I find that photo above my mantle irresistible. If I gaze into it long enough my spirit talks to me; I’m there, in that place a brisk morning when you can almost smell the snow. What I feel is the intent of the captured moment. The photographer – Paul Caponigro – did a great job of connecting his experience with mine through his art.
Emotions; are our basest realities; our feelings are the strongest connections to place. Emotions lead the mind; we feel before we think. In effect, a statement like, “I can’t believe the way I’m feeling about this” implies that there are two of us: our thinking selves and our feeling selves. Both learned and inherited, we have emotions before we know what we are feeling. We are indifferent until emotions are triggered and often we don’t know what we are feeling until we think about it for a minute and thoughts can carry us to more complex reaches of imagination.
It’s difficult to discuss emotions relating to creative artistic expression without digging at the roots of emotions themselves, but it’s not hard to experience the emotive nature of creativity. Artistic expression or performance has an emotional component: Etta James in full voice, an Ansel Adams retrospective, or a dance company performing the Nutcracker, or a powerful movie scene are good examples. Back in the 80′s, I choked up watching Larry Bird trade baskets with Dominique Wilkins during a critical NBA playoff series; a creative human performance at its most inspiring. Perhaps a Brahms Concerto brings tears to your eyes or is it the accomplishments of a 17th Century Dutch painter? What’s up with that? How do these feelings reach us?
Peppering a musical staff with shotgun holes and playing them as notes are music. It’s music because it is in the form of music and can be played. Provoking as it may be, shotgun music is bad unless you are lucky enough to shoot holes corresponding to a Beethoven Symphony, or at least an emotive measure or two. That is, an emotion other than anger at being subjected to noise or the frustration you feel when someone claims it’s masterful. Like a computer randomly selecting musical notes, the artist (marksman) made no attempt to interpret, reveal or otherwise transmute a feeling about their creation. [Yet, I wouldn’t discount luck.]
The next rung on the “low emotion” musical ladder is that designed for public soothing; those homogenized tonal equivalents of raw tofu. A grocery store tune crackling through a 4″ speaker is an emotional wasteland. Imagine you’re eagerness to connect a friend with the best psychiatrist you know if they boasted an intense emotional connection to a Musak interpretation of the “Long and Winding Road”. His psyche would need investigation, don’t you agree?
Wedding bands play mechanical versions of old favorites as if the goal is to add as little of their own style as possible. “Hey, that sounds exactly like …” Fill in the blank. At a wedding last month, a version of “Stairway to Heaven” was close enough to the original to make me groan out loud. It was followed by the best “Last Train to Clarksville” replication I’ve heard since the Monkeys split. Each member of the band is a talented musician producing near soul-free versions of familiar once-popular tunes. At the same time as the music is played, creativity is scantily identifiable without a fresh contribution from the artist. Give me emotion; risk something.
Sharing feelings makes us vulnerable. With artistic expression, emotions offer a distinction between artificial and genuine art. The artificial are those masquerades – no matter how well performed or polished – that pretend to be creative through imitation or rote. Even a small emotional connection at the right moment can influence lives; While that may seem melodramatic, it’s frequently true. Artistic expression sans emotion is a dead end; the artist risks nothing and it connects with no one.
Great artists supply emotional tension to invariant forms. A rendered tree can be a child’s pencil line of trunk and branches, but the tree in a Camponigro photograph carries a stronger emotional tension. A tree Paul Cezanne interpreted may prevent me from seeing a tree the same way hence. My past is projected on his interpretation, swirls around in my head and is renewed in a new form. In a sense, I find new meaning in the tree through his illustrated perceptions. I draw analogies from my past upon viewing his intimately rendered tree that make me feel something new. Most importantly, he created imagery that left room for my own interpretation: mixing old with new, mine with his. Without that space, I would dismiss any attempt the painter makes for stirring my soul.
In his landmark book, “The Courage to Create”, Rolo May offers this insight: “Artists pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean something …They immerse themselves in chaos to give it form.” In other words, a form is an interpretation communicated through their world view, and artists bring emotion, once buried in chaos, to the surface.
Emotions disturb equilibrium – at equilibrium we’re neutral. Exceptional art isn’t neutral and neither are significant artists. The stereotypically tormented soul of a painter, sculpture, musician, comedian, or writer, removed from their torment, risk equilibrium thus dulling creativity. Offer an emotional pillow; comfort, or long term contentment and a muse may be ignored. Orderliness, comfort, and contentment, eliminates the turmoil in which artists plunge to reveal their creation. An artist in emotional retreat is comfortable; no longer struggling against turmoil or challenging complacency. That’s not to say artists need torment, but I think we can safely say, torment can rouse an artist.
I’m also not suggesting that all great artists are tormented, [although it may seem that way] I do claim, however, that they challenge reality in a way that piques them emotionally. Stereotypes don’t emerge from nothing; the artist temperament is well documented. Much has been written about why artists act the way the do. Google it and you’ll see.
Why are artists so damn sensitive [I hear you ask]? Perhaps it’s because they’re receptive and stay emotionally in tune with their surroundings. Or, maybe because they are hopelessly insecure – they are, after all, “putting it out there” – often vulnerable beyond reason. I believe, in part, artists may appear sensitive because of emotional risk – that is, if they’re any good – the more risk, the more sensitive. Artists also need to stay receptive, like an antennae pointed toward the sky, open enough to feel an encounter with reality that unites imagination with craft.
Imagination confronts reality through its muse. Creativity is, at least in part, the manifestation of the artist’s emotional encounter with a muse; imagination merged with reality filtered by an emotional worldview.
I know from my experience as a photographer that clicks of the shutter give a nanosecond peak of pleasure; a joy of being in the moment. The best photographers frame a scene but don’t look for that moment so much as they feel it. Once in a target rich environment – whether staged or found – the thinking is over and the fine nuance of emotional connection begins. At that moment, composition and other skills take a back burner to the subject – artist connection.
Finally: conformity, authoritarian power, material success, and apathy corrode our creative powers; these are anti-creative forces. In contrast, childlike emotional freedom [beginners mind], when added to adult passions for creating the immortal, amplifies creativity. Like the ultimate creation we achieve through sexual relations, artistic creations return a potent pleasure.