Creative Receptivity

by Dwight Furrow


Goldsworthy, Maple Leaves Arrangement

There is an ingrained set of assumptions and attitudes about creativity in the arts that harms our understanding of art and ultimately human existence. That is the idea of the artist as a relatively unconstrained maker, a fashioner ex nihilo who brings something new into being solely through the force of her imagination and capacity for self-expression. We might contrast this with an older view of art perhaps best expressed by this quote attributed to Michelangelo:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

On the view expressed by Michelangelo, an artist is like a skillful craftsperson who attends to the inherent qualities of a piece of raw material, it's shape, grain, texture or color, and then decides what she can do with it. Art is too varied and complex to wholly fit either description, both of which are drawn too starkly, but I want to make the case that Michelangelo's view has more to recommend it than first meets the eye.

Aesthetic appreciation is often described in terms of adopting an aesthetic attitude, a state of mind in which one attends sympathetically and with focused attention to the aesthetic features of objects. Part of that aesthetic attitude is a willingness to be receptive to what is in the work, to refrain from imposing preconceptions on it, to let the work speak for itself. The viewer or listener must open herself up to being moved by the work and to discover all there is to be discovered in it. As important as this attitude of openness and receptivity is to appreciating art, it would be exceedingly odd if this aesthetic attitude was not also part of the process of creating the work. But if we take this receptive attitude seriously it shows the limitations of our assumptions about artists as ultimate masters.

No doubt artists create. They bring something into being that did not exist before. But what they bring into being is not an entirely new object. Prior to the existence of the work there were the materials that are the media being shaped by the artist—canvas, brush, paint and a visual field for a painter, a variety of instruments, recording equipment, and a soundscape for the composer or musician. All of these materials have their own properties that inform the final product, some of them dispositional properties that will be fully revealed only in the final work.*

Dispositional properties are strange beasts. You can't always see them or touch them. But our understanding of the world cannot do without them, and they are probably what Michelangelo recognized in his block of marble. Just as a glass bowl is disposed to break when pushed off the table, a C note is disposed to harmonize when combined with an E note, and converging lines are disposed to lend a sense of depth to a painting.

When an artist or composer is shaping her materials and medium in order to express or embody an idea, what she must first know or come to discover is what her materials are capable of, which possibilities can be elicited from the materials and which cannot. Artists imagine but with the ultimate aim to discover which dispositional properties can be made actual. When a composer elects to write a passage in the key of C major she may or may not be adding something of herself to the work. But what she is doing by necessity is recognizing what the key of C major can do in that particular context and perhaps revealing something new about the key of C major. The painter may or may not be expressing something about her experience, but what she surely does is show what properties those colors and those lines and that canvas can have when viewed in a particular way.

There is a generative step in the creative process akin to brainstorming in which the point is to generate ideas. A painter juxtaposes shapes, colors, and lines. A musician juxtaposes notes and rhythmic sequences. There is a large literature on the psychology of creativity debating whether this is a spontaneous activity or a matter of ticking through organized patterns of possibility. At any rate, it is mostly unconscious as is attested by references to inspiration that comes out of nowhere. But true artistic ability also involves selecting which ideas are worth viewing or hearing and then selecting which of those possibilities can be realized in the materials available. Artistry is as much about execution as it is about the idea and that crucially involves being receptive to how the world is. The materials before being worked on possess particular properties that the artist must recognize in order to create a successful work. She cannot make them do what they are not disposed to do. It's the obduracy of matter, the stubbornness of physical objects, which gives art its friction, and makes art more than the idle spinning of ideas.

It is common in our contemporary discourse about art to claim that all art is a form of self-expression. And sometimes there is indeed a clear message carried by the work that perhaps can be explained by the artist's psychology or biography. But in many, many cases there doesn't seem to be an answer to the question of what an artist was expressing. She is simply able to intuit the intensity and vivacity of that passage if played by an oboe rather than a flute or of a triangular shape against the background grain of the canvas. And for that she needs to grasp the dispositional properties of oboes rather than flutes or the dispositional properties of particular triangles when placed in the context of particular curves and textures. It is not the self being expressed, at least not solely, but the nature of her materials.

Artists are more like sponges than gods. And what distinguishes the artist from a dilettante or amateur is, in part, their degree of receptivity to these dispositional properties. A great composer hears with great acuity; a great painter sees with perspicacity, not the finished product but the condition of matter before being worked over. The materials and medium condition how the content of the work is to appear. The artist will search the limits of the medium and can modify them but can never cancel them out. The vision we want to see in a work is not something ideal. The idea behind many a work of art is banal; it gains depth when it gains materiality, when the idea is fused with matter. It's the idea shaped by the inherent qualities of materials, the manner of that fusion, which sustains our interest.

Why does it matter that we recognize this receptiveness in the creative process? Part of creativity is a matter of responding to the claims things make on us. There are some things that simply cannot be done regardless of the intentions of the artist and the artist must be sensitive to those limits. This is why art is in part a problem solving activity. Creativity is a battle between the imagination and the recalcitrance of matter. When the cubists dismantled the use of perspective or when Cezanne abandoned line in favor of shading and texture it was not simply a bright idea that enabled the work but a battle with the limits of paint and surface that had to be won.

Andy Goldsworthy the environmental artist refers to this struggle when he describes a work he created in a forest using dappled light, stones, and leaves as his materials:

“I have learned a lot this week and have made progress in understanding a quality of light that I have never previously been able to deal with properly…not understanding a woodland floor on a sunny day has represented a serious gap in my perception of nature” (p. 74). Goldsworthy, A. (2004). Passage. New York: Abrams.

Obviously for Goldsworthy making art is not simply imposing an intention on inert matter but requires a process of discovery in which the properties of the materials are clarified through the work.

Perhaps this receptive dimension of art has something to teach us about humanity's relationship to nature. Receptivity demands humility, a knowledge of one's limitations. Perhaps what art reveals is not humanity's control over nature but the limitless potential of matter when it resists our intentions. If the concept of “the artist” cannot sustain the image of humanity as master perhaps the image is itself flawed.

*The philosopher Karl Aschenbrenner published an article with this same title “Creative Receptivity” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Winter, 1963). He makes a similar claim about the persistence of the qualities of raw materials in the work of art but it is in the service of a metaphysical point that artists bring nothing new into the world, which I think is mistaken.

For more of my work in aesthetics consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution or visit Edible Arts.