Taking Risks (2009)

Creativity: Beyond the Self

Women and the Arts Helaine Blumenfeld

In the spring I gave a talk entitled Creativity: Beyond the Self to the Newnham Arts Society. I have been asked to transpose this into an article. The nature of the talk was extremely personal, anecdotal and informal and I have tried to maintain some of this feeling in the article.

As a child, I frequently had visionary dreams that were overwhelming. I’d wake up and want to express what I had dreamt to my family. I would try to put into words the complex images I had experienced and they would look at me blankly as if I were speaking another language. I realized that the words I was using to express what was happening to me, what I was seeing, what I was feeling, gave no indication of what I had dreamt. This happened repeatedly. I thought it was because I didn’t have enough words; that my vocabulary was too limited to convey the wonders of my dreams. The dreams continued. My inability to express them led to a daily quest for language. Although I read constantly, listened intently and wrote continuously, my ability to communicate the power and beauty of my dreams did not advance. When I was 15 I began university hoping at last to discover the missing words that would enable me to translate my visions.

In fact, the more words I had, the less articulate I became. The banality of ordinary language seemed to trivialize my experience rather than describe it. I began to recognize that ordinary language could not express dreams, which are by their very nature beyond language. I felt discouraged. By the time I had come to this realization I had already completed my thesis for a doctorate in Philosophy. Ironically it concerned itself with John Locke’s belief that in order to attain certainty in moral questions, there had to be an axiomatic science of ethics which would replace words with mathematical symbols. My dissertation examined Locke’s efforts to establish this “science” which did not succeed in imbuing moral statements with certainty and left me still searching for a language capable of describing a realm that exists beyond words.

Around this time my husband and I were in Naples visiting the National Archaeological Museum. I was fascinated by a display case of very small terracotta heads from the Cycladic period. These sculptures came to life as I observed their textures and shapes; each tiny image, depicting only a few features, created a mystical awareness of a complex person and their life-story that extended beyond language and did not require words for its impact.

The effect these sculptures had on me was immediate. I suddenly knew that this was going to be my future. I would try to develop a language with a vocabulary that had nothing to do with words, but had to do with images, a language that somehow bypassed cultural specificities and presented itself to people across all backgrounds. A language that could tell them something they didn’t know, set them on a search for a meaning that went beyond appearance and excite their imaginations. Just seeing these ‘portraits’ I felt incredibly excited, I felt I had access to another level of experience. I had never been a visual person: I didn’t paint, I didn’t draw, and I had never created anything in clay. And yet, with a clarity that took me by surprise, I knew that my preoccupation with words was over. I was ready to abandon words for forms.

I have never looked back. Mine has been an amazing journey; I have often felt I was blazing a trail, trying to express ideas that illuminated the human spirit. It has taken many years for me to develop a fluent visual language, yet I have been fascinated by the intensity of the creative journey and the factors that affect it.

Reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and attending her view of what fosters the creative mind really is a starting point for some of the more formal observations I want to make. I’ll begin with dreams, because that is how I became involved in sculpture. For me dreams are the stuff of which art is made. They are at the origin of so much of the creative process, whether we’re talking about literature or music, painting or sculpture; I think dreams provide the initial impetus. The power of art throughout history has been its ability to give expression to dreams that could empower, the fact of expression enabling us to experience their impact. Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain wrote: “Now I know that it is not out of our single souls that we dream. We dream anonymously, communally. The great soul of which we are a part may dream through us … its own secret dreams.” Another one of the ideas that has most affected me was stated by Jung, who said that when the artist goes deep, deep into his own psyche and puts himself aside, what he dreams is a universal dream that will touch everybody who sees it or hears it or reads it.

I believe this is the power of art, a power that has not been adequately recognized and therefore developed in our society. I am always aware of the amazing possibility art has to spiritualize society and for me this is very important. I think that we are living in a time of spiritual deprivation and I would like to see some way to redress this, although I don’t see how this will happen unless the state of mind that the artist is in when creating is one that allows freedom from all the factors which distract from discovering a universal self or dream.

Although, at one level, I left philosophy behind, it is still what often inspires and informs what I do. Joseph Campbell, to whose work I frequently turn, believed that art was the “clothing of a revelation,” the encounter with something unexpected. To look at a work of art, we have to put all our expectations behind us; we have to come to it as something new. We must be willing to be affected by it. Campbell warns that we must not be misdirected, we must not look to art for an answer, but we must look with intuition and imagination: “art,” he said, “can die in the mouth of reason.”

I think we see today that there is an effort to interpret art rationally, and through this we are often deprived of the possibility of penetrating its mystery. Oscar Wilde once said most people, given the chance to choose between going to heaven and hearing a lecture about heaven would go to the lecture. I would like to relate an experience that will demonstrate this. I had a major show in New York. There were thirty of my marble and bronze sculptures in an enormous gallery. In a side room at the back, televised interviews with me about my work were being shown. That little room in the back was so crowded, it was impossible to enter. Everybody wanted to be in that room, looking at the television and listening to the explanations. Very few people had the courage to enter the main gallery and deal with the actual work, to “experience” it, as Campbell says. People are much more comfortable with explanation and photographs than they are with the direct experience of a work of art. How did this happen? How did our society get to this point? Even at a recent exhibition of my sculpture in London, people looked at a book about my work before they actually confronted it. I think if Campbell is right in believing that art is about revelation, people are afraid of revelation. They’re afraid of the unknown. I think art is there to astonish us, to move us, but if that is to happen, we must allow ourselves to be part of the experience.

For the artist creativity is about expressing something beyond the self. It is not about expressing personal grievances, it is not about expressing political ideas, and it is not about expressing one’s pain. As Susan Langer has said, the artist has the ability to express the pain of all human beings. The question is, how do we get from what is a very personal experience to something which is going to touch all people and bypass the personal?

Woolf acknowledged the difficulty of attaining the universal when she answered the question, “What is the state of mind of the artist that is most favourable to the act of creation?”:

The mind of the artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent. Everything is against the likelihood that it will come from the writer’s mind whole and entire. Generally, material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark, people will interrupt, money must be made, health will break down…

She goes on to write that the reason we know so little of Shakespeare compared with Donne, Ben Johnson or Milton, is that “his grudges and spites and antipathies are hidden from us. All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world a witness of some hardship, all of that was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore, his poetry can flow from him, free and unimpeded.”

She then raises the question, would it have been possible to find a woman in that state of mind in the sixteenth century? This is a provocative question, because who do you find in that state of mind in the twenty-first century, male or female? And I think this suggests an obstacle to creativity which has not been adequately confronted. I agree completely that for art to have purity, resonance, brilliance and universality it has to come from an unencumbered, pure flow, and yet how many artists are able to achieve this state?

Certainly this has been more problematic for women. If you are trying to fight a cause, if you are angry, it’s very hard for the work to go beyond the self; it is the self which is being expressed. And so the possibility of truly soaring, of really doing something that will resonate deeply within the observer is very limited. Woolf’s question, looking at why there weren’t any great women artists in Shakespeare’s time, is relevant when we ask why there are so few great women artists in general. Just the fact of a woman wanting to be an artist in the past created not only indifference but also hostility. Certainly women have had a much harder time, because they have had so many obstacles to free themselves from!

If creativity is about being able to delve deeply into yourself until you reach a place that is totally universal, beyond your own ego, beyond your own identity, then you must know how to get out of your own way; you must be able to lose yourself by deeply submerging into yourself. The risks involved in doing this are enormous. When you go into the centre that is your “self” you risk losing the “identity” that protects you. You are entering dangerous, unchartered territory.

I remember reading a poem by Yeats many years before I became a sculptor, not really knowing what was meant by it. One sentence stays with me:

Why should we only honour those that die upon the field of battle when the artist may show us reckless courage by entering into the abyss of himself?

If you’re not an artist, this line may be difficult to understand. If you are, the risk is there all the time, threatening, frightening and challenging, because once you go into that abyss, you don’t know if you’re going to come out again unchanged. If the raw material of art, whatever art one is doing, is, as I believe, the psyche, then you are all the time going in and out of something which is very volatile, very fragile. When I’m working I disconnect entirely from my rational thought, from the reality that surrounds me. I have an experience that does take me beyond my own ego. I think this is what every artist who is passionate about what he is doing discovers.

Of course creating a visual language is only viable when there is an audience ready to take it in. If, as I suggested earlier, there is not a desire, appetite or willingness to receive “revelation” and in its place there is a preference for explanation, even the most evocative work of art will go unnoticed. And this brings us to the ultimate question of how we define and experience a work of art. Until the end of the Second World War we were quite clear about what a work of art was. There were established criteria: beauty, power, unity, craftsmanship, artistry. Art communicated, it expressed a concept of life, an emotion; an inward reality. It was not meant to be a confession, it was a metaphor, a symbol, an outward showing of an inward nature, whether it was a poem, a painting or a sculpture; it transcended the private and personal. Today, we don’t have any such definitions. Ever since the end of the Second World War, there’s been a great move towards “freedom”, “liberating” people from all standards, rules, and laws. But if there are no standards, everything is art. And if everything is art, as we often observe, it is not easy to determine what art is.

I would still say I know what an artist is, but there are lots of people who would disagree with me. I think an artist has to start with a vision and has to recognize that this vision will require an extraordinary language. There has to be a sense that this language must be expressed through a particular art form – poetry, music, painting, and sculpture. As I have indicated, I had visions from the time I was very young and could see things that I wanted to express. I wanted to use words to describe what I “saw” and gradually discovered language was the wrong tool. As soon as I started to explore sculpture I discovered that clay was the medium that was an extension of my own being. I worked with a great sculptor, the Russian artist Ossip Zadkine, who believed you should learn everything; you should learn to carve, to weld, to model – he himself was really a brilliant woodcarver. And though I followed his teaching I knew that clay was the material for me. I have moved on to do woodcarving, I am a very good stone-carver and I work often with metal, but even now, when I get a commission to do a big work, I don’t want to go right into stone; I experience almost a physical need to first create the full-size work in clay.

An artist must find the craft, the materials to use, and be able to really draw on an inner vision as well as their own psyche as raw material. It is that vision which lies at the centre of all originality. Equally important, the artist must be able to stand back from the work and view it critically, objectively, and be able to take it in totally and judge it. It’s in this process that the work passes from subject to object and takes on a life of its own.

In order more fully to explain what I mean when I suggest that creativity requires going “beyond the self”, it might be helpful to explore in some depth the way I work.

For me the creative process involves many stages. I begin by being very self-centred, preoccupied and focused on my feelings. Before I start a new work, it’s not unusual for me to experience a number of very disturbing emotions, anxiety, tension, and even depression. Initially I am always nervous, I always have the desire to create a masterpiece and am always afraid that the new work won’t meet my expectations or live up to the preceding piece; at this stage, there’s a tremendous questioning of my talent and my judgment. To create a new work requires, almost, a suspension of consciousness, a dreamlike state that may resemble states observed in mental patients but which is, in fact, totally the opposite. To ascend and descend into my deepest levels of consciousness requires extreme discipline and training, as well as awareness.

Once I begin working there is tremendous elation. I lose all sense of time and can work for hours and hours. I am obsessive, I have enormous energy, I feel euphoric and spurred on by the ability to throw off self-conscious control so that access to the subconscious is almost unimpeded; I work without reference to anything but that sculpture and I never look critically at the work – I am inside it but not trapped by it, I am there by my own choice.

When I feel the form is beginning to arrive and I’m at a point from which I can move out, that is when the conscious eye begins to criticize, correct and evaluate. Here it’s vital to be able to stand back and see the entire work as a unit, to absorb every aspect of it almost as a single entity. It has been essential for me to develop my ability to see many things at one moment; I don’t see a work partially, I see its totality. While my mind holds every single part, I see simultaneously how each part has to be changed and modified to enable the piece to be successful. In that moment acute self-criticism comes into play: with an amazing clarity I am able to judge the piece I have been working on. Often I’ll look at a sculpture, and even though I may have worked many days without sleep, I am able to “know” whether or not it “succeeds.” If it doesn’t, I have to accept abandoning it.

But the trace of it remains in my subconscious and that’s what keeps me from depression: I don’t feel at that moment that I’ve failed, I feel excited to start again because I’ve learnt so much from the mistakes of that piece and the next is going to be better. Earlier in my career I threw the clay out or recycled it; now, I often put that piece into plaster to act as a visual memory, a record of my development.

The ability to stand back and see rationally whether or not a sculpture has potential, and to know how to alter it is an almost instant revelation but it’s revealed by the mind, not the emotions. As an artist I have got to switch from working emotionally, almost irrationally, through my subconscious, to making an intellectual appraisal. At that point I go into the next stage of creativity, which is to translate the rough model, the model that I have created in a state touched by inspiration – I wouldn’t like to say madness – and refine it into a finished work.

To summarise: I have two eyes as an artist, the eye which is coming from all those levels of consciousness within me and is set free because I’m so trained with my hands and my technical ability that I need no guidance, I need no light, even; and the critical eye, which is about assessment and refinement. If that critical eye intervenes too soon, it starts to impose a structure coming from my rational, conscious mind on an object which isn’t yet fully born; the object’s power is deprived, it becomes contrived and loses its magic. We interfere with the development of our own language if we try to control it before that time has come. We’re in a twilight zone between rational and emotional, between control and freedom, and it’s in that area that the artist’s greatest work is realized.

The way in which I work is now much more intuitive than it used to be; to illustrate this, I’d like to describe the creation of the piece called Venus, which was a significant turning point in my own working process. At the time, I was trying to finish a large-scale commission in stone for a building in Paris, which had to be ready because the roof was going on the building. It must have been June or July and I was working all day, every day, outside in the heat. One day I was too tired to work any longer; at about three o’clock I went down to my studio, where it was quite cool, and I started working some clay. I was so tired that I didn’t even look at what I was doing. It was one of the few times that I’ve had that absolute sense of being possessed; I didn’t think about it, I just grabbed clay and flung it together, and worked until it was very dark. I couldn’t even see by that time and yet I somehow felt that I could finally leave it. The next day, before I went to work the stone again, I wanted to see what I had done. When I walked into the studio, I almost had no connection with it; it was so beautiful, so figurative and articulated, that I couldn’t imagine I had created it. Yet although it was like nothing I’d ever done before, its theme was one which is embedded in all my work: the many facets of the human psyche. From plaster to travertine, I didn’t alter it as I would normally do; it was as if someone else had created it and if I touched it I could lose everything. The work that’s come since hasn’t been as unconscious, but I’ve built it up in the same way, not thinking, just working in a kind of frenzy, then looking at the structure for hours and realizing that all I could do was improve it. It is in this process – leaving thought, awareness and reason aside, trusting intuition, trusting the process of creating, allowing the almost automatic connection between one’s subconscious and one’s hands working the clay to take over – that the artist can go beyond the self.

If someone had observed me when I was working in this way to create Venus, they could be forgiven for thinking me mad. If you look at the characteristics of how an artist works, of creating a work of art, you begin to see reasons for the persistent confusion and effort to link mental illness, particularly manic-depressive illness, to artistic creation because there is an area where temperament and patterns of behavior seem to overlap.

When one perceives the danger the process of creation poses it is easy to understand this apparent overlap. As I allow myself to set aside the “self”, I approach the possibility of representing the universal rather than the personal; to do this, paradoxically, it is vital to enter deeply into one’s inner consciousness but it can be difficult to emerge unchanged. But the differences between the artist and the mental patient are also very real and require equal emphasis. What enables the former to transcend the difficulties posed by life and create work which inspires the viewer is their capacity for focus, concentration, discipline – and an effort or an ability to stand outside of the work and judge it. And so the first stage in the creative process that I think is imperative is immersing yourself in what you are making, not using your critical eye, not even looking at what you are doing, and only later going back to it. But unless this is followed by the second stage (the ability to stand away from it and judge it, the ability to see whether it’s even savable), there will be no work of art! As an artist you must be able to trust your own judgment and see the work as a unity, which, although it owes its existence to your originality and individuality, is yet a thing apart, a thing-in-itself that appears, even to its creator, beyond the self. So, in a sense, there is a paradox. The work of art must emanate from the psyche, from deep within the subconscious. And yet, unless it passes through a “censor” who translates it into something more universal than confessional and personal, it doesn’t really exist in the sense of true art. And it’s in that process that the work can become visionary and inspirational rather than confessional, therapeutic or narrative.

Venus (1995)










The Arts Society, Newnham College


01/12/2009Women and the Arts
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