Art, Invisible Forces & The Spontaneous & The Considered
Creativity exists in a kind of dynamic tension. Between the spontaneous and the considered, between structure and anarchy, between personal and impersonal.
In fact, almost all complex systems, from economies to ecologies to immune systems to the artistic legacy of a culture, are a result of the influences of opposing forces–or structure and memory versus novelty and randomness, a balance of explore (novelty) and exploit. (use the rules to your advantage)
Creative endeavors also have rules, but not only.
We know that there are rules of color mixing, complementarity, counterpoint, and harmony.
But creations built entirely *by the rules* tend to look or sound uninspired.
Perhaps because we can see through to the rules behind their construction, they feel mechanical in the sense that a machine or algorithm could have constructed them. We feel something is off, but don’t know exactly what.
A side note: As computer algorithms become more sophisticated and complex, they are getting better at imitating the creative practices of artists and musicians to the point where they might be considered brilliant forgers.
Is this kind of artificial intelligence truly creative? So far, such exercises have been based on human input, namely learning from a creative oeuvre of a particular artist, musician, or school. Mozart in, Mozart out. Will it remain this way? An open question.
Individual creations usually have elements of both considered and spontaneous.
At extremes are works like Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, exploiting repeated structure, and paintings of Jackson Pollock, exploiting randomness.
But both of those works have elements of the opposite in them–Ravel’s piece has a few big surprises in it, and Jackson Pollock’s paintings follow a kind of statistical regularity called a power law.
In her painting exercises, Nancy talks about “a little of this and a lot of that.” If one is contrasting curves and linear shapes, one of these must predominate to have a dynamic and visually compelling result. Keeping things 50:50 tends to create a static feeling.
In music, the vertical (harmony below and melody above) contrasts with the horizontal.(counterpoint with harmony in continuous flux). Pieces may involve both, but rarely in equal measure.
This tension between the spontaneous and the considered exists at larger scales than an individual artwork or even the collected work of an individual artist. Many believe it exists at a societal level and forms the context for the particular forms of creative expression that accompany individual historical periods.
The Appolonian & The Dionysian
Historians of art and literature have called this “the Appolonian and the Dionysian.” This refers to figures in ancient Greek mythology.
Apollo and Dionysius are both sons of Zeus, the big boss at the top of the Olympian hierarchy, at least when his wife Hera was otherwise occupied.
Apollo is the god of the sun, literally of clarity and enlightenment, representing logic and rationality. Everything laid out clearly in the bright light of day, boundaries evident and delineated.
Dionysius, perhaps known better in his Roman incarnation as Bacchus, is the god of wine and dance.
He weighs in on the side of irrationality and chaos, representing emotion and passion. Drunken, shadowy, and ecstatic.
Boundaries blurred beyond recognition. We’re in the realm of the unconscious.
The idea of labeling artistic movements by the purviews of Greek gods is not ancient, but it has roots back to the 17th century and was popularized more recently by Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche believed that the power of Greek tragedy was the combination of these two impulses, which he called ‘Kunsttriebe,’ or roughly “creative drives.”
He also believed that these creative forces had not been successfully combined since ancient Greece. I ask: “What about Shakespeare and Dante?”
On the side of rationality, Nietzsche identified Socrates and Plato, with the claim that their rational worldview eventually won out over the Dionysian and that we’ve been struggling ever since, fooling ourselves that the Universe is a rational place and we’re rational beings in it.
Nietzsche believed that the successful balancing of the two creative drives was last perfected by the great ancient playwrights, Sophocles and Aeschylus.
The essential tension was between creating and losing a sense of self.
Since Nietzsche, people have had a field day with the concept of Appolonian and Dionysian, applying it to sociology, anthropology, sexuality, and even science.
My particular interest is science.
The biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, riffing off of Nietzsche, believed that the pursuit of science could be divided into two groups of practitioners:
- The Appolonians were procedural, exploiting established pathways to pick up the crumbs that had been missed by others.
- Dionysians were intuitive and emotional, pursuing hunches with low probabilities of success but characterized by Pascalian wagers.
To this the logician in me retorts, “All people can be divided into two groups. Those who divide people into two groups and those who don’t.”
I submit that science itself, not just scientists, has these dual characteristics and is not above the concept of creative drives.
I used to think it sat above all that, like Zeus in the firmament, occasionally unleashing a well-aimed lightning bolt at the ignorant hordes of humanists.
After much thought, I have been disabused of this sentiment
Before the era of modern science, characterized by the scientific method of hypothesis + experiment —> synthesis of new hypothesis (rinse and repeat), science had a mysterious and emotional flavor as manifested in pre-Enlightenment alchemy, witchcraft, and medicine, the precursors of modern science.
And it was not even called ‘science.’
The era of modern science began as strictly Appolonian, a reaction to the mysticism of the previous centuries.
Newton proposed universal laws that applied everywhere in the cosmos and applied to everything, no matter how small or large, near or far. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote,
Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
A century and some later, in the late 1700s, Pierre-Simon Laplace, a French scholar and polymath (1749 – 1847) said that, using Newton’s Laws, the future was in principle completely knowable.
All you needed to know were the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe, an exercise left for the student.
Cracks In Apollo’s Armor
Another century after that, cracks were showing in Apollo’s armor. Statistical mechanics provided a particle-based explanation of thermodynamics, but one no longer knew or cared about the lives of individual particles, just their behavior in aggregate. A kind of erosion of individuality.
Then the 20th century brought quantum mechanics and relativity, further eroding the sense of pervasive knowability.
Now some truths were not accessible even in principle and there was no longer a preferred point of view.
Science lurched towards the Dionysian. Truth takes on a new flavor, statistical and collective, increasingly fuzzy or even downright lost down a black hole.
Just like science, artistic creativity also moves under the influence of the creative drives manifest in the culture.
Music had a “common practice period” for three centuries, where there were well-known and -followed laws of composition. Obedience began to fracture at the end of the 1800s, one accidental note at a time, about the same time frame as the emergence of statistical mechanics.
The first 70 years of the 20th century were characterized by the discarding of more and more rules, with music becoming increasingly deconstructed and atonal.
The same thing happened in art, from impressionism to expressionism to increasingly abstract forms such as the ABC paintings or hard edge paintings of minimalism that were a reaction to the subjectivity of abstract expressionism.
Bur a strange thing happened around 1970, a kind of reversal.
Minimalism started spreading in music, and musical compositions became more structured rather than less, more harmonious rather than less.
This also happened in art as the objective stance of minimalism evolved into post-minimalism which brought back an intuitive and emotional element, a valuing of the interior life. There was a stepping back from geometric absolutism to a more expressive element,
Back to music- and not just highbrow music. Listen to movie soundtracks from before 1970 such as Planet of the Apes. much more dissonant and abstract than current soundtracks which could almost be from the 19th century.
This discussion is about the tidal forces that shape our world views, whether we know it or not.
And our world views shape our creations, whether we know it or not.
Why is a certain brushstroke pleasing? Why is an artwork beautiful and compelling?
I argue that you cannot escape your context because it is so deeply embedded, even as a scientist.
What can you do then?
You can create the most powerful expression of your context, just like Aeschylus and Sophocles did.
The context may change, but the forces at work have a persistence to them.
What happens in the existential drama of an individual painting is a small mirror of the forces at work in the entire culture. But it can be a powerful and illuminating mirror.
With gratitude from our studio to yours,
Nancy & Bruce
P.S. We’re getting closer to releasing our newest book: The Adjacent Possible: Guidebook & Stories of Artistic Transformation. Meanwhile, nab a copy of the first book in the series: The Adjacent Possible: Evolve Your Art From Blank Canvas To Prolific Artist.