The Nature of Creativity and Creativity and the Unconscious

Rollo May tries to explain not only the nature of creativity but the conditions under which it emerges, relating much of what he says directly to what artists themselves have to say about their art. He sees the creative act as a dialectical relationship that takes place between two poles, the artist and an outside world. As a result, we cannot understand an artist’s work unless we understand both factors.

May sees the creative act as an intense encounter between the artist and the outside “world,” that is characterized by a “heightened consciousness.”
Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint-they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in it. Or, in the case of abstract painters, the encounter may be with an idea, an inner vision, that in turn may be led off by the brilliant colors on the palette or the inviting rough whiteness of the canvas.

The result of this encounter is a work of art that reflects the characteristics of both the artist and his world.

However, May defines “world” a little differently than it is commonly defined:

World is the pattern of meaningful relations in which a person exists and in the design of which he or she participates. It has objective reality, to be sure, but it is not simply that. World is interrelated with the person at every moment. A continual dialectical process goes on between world and self and self and world; one implies the other, and neither can be understood if we omit the other. This is why one can never localize creativity as a subjective phenomenon; one can never study it simply in terms of what goes on within the person. The pole of world is an inseparable part of the creativity of an individual. What occurs is always a process, a doing – specifically a process interrelating the person and his or her world.

Thus, each work of art is, almost by definition, unique for the world of the artist is in a continual state of flux.

If we are to believe May’s argument that

In this sense genuine artists are so bound up with their age that they cannot communicate separated from it. In this sense, too, the historical situation conditions the creativity. For the consciousness which obtains in creativity is not the superficial level of objectified intellectualization, but is an encounter with the world on a level that undercuts the subject-object split. "Creativity" to rephrase our definition, “is the encounter of the intensively conscious human being with his or her world.”

we can easily see why it is necessary to study an artist within the context of his time if we are to truly appreciate his works. We also understand the need to continually discover new artists who can help us to understand our own time. Although there may well be insights so fundamental to human nature that they are always valid, it is also true that the conditions of our time are changing so quickly that only contemporary artists can hope to adequately understand our own unique situation.

May emphasizes the importance of the unconscious in the creative act. He argues that the artist has to tap into his unconscious in order to create a new work.

A dynamic struggle goes on within a person between what he or she consciously thinks on the one hand and, on the other, some insight, some perspective that is struggling to be born. The insight is then born with anxiety, guilt, and the joy and gratification that is inseparable from the actualizing of a new idea or vision.

This conflict is bound to occur not only in the artist but in the audience because of the tendency to preserve beliefs. Change comes only after the stress between what we believe and what is actually happening becomes so great that we have little choice but to change our beliefs.

May notes that if “we are too rigid, dogmatic, or bound to previous conclusions, we will, of course, never let this new element come into our consciousness; we will never let ourselves be aware of the knowledge that exists on another level within us.” You certainly don’t have to look too far into today’s news to see the dangers that exist when people are so dogmatic that they lose touch with reality.

Mass media, May argues, “presents us with a serious danger, the danger of conformism, due to the fact that we all view the same things at the same time in all the cities of the country. This very fact throws considerable weight on the side of regularity and uniformity and against originality and freer creativity.” The danger of formulaic art is that it will merely re-affirm outmoded or clichéd beliefs rather than give us new insights into our world. In fact, that may well be one of the major attractions of escapist art. People like to be told again and again that they’re right, particularly if they’re not.

Of course, it’s not only readers that are often opposed to new forms of art,

Dogmatists of all kinds-scientific, economic, moral, as well as political-are threatened by the creative freedom of the artist. This is necessarily and inevitably so. We cannot escape our anxiety over the fact that the artists together with creative persons of all sorts, are the possible destroyers of our nicely ordered systems. For the creative impulse is the speaking of the voice and the expressing of the forms of the preconscious and unconscious; and this is, by its very nature, a threat to rationality and external control.

Society, as a whole, is opposed to change because it is too invested in the status quo. Little wonder it is so difficult for an artist to affect society. Little wonder, then, that great artists who were writing fifty or more years ago are just now being accepted by readers.

Of course, that would also suggest that most of us are living life in the rear-view mirror. Who knows what that may mean when we come to the next turn in the road?

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