Form As a Limitation in Creativity

Have you ever dreamed a fantastic thing in your mind, and then you tried to put it on paper or paint it on canvas or sculpt it or mold it, and it just didn’t have that oomph you saw in your head?

Ah, you’ve fallen prey to what I call the artist’s discrepancy—the falling short of the plan. It doesn’t mean the art is worthless.  No, it simply means that it never matches up, exactly, with the vision in your head.  A common feeling amongst artists.

Forgive me if I’m harping on this whole creativity thing, but I’m in the throes of wondering if my novel will turn out as I had hoped, and then I read the following.

[I have tons of artist friends (as well as people who are really artists but don’t know it!), so I thought this might mean something to some of you.]

From Rollo May’s The Courage to Create.

The significance of limits in art is seen most clearly when we consider the question of form.  Form provides the essential boundaries and structure for the creative act.  It is no accident that the art critic Clive Bell, in his books about Cézanne, cites “significant form” as the key to understanding the great painter’s work.

Let us say I draw a rabbit on a blackboard.  You say, “There’s a rabbit.”  In reality there is nothing at all on the blackboard except the simple line I have made: no protrusion, nothing three dimensional, no indentation.  It is the same blackboard as it was, and there can be no rabbit “on” it.  You see only my chalk line, which may be infinitesimally narrow.  This line limits the content.  It says what space is within the picture and what is outside—it is a pure limiting to that particular form.  The rabbit appears because you have accepted my communication that this space within the line is that which I wish to demarcate.

There is in this limiting a nonmaterial character, a spiritual character if you will, that is necessary in all creativity.  Hence, form and, similarly, design, plan, and pattern all refer to a nonmaterial meaning present in the limits.

Our discussion of form demonstrates something else—that the object you see is a product both of your subjectivity and external reality.  The form is born out of a dialectical relation between my brain (which is subjective, in me) and the object that I see external to me (which is objective).  As Immanuel Kant insisted, we not only know the world, but the world at the same time conforms to our ways of knowing.  Incidentally, note the word conform—the world forms itself “with,” it takes on our forms.

The trouble begins whenever anyone dogmatically sets himself of herself up to defend either extreme.  On the one hand, when an individual insists on his or her own subjectivity and follows exclusively his or her own imagination, we have a person whose flights of fancy may be interesting but who never really relates to the objective world.  When, on the other hand, an individual insists that there is nothing “there” except empirical reality, we have a technologically minded person who would impoverish and oversimplify his or her and our lives.  Our perception is determined by our imagination as well as by the empirical facts of the outside world.

In a sense, this ties into what May says earlier in the book, something I love: “Thus the artists—in which term I hereafter include the poets, musicians, dramatists, plastic artists, as well as saints—are a ‘dew’ line, to use McLuhan’s phrase; they give us a ‘distant early warning’ of what is happening to our culture.  In the art of our day we see symbols galore of alienation and anxiety.  But at the same time there is form amid discord, beauty amid ugliness, some human love in the midst of hatred—a love that temporarily triumphs over death but always loses out in the long run.  The artists thus express the spiritual meaning of their culture.  Our problem is: Can we read their meaning aright?”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with that original quote by McLuhan, here it is:

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.  —Marshall McLuhan

I want to be a dew line.  How about you?

[Post image: Caution 2 by tome213 on stock.xchng]

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