On the Limits of Creativity and Passion for Form

Most of us are frustrated by the limits put on us, whether they are the limits of our own body (God, I’m personally disgusted by the limits imposed by my recent surgery) or the limits imposed by society. However, Rollo May argues, “that limits are not only unavoidable in human life, they are also valuable” and “that creativity itself requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”

May’s major argument is that “ conflict presupposes limits, and the struggle with limits is actually the source of creative productions.” In a very real sense, this parallels the reason I chose “In a Dark Time” as the title of this blog for I believe people often grow stronger by facing crises. May goes on to argue that, “The limits are as necessary as those provided by the banks of a river, without which the water would be dispersed on the earth and there would be no river-that is, the river is constituted by the tension between the flowing water and the banks. Art in the same way requires limits as a necessary factor in its birth.”

I found May’s argument that poetry by the very limits imposed by form generates its own creativity quite convincing:

When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it; you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had even dreamed of. Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don’t have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express.

Of course, I might find this so convincing because I love poetry. However, the same argument can easily applied to my other great love, photography. Without the limitations of the “frame” photography would be next to impossible. At its best, the frame forces us to isolate an object and actually look at it. Without the limitations of the frame, there would only be “reality,” not art.

This idea that limits are necessary naturally ties in with May’s argument that there is a human “passion for form.” All of us, not just artists, have a compelling need for form:

The human imagination leaps to form the whole, to complete the scene in order to make sense of it. The instantaneous way this is done shows how we are driven to construct the remainder of the scene. To fill the gaps is essential if the scene is to have meaning. That we may do this in misleading ways-at times in neurotic or paranoid ways-does not gainsay the central point. Our passion for form expresses our yearning to make the world adequate to our needs and desires, and, more important, to experience ourselves as having significance.

I know that this is certainly true for me. Of course, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I am an INTP (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiver) and beginning “ with only a vague intuition, an INTP can construct a whole new world of ideas.) My main purpose in writing this blog has become to make some sense out of my life and to give my life a greater sense of order and direction.

According to May, this, too, is a form of creativity. Imagination and creativity are a part of all of our lives, and in order to be self-fulfilled we have to participate in creating our own reality.

This passion for form is a way of trying to find and constitute meaning in life. And this is what genuine creativity is. Imagination, broadly defined, seems to me to be a principle in human life underlying even reason, for the rational functions, according to our definitions, can lead to understanding – can participate in the constituting of reality – only as they are creative. Creativity is thus involved in our every experience as we try to make meaning in our self-world relationship.

According to Rollo May the creative process is, finally, “the struggle against disintegration, the struggle to bring into existence new kinds of being that give harmony and integration.”

Those who would like to read more about May can do so at:





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.

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?

The Courage to Create

Inspired by Hesse’s tales, I decided to re-read Rollo May’s The Courage to Create. May, an existentialist psychologist, is one of the few modern psychologists that I actually enjoy reading, perhaps because he often sounds more like philosopher than a psychologist or perhaps because he spends as much time exploring exceptional people as he does disturbed people. Whatever the reason, I constantly find his books inspiring and insightful. The Courage to Create is particularly fascinating because it is devoted to the field that I have devoted much of my life to. It is well worth reading for anyone interested in literature, or the arts in general.

May explains the importance of courage in life by arguing that “a man or woman becomes fully human only by his or her choices and his or her commitment to them. People attain worth and dignity by the multitude of decisions they make from day to day. These decisions require courage. This is why Paul Tillich speaks of courage as ontological -it is essential to our being.” In other words, it takes courage do become fully human. It takes even more courage to challenge our common perception of reality.

Although people seldom think of artists as courageous, May makes an interesting distinction between moral courage, the kind of courage most people think of, and creative courage:

Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built.

When we consider how difficult and alienating it is to see the world differently than our neighbors (consider those who publicly condemned the popular bombing in Afghanistan), it is easy to see why it takes courage to suggest new ways of seeing reality. Any teacher who has tried to teach literary works that challenge the morals of their district’s patrons will realize how much more courage it must have taken to have actually written those ideas.

While May argues that the courage to create is a necessary part of all aspects of society, including technology, business, and teaching, he also argues that those who:

… present directly and immediately the new forms and symbols are the artists-the dramatists, the musicians, the painters, the dancers, the poets, and those poets of the religious sphere we call saints. They portray the new symbols in the form of images-poetic, aural, plastic, or dramatic, as the case may be. They live out their imaginations. The symbols only dreamt about by most human beings are expressed in graphic form by the artists.

Those of us drawn to art may not be able to articulate this new vision of life, but we certainly sense that we are seeing something new, seeing life in a new way. It is this feeling that brings us back to these works, brings us back until we either integrate them into our own life, or reject them. In this sense, we, too, are participating in the creative act.

May argues that artists are, ultimately, rebels, perhaps the most dangerous rebels of all because they constantly challenge the status quo. "Forever unsatisfied with the mundane, the apathetic, the conventional, they always push on to newer worlds. Thus are they the creators of the "uncreated conscience of the race." The artist’s audience, of course, becomes equally dangerous because once it recognizes the brilliance of the artist’s perception it is bound to participate in his rebellion, perhaps by the very act of experiencing his art.

Whether we are the artist or the artist’s audience, May argues that there is a profound joy that more than compensates for the anxiety we feel when we rebel against the status quo:

Whatever sphere we may be in, there is a profound joy in the realization that: we are helping–to form the structure of the new world. This is creative courage, however minor or fortuitous our creations may be. We can then say, with Joyce, Welcome, O life! We go for the millionth time to forge in the smithy of our souls the uncreated conscience of the race.