Creativity and Encounter and The Delphic Oracle as Therapist

Rollo May believes that “Creativity occurs in an act of encounter and is to be understood with this encounter as its center.” The result of this encounter between the artist and his “world” view is the author’s vision:

The vision of the artist or the poet is the intermediate determinant between the subject (the person) and the objective pole (the world-waiting-to-be). It will be nonbeing until the poet’s struggle brings forth an answer – meaning. The greatness of a poem or a painting is not that it portrays the thing observed or experienced, but that it portrays the artist’s or the poet’s vision cued off by his encounter with the reality. Hence the poem or the painting is unique, original, never to be duplicated. No matter how many times Monet returned to paint the cathedral at Rouen, each canvas was a new painting expressing a new vision.

In other words, not only is each work of art an original, but the artist is constantly re-inventing himself because no two encounters are the same. For the best artists, their very interpretation of the world creates a new “world” view that affects their future work.

This encounter is much easier to observe in “realistic” artists because we recognize their subject. However, May offers some convincing evidence that the same encounter is present even in abstract artists:

Mark Tobey fills his canvases with elliptical, calligraphic lines, beautiful whirls that seem at first glance to be completely abstract and to come from nowhere at all except his own subjective musing. But I shall never forget how struck I was, on visiting Tobey’s studio one day, to see strewn around books on astronomy and photographs of the Milky Way. I knew then that Tobey experiences the movement of the stars and solar constellations as the external pole of his encounter.

All true artists must face this struggle, and some artists become obsessed with this struggle to bring their vision to life:

(Painter Alberto) Giacometti was rather devoted–"condemned," to use Lord’s fitting term-to the struggle to perceive and reproduce the world around him through his own vision of being human. He knew there was no other alternative for him. This challenge gave his life meaning. He and his kind seek to bring their own visions of what it means to be human, and to see through that vision to a world of reality, however ephemeral, however consistently that reality vanishes each time you concentrate on it.

It is in their absolute devotion to their struggle with the world that artists acquire their reputation as being “different.” Yet, it is precisely this devotion, this obsession, which brings their vision to fruition and, in the end, helps all of us to see our world in new ways.

The symbols and myths that emerge from the artist’s vision

… bring out new meaning, new forms, and disclose a reality that was literally not present before, a reality that is not merely subjective but has a second pole which is outside ourselves. This is the progressive side of symbol and myth. This aspect points ahead. It is integrative. It is a progressive revealing of structure in our relation to nature and our own existence, as the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur so well states. It is a road to universals beyond discrete personal experience.

By sharing these symbols and myths, the artist, if his vision is accepted as valid, helps to shape society’s new reality, enabling all of us to deal with nature and with our existence in more meaningful ways.

May, as Hermann Hesse suggested in his fairy tales, feels that artists may well pay a high price for their creativity because creative people

…are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the "divine madness" to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks. They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.

The price they pay, though, is rewarded not only by the joy they feel when they fulfill their vision but by the insight they bring to the society as a whole.

May compares art to the Delphic Oracle, arguing that just as the Greeks used the Delphic Oracle to help them make decisions about the future, we can use artist’s visions to help guide us in our lives.

This chapter is thus an essay on the creating of one’s self. The self is made up, on its growing edge, of the models, forms, metaphors, myths, and all other kinds of psychic content which give it direction in its self-creation. This is a process that goes on continuously. As Kierkegaard well said, the self is only that which it is in the process of becoming. Despite the obvious determinism in human life-especially in the physical aspect of ones self in such simple things as color of eyes, height relative length of life, and so on-there is also, clearly, this element of self-directing, self-forming. Thinking and self-creating are inseparable. When we become aware of all the fantasies in which we see ourselves in the future, pilot ourselves this way or that, this becomes obvious.

Thus, if we are wise enough to invest our time and energy, the creative visions of artists helps guide our self-actualization. They accomplish this by affecting “…our hopes, our ideals, our images, and all sorts of imagined constructs that we may hold from time to time in the forefront of our attention. These ‘models’ function consciously as well as unconsciously; they are shown in fantasy as well as in overt behavior. The summary terms for this process are symbols and myths.”
May does not suggest that these artistic visions, by themselves, can lead to self-actualization or provide us with exact answers to the problems that face each of us. Instead, he points out that the value of these visions

is not that they give a specific answer, but that they open up new areas of psychic reality, shake us out of our customary ruts, and throw light on a new segment of our lives. Thus the sayings of the shrine, like dreams, were not to be received passively; the recipients had to "live" themselves into the message.