worry and fret about expectations, about results, about effect rather than form, surface rather than structure. Drawing a line, (here, not there) or constructing a phrase (to be, or not to) requires a decisive action from the nervous system to the muscles. The impulse may stem from the imagination, from the memory, or from the senses – from ear to mouth or eye to hand. Creation demands decisions.

Creative people (or, if you will, people who are engaged in a creative activity) are involved in making decisions in every moment of their work. The artist is simply one who is addicted to making decisions.

The frequency of fresh decisions has a parallel in the complexity of the work. Jazz improvisation may be a good example of high frequency decision making, though any fine focus or collaborative work will be equally demanding. And to the decision-making addict, the greater the demand the greater the satisfaction. This is why the snapshot, even though it is accepted as vernacular art, can be placed at some distance from the creative photograph. Almost by definition, the snap involves relatively few decisions.

The inversion of creativity, the so-called writer’s block, is less a lack of inspiration than a disengagement of the decision-making faculty. Time for digestion must be given its due. If you watch how animals hunt, you will note that they will usually study their prey for a long while before taking action. The action they take, to track, chase, seize and kill is a sequence of critical decisions. Eating and sleeping follow.

In photography, the decision-making processes can be quite complex in arranging the final image. There are many steps that lead through opportunity and selection, including proficiency and vision, towards whatever decisions will yield satisfaction. Creative decisions are demanding, and sometimes difficult to make, but there are few things we do that can say more about us as creative beings than how we arrive at a decision.


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