This may seem an esoteric subject. I have chosen it because we hear the word 'creativity' almost ad nauseam nowadays, and it is supposed to be something that schools have to try to foster, that businesses want, that the culture needs, that individuals should seek. Yet most people haven't the vaguest notion what is meant by it. Mostly it is considered an 'add on' of some kind to the more serious stuff of education, business or daily life. I'm not pretending to know the answers, but at least we can explore some of the questions.
Recently a centre for wellbeing and confidence has been opened in Scotland, with mainly commercial motivation, since a lack of confidence is seen as a hindrance to business enterprise. However the New Economics Foundation, which advises the government at Westminster, has been set the task of finding ways of measuring what makes for people's sense of wellbeing. As they admit, they are only proving what we already know: that much of it depends on genetics and family background, on material circumstances, on relationships, on meaning and purpose and also on work, where the sense of being unconscious of the passing of time in some kind of 'flow' is the most satisfying of all experiences.
I'm not going to spend time explaining what creativity is not: e.g. it is not the ability to sing, draw, dance, write, knit or whatever. These are activities that may or may not be practised with creativity, just like baking, gardening, or child-care. The creativity I am talking about is a quality innate to human beings. So that the teacher who told a parent enquiring about creative work in the school, that she was afraid she 'didn't have a creative bone in her body,' was simply saying that she had been dehumanised.
Likewise people who speak about 'the artist in her showing itself' are implying that the creative self is tucked away in a drawer and can be taken out to exercise or show itself now and then, when called upon. I am talking about the creativity that is of the essence of human life.
If we are looking for signs of creativity we might look for something like the following:
What is it to be creative?
1. To spill over category boundaries
One of my grandchildren when she was only three asked her parents: am I Scottish or am I a vegetarian?
I consider this a creative question – why? Because it breaks category boundaries; it leads to further questions; it releases a cascade of ideas, thoughts, feelings.
Another of my grandchildren, aged five, had an addiction to Rab Noakes songs on CD and in one of them comes the line 'Love's a gamble.' He was writing a card for a schoolfriend's birthday, a little girl. After 'Happy Birthday,' instead of putting 'love from Alistair,' he wrote 'Love's a gamble.' He transposed the phrase from one context into another, quite naturally, not trying to be clever, just his brain doing its natural job of making cross-connections. He also connected the friend's fifth birthday with 'Love's a gamble' being no.5 on the CD. The brain is naturally connective and naturally orderly.
2. To bind thought and material together
Patrick Geddes, a Scottish polymath and creative thinker at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, is supposed to have coined the word ecology, and also coined the Latin motto: credo pensamus. I had this engraved on the inside of the glass frontage of the new building for the Scottish Poetry Library in 1999: credo pensamus means by creating we think.
As a practising poet this particularly struck me as true, not just to my experience but to that of all human making. The word poet in Greek means maker, or makar in medieval Scots when the poets were known as the makars. The 20th century German philosopher, Heidegger, claimed that 'the voice of thought must be poetic' because poetry is not words about or referring to things, rather it is the thought and the thing bound together. This is a feature of all creative work: the thought and the material are bound together, enhancing and transforming one another into something new.
Here are some lines from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins entitled 'On a Piece of Music':
How all's to one thing wrought!
The members how they sit.
Oh what a tune the thought
must be that fancied it.
If a thought is a tune, then a poem must be a chord. This is one of the reasons why people think poems are hard to understand. To be asked to 'explain' a poem is like being asked to sing a chord. We might be able to identify the notes that comprise it but we cannot sing them all at the same time.
What factors help creativity?
One of the main things that helps is what I call 'a cultural field.' I'm thinking in terms of not only the metaphor of a field in which things grow, but also of an energy-field, in which things spark off. The essentials of all creativity are in the life cycle: love, work, celebration and death, as it were a self-sustaining cycle. Scientists now use the term autopoesis to describe a self-creating, self-sustaining, self-adapting, self-transforming and self-limiting system: a self-making, but not something that can happen or be sustained without interconnecting.
You might wonder what culture, or a particular culture has to do with creativity? My reply is 'everything'. Nothing is created out of nothing and nothing is created in a vacuum. Anything created is material, specific, personal and local and the creator will have been influenced, advised and helped by many other people and other artists, wittingly or unwittingly. Of course these specific creations can take on universal and international significance. Artists use what they have to hand – the skills, the materials, the ideas, the stories, the jokes, the people, their particular situation – all that is given to them. They do not make it. They make something of it. The sculptor/ typographer Eric Gill used to say 'it's not that an artist is a peculiar kind of person; rather that each person is a peculiar kind of artist.'
Therefore if we want creativity in our society we have to provide the conditions that allow for it, such as call it forth and receive it. We are going about things upside-down if we think we have to force-feed greenhouse plants of individual genius. Rather we should undertake the cultural husbandry or ecology that creates the conditions from which the natural outcome is a flourishing culture, across the categories, cross-fertilising, giving and taking from communities.
What prevents creativity?
To be creative is natural to human child/being. It is to ask questions that release more questions; to cross-fertilise ideas; to bind together thought and thing. What prevents this childlike creativity from maturing with us in so many cases? Growing up
. It seems as if the process of growing up itself narrows down the creative potential in our experience. We tend to follow the ruts of those who have gone before, like skiers in the snow, and it can become impossible to get out of those ruts without risk. We also have to make choices, which inevitably limit, as well as enable further choices.
The dualistic barrier inherent in being human
. The more we learn to think about things as separate from us, the less we can be part of them, almost get inside them, identify with them. Words themselves, or even images, with which we tend to do our thinking, are like maps which, however accurate, are not the actual terrain. Somehow to be creative we have to manage to get beyond the barrier of word or image, and of subject-object duality. There is a Zen saying, which tells us that before you study Zen, rivers are rivers and mountains are mountains. While you are studying Zen, rivers are no longer rivers and mountains are no longer mountains. When you have mastered Zen, rivers are again rivers and mountains are again mountains. It’s a bit like that with creativity. You recreate the nature of nature artificially, having gone into its very processes in the process.
The education process.
This can itself encourage us too much to learn what others have thought and done, which again narrows down the necessity for us to experiment and find our own answers and it even often inhibits us from thinking that we can or should. Adam Phillips, the psychotherapist-writer says blatantly that 'education demands repression' and it is only some kind of love that makes the pain of education bearable. Sometimes we almost have to unlearn and uneducate ourselves in order to be able to receive new ideas and see things anew. Blake said we need to 'open the doors of perception.' The 19th-century New England (Amherst) poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote, 'I dwell in possibility/ a fairer house than prose/ more numerous of windows/ superior of doors.'
Comparing ourselves with others.
An attitude that prevents us being creative is thinking we are not or can't be good enough. We want others to tell us we are good. We consider ourselves failures in comparison with what we admire in others and we give up. 'If I can't be the best I won't do it at all' is a ridiculous position to take unless we are aiming at success rather than the creative outcome. In that case it is in success rather than in art that we are failing.
When one of my daughters was nine-years-old she was off school one day but not ill enough to be in bed. I suggested she do some painting. Soon I heard moans or groans. 'What's the problem?' I asked. 'It's no good,' she said. Then I suggested, 'Don't worry whether it's good or not, just enjoy putting on the colours,' whereupon she gave me a withering look and said, 'How can I enjoy it unless I know it’s good?'
She was right, and I didn't know the answer. However, I knew she was an artist. Artists cannot enjoy it unless they know it's good, but only they themselves are the judge of that.
We don't need success or fame to tell us our work is good. It is good if we have done or made something that absorbs and fascinates us, and find sufficient satisfaction to keep trying new things.
Key factors in creativity
In this section I will suggest a couple of things to put on a list of key factors in creativity. You can add to or change it as you will want to do from your own experience. Mine is chiefly of poetry, so will be biased in that direction.
Receptive and productive faculties.
To begin with I'd like to divide as it were the light from the darkness by suggesting that there are receptive and productive faculties. The metaphor of light and dark for these is not chance. You will be familiar with the I Ching or the Tao of Lao Tzu and the complementary of yin and yang. Receptive faculties are yin faculties like the moon, darkness, water, weakness, silence, the feminine, waiting, listening, returning. Productive faculties are yang faculties like the sun, light, fire, strength, noise, the masculine, acting, speaking, seeing, setting forth.
One of the interesting, complex and difficult things about the creative process is that it combines these faculties and allows them to complement one another in us, not favouring one over the other, and that this is built into a way of life, not just something we clothe ourselves with in workshop, studio or study.
J S Ede, who created the house-gallery called Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, published a book of photographs and quotations displaying the contents and ambience of the house. The book's title is 'A Way of Life.'
When we have a way of life that is creative we don't have to keep worrying about 'having time for my creative work' or dividing means from ends. The means that procure our daily bread are not separable from our art. We need what the Buddhists call 'right mindfulness' in all we do. John Berger, the art critic and writer, says 'poetry is what makes language care.' One of the poet Rilke's best known poems states that seeing an archaic statue of Apollo in the Louvre will make you 'change your life.' Where interest goes our energy flows. As you know investment brings interest in financial terms. Where we invest in ourselves, our lives, our energies, we will be repaid, by our own transformation. In Saint Exupery's allegory, 'The Little Prince,' the fox tells the little prince 'what is essential is invisible to the eye. It is the time you have wasted on your rose that makes your rise important.' Emily Dickinson also says that the 'house of possibility' has 'chambers as the cedars – impregnable of eye.'
In western cultures, generally speaking, we are better at the active side of things than the passive. Active, productive faculties include such things as concentration, determination, staying-power, decision-making, risk-taking, competitiveness, planning, practicality, single-mindedness (sometimes called selfishness by others), accuracy and perfectionism. Seeing is also a more active sense than hearing. We tend to project ourselves onto what we see, whereas we open ourselves to what we hear. Our contemporary culture is, I believe, over-dependent on seeing to the neglect of our other senses and faculties.
The receptive faculties are less valued in our culture but are equally important in the creative life. They are such things as interest-in-things-for-their-own-sake, open-mindedness, imagination (by which I mean the ability to put ourselves in the place of the other), contemplation, cooperation, flexibility, the ability to let go and give up, following of hints and hunches, and what Keats called 'negative capability': 'capable of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason; making all disagreeables (that is things that conflict with one another) evaporate.' Wholeheartedness (what Keats called intensity) is the integrative link between our receptive and our productive faculties: the whole heart or central core of us allowing us to breathe, move, feel and think.
Having opened up to the full our receptive and productive faculties we have to exercise them. That means practice. We need the discipline of much practice in any art. Eventually this will allow more not less imagination. As Ted Hughes said, it will connect us to 'the elemental power-circuit of the universe.' We will get ideas we don’t know where from and then find others are having them too but didn't know they were. Sometimes we get these ideas ahead of other people and have to bide our time or wait for the right time or for the time to be ripe (as we figuratively say). Ideas need time to mature or for the times to catch up with them. (Bruce Chatwin tells a tale of explorers whose baggage-carriers insisted on a rest, just towards the end of a day's travel when the explorers wanted to press on and arrive. When asked why they wanted to rest at that juncture, they were told 'we are waiting for our souls to catch up.')
People find it hard to understand how imagination and disciplined practice can be combined. If they understood the nature of both they would see they do coincide. It is the division between then rather than the coinciding that needs explaining. With one and not the other you may get dreamers or doers, mystics or militants, but not artists, who are makers: and the essential making that they do is making something of themselves, finding a creative way through life, making sense of things.
Other meanings of practice, in contrast to theory.
The word practice is a useful one. It can be used to mean practising in order to get more skilled, as I have just used it. In the early stages of any art this will probably take the form of imitating, copying, learning from what others have done that we admire. It can also be used to demonstrate the practice or exercise of the art in contrast to the theory. One of the mistakes we have made in our culture is the separation of theory from practice. Things are changing for the better, but still the theorists tend to be the controllers. They have more status, more money and more influence. Genuine theory emerges from close interaction with practice: what works and why and how is it done? Then, do we find it good, why, what does it mean, how does it change us? Creativity is a way of working that helps us to think and to change.
In the community.
Finally practice can encompass the sense of a practice in the community – analogues to that of a doctor, lawyer or architect. This is the work of the teacher and school of art, the gallery, the publisher, library, orchestra, arts centre. The individual artist should be allowed to become integrated into the community as a contributing worker.
Imagination and discipline come from the receptive and productive aspects of creative work. They are interdependent in the working artist in any genre or role and can be expressed through practice in any or all of the three ways I have outlined. My poem, 'Blake's Wife,' says something of the way of life of a productive artist, painter, poet and engraver, and what it can demand of us and of those around us.
Blake's wife, Catherine, had no children and helped Blake in many practical ways in his life of intense creative endeavour as engraver and poet, in which he had no 'success' in terms of recognition.
Tessa Ransford (from 'When it works it feels like play,' Ramsay Head Press, 1998)
My life walked in a wild domain
I followed him as best I could
beyond the boundaries of the brain
half credible, half understood.
He hardly slept, strange music played
he wrote, dreamed, painted.
In love I pitied, helped him work
on copper plates, the ink and fire.
We cooled it down in printed books
of prophecy or soul's desire.
‘The lark an angel on the wing'
purest line engraving.
His spectre visited for days
and silent brooded on the house.
I waited, made his soup, his clothes
until he found a form in chaos.
I gathered fragments he had scattered:
Job, Dante, Milton uttered.
I rocked no babies at the breast:
this child I had was child enough.
Like Mary I was chosen, blessed
to bear this spirit through his life.
‘Jerusalem in every man’
this grain of sand in Albion.
My love walked in a wild domain
I followed him as best I could
beyond the boundaries of the brain
half credible, half understood.
We turned our trials into art
hammered the work upon the heart.
The nature of artistic transaction
Nature and art.
What are we doing when we make a work of art? The 20th-century Welsh poet and artist, David Jones, wrote that the human species should be designated Man the Signmaker, because it is so natural to us to see things as signs or symbols or to make things into signs and symbols. He claims, like Eric Gill with whom he worked, that art is natural to us as humans, although the word art indicates the artificial in contrast to the natural. So he is saying really that the artificial is natural to humans. Indeed in our creating we are honouring the creation. The Church, which has rules over human life of so many centuries in the west, approved of art which honoured the creator and praised his creation. But it tended to see nature as passive under the hand of the creator and the artist's job was to copy this passive nature as the creator made it. However, in Indian art there is a sense of honouring nature by transforming it in art. There the emphasis is on the transformation, because that is the nature of nature. (Ananda Coomerswamy: The Transformation of Nature in Art)
Art is often seen as a way of transcending the mortality inherent in nature, or perhaps of capturing its flow in order to keep the beauty of the moment for ever, as is expressed in Keats's 'On a Grecian Urn,' where he pronounces, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.'
Beauty bound up with truth is what we can make from the materials of earth when we approach the eternity in them. Emily Dickinson ends her poem 'I Dwell in Possibility' with 'the spreading forth my narrow hands – to gather paradise.' She implies it is all around us to be gathered in the artistic process.
On the outside of the glass frontage of the Scottish Poetry Library I had a verse inscribed from a poem addressed to the Marquis of Argyll by an anonymous 17th-century Gaelic poet, a MacEwen, which is all we know of him (though we know the MacEwens and the MacMurrays were bardic clans). It was the poem that counted in that tradition, not the identity of the poet.
It is not gold or other treasure
that you will get from me in special.
It is not tribute or gift of cattle
but the choicest of our hard-wrought poems.
That last line tells it all. There is an abundance of poems from which to choose, they require skill and hard work, they are 'ours', belong to the community through the bardic family. In India and Japan today there are still families of musicians or of actors who, as it were, have a monopoly over this kind of highly-valued contribution to society. In the Centre for Human Ecology we had an MSc student from Zimbabwe, who contributed to ceilidhs and parties by drumming on various kinds of drum and tribal instruments. I asked him one day if he was a drummer in Zimbabwe.
'Good gracious, no!' was his reply. 'Only those who belong to the drumming tribe or community are drummers. I would never dream of drumming at home in any communal celebration.' I asked how come he was so skilled and dynamic and practised at drumming. 'We all know how to drum,' he replied. There is a parallel in Scotland with poets and storytellers. We all know how to be poets and storytellers, even if only some are recognised as officially such.
Art and culture in the Irish and Scottish Gaelic communities were not a luxury. There were valued equally with cattle and gold. They were vital – life-giving, something without which all else would be in vain. They were for memory and vision; past and future suspended in the present. The king or chief who patronised the arts and was generous to the artists, musicians and poets was regarded as a good one. Under him there was vision (we could say a sense of identity and community) without which, as wisdom says, 'the people perish.'
In nature itself everything is both transformer and transformed. Orpheus, in the myth, made such divine music that nature danced to it. But he could not overcome death. Euridice, which means right balance in Greek, could not return to earth from the underworld. That 'right balance' seems to involve death as well as life. Creativity of any kind also encompasses destruction and death. Et in Arcadia Ego – I too am in Arcadia, was written on the painting of a tomb in a paradisiacal landscape by Poussin.
For anything to sustain its life there has to be precise balance and exact measure, interweaving relationships, life and death. Flourishing implies sustainability and self-limitation. So the artist looks for what is just right: le mot juste, the exact touch.
Sir Philip Sydney uses the word peizing, as being of the essence of the poetic; which means the exact measuring, say of wheat when it fills a bowl to the brim and is levelled off with a blade. The goldilocks principle is that of the just right. The Gaels have a phrase 'mar a tha e,' meaning 'that's it.'
Hugh MacDiarmid said that one of the best lines in Scottish poetry is in Burns's poem, Mary Morison: 'Ye arena Mary Morison.' Mary Morison was just right and nobody else would do. Yet if she died he would go on making poetry out of her. Mary Morison was a symbol of his true love, poetry itself.
Communication or mediation.
Much is talked about the need to communicate. There is a demand nowadays for art to communicate almost as if it were some kind of advertisement. Communication also has the invisible word 'instant' attached to it. I disagree. Art is almost the complete opposite of instant communication. Rather it is a form of mediation. The artist works not so much with as in his or her material, whatever it may be, intimately aware of both its potential and limitation, in order to transform it according to his or her unfolding idea and practised skill. When it is finished the artist lets go and offers it to others. That work of art remains in no-man's land until others, perhaps across many years or many miles, may discover it and resurrect it almost by what they bring to it and find in it, according to their own experience. This is a kind of miracle. There is always more in a work of art then the artist is fully aware of and always new potential in its being shared. To my mind the significance of art lies in its being personal in this way, like a particular Gaelic song, passed on as a special gift to those worthy of it, or adequate to receive it.
Taking captivity captive.
Artists, therefore, if truly dedicated to and professing their art, must make it available. It is not a question of seeking success, but of offering a gift: the gift of transformed material being. There is a passage in the epistles of Paul where he describes Christ (whom Blake called 'Jesus of the imagination') emptying himself and becoming incarnate, descending into the material, then arising again, 'taking captivity captive' and giving 'gift unto men.'
This process of identification with the material, immersing oneself in it and then withdrawing in such a way that the material's limitations (its transience, resistance, weakness) are taken captive, are transformed, seems like a description of the artistic process. The artist immerses himself or herself in the material while working, then withdraws, yet at the same time remains within the work, which is then relinquished and offered to others.
The word dwell is worth dwelling on a moment. It has connotations of pausing, lingering, contemplating, musing, thinking lovingly, fluidly: dwell has water in it: the well or source of life, well-being, dwell-being, staying power, sustainability. Yes, Emily Dickinson used it in the quotation I gave you at the beginning: 'I dwell in possibility.' What do we dwell in or on? The artist gets entranced; enters so deeply into the work that he or she is cut off from all else while working, until the time comes to 'withdraw' – move on, because the pattern always leads on, the creature outgrows its shell.
It is worth remembering too, that the word individual means someone who is undivided. This I believe is the sense of a together person. The individual is the person who has found a way of creatively uniting the disparate aspects of their own nature and is therefore not torn apart by them. The more together we are, the less we seek to be different from others. Through art we discover our difference from and our unity with others in finding our own self-unity, what Hopkins called 'selving' and Jung called 'individuation.' We are all Mary Morisons as well as multi-armed dancing goddesses.
The Aesthetic Way
I referred to Hopkins’s poem ‘On a piece of music’ where he continues,
This fault-not-found-with good
is neither right nor wrong
It is significant that Hopkins distinguishes between the aesthetic and the moral so clearly. This a-morality of the aesthetic must be the reason why it is fundamentally too scary for religion. (Hopkins burnt all the poems he had previously written when he decided to become a Jesuit novice, referring to this as his 'slaughter of the innocents.')
Of course religion makes use of artists of all kinds and often in the past it was only through religious patrimony that artists could survive, but the creative energy-field is like the sun: extending its life-giving rays on the just and the unjust, the ethical and the unethical, allowing the wheat and the tares to grow together, spilling over the boundaries and categories we erect. Art will be constrained neither within the moral nor within the commercial.
Solzhenitsyn, in his 1972 Nobel Prize acceptance address, spoke of there being three trees whose branches meet at the top. These are the good, the useful and the beautiful. He is implying that beauty grows from a different root from either the moral or the useful. In English we use the word good for all of them. In Greek, for instance, there is another word for when the good means the beautiful: Kalos. And it was a surprise to me to discover that it is in the making of what is beautiful that St Paul tells us not to grow weary.
Aesthetic truth is different from scientific or factual truth. Keats declared that beauty and truth are bound up together in the aesthetic. ‘Disagreeables’, or things that cancel or contradict each other, will evaporate in the intensity. In other words, however grim the subject matter of a work of art, it will be transformed through art into something beautiful because true, even terribly true, or terribly beautiful (as Yeats wrote in his poem 'Easter 1916': 'a terrible beauty is born'). Aesthetic truth could perhaps be described as emotional truth. We hear nowadays about 'emotional literacy.' We can so easily sentimentalise or exaggerate our emotions or we can repress them, with equally disastrous consequences. In art we include the emotions in a way that lets them make sense of us and through us of the world. Willa Muir, Scottish 20th century novelist, who wrote an excellent book on the Scottish ballads, suggested that ballads trace 'the felt imagination.' Emotions are what move us and if we’re not moving we are dead. To be emotionally literate or educated, therefore, is not an option but is as vital for us as human beings as is rationality. Art lets us feel in imagination. If we can’t feel imaginatively we probably can’t feel at all. Most of us actually cry more over fiction than over fact. Here is a verse from a poem of mine illustrating this:
Who killed cock robin? The child weeps
with all the birds of the air
and death is born, a living pain in her.
On the way to school one day she finds
a dead bird, perfect, fallen from its nest. She stoops,
examines it without the least distress.
This fact of death is not the pain of death
which lurks in her and practises its part whenever
her own mortality is touched by art.
We have five senses and when we use them all and also let them inform each other we can attain to the sixth sense, which both transcends and includes all the others.
In the Musée de Cluny in Paris there is a medieval tapestry known as La Dame à la Licorne: the lady and the unicorn. In each tapestry one of the five senses is depicted. In the sixth tapestry we have the sixth sense. Above it is written 'à mon seul desir' (to my sole desire) and below 'le choisir des bijoux' (the choosing of the jewels). These inscriptions suggest that we need to harmonise our many conflicting desires. It is only when we are in harmony within ourselves that we can begin to know what it is we really desire. The inscriptions also suggest that there is choosing to do: not between good and bad, but between good and good, or perhaps between which tree of goodness we want to climb.
The essential properties of any work of art
In all creative work, three elements are invariably present in varying proportion. These could be defined as thought, form and rhythm. (Other terms might be theme/ pattern/ movement or idea/ structure/ energy.) The aesthetic quality often lies in how sensitively the three aspects relate to each other in any given work. In poetry it could be said, in a very general way, that thought predominates over form and rhythm. Poems must also have form and rhythm (even free-verse poems) and poems themselves vary immensely, both now and over the ages, some being nonsense rhymes with lots of rhythm, some being intricate forms involving variation and repetition, and some concentrating more on sound or meaning. Within each art form there is a range of varieties in the proportion of thought, form or rhythm present.
In comparison with poetry it could be said that painting, sculpture, the plastic arts favour form over thought or rhythm, although, again, the other two will also find their place. In dance and music, however, probably rhythm and movement predominate over form and thought. I stress these are only formulae, but they are helpful in approaching works of art and trying to understand their components. Artists themselves vary in their preferences: some seeking form above all else, others seeking energy and movement, others again seeking thought and meaning.
We are back to aesthetic balance again, finding the 'just right' elements and their 'just right' combination. Artists experiment, learn and practise these things over and again, but like athletes, when it comes to the test, they work almost instinctively. They are not analysing as they go along. They are imbued with their probably fairly unarticulated idea and are working according to the innate properties of their material. But there is one material the artist cannot avoid working with and that is him or herself.
These selves that artists work with are not disembodied. Without our bodies we wouldn’t be here. Our hearts keep a steady rhythm, our breath keeps a steady rhythm, our hands and feet gesticulate and dance. These are the rhythms that are present in our work. We can't drop them into the mixture as an additive. They have to be within it from the beginning and in their variations the life of the work is manifested. Thought, form and rhythm, like mind, soul and body cannot be divided and separated in a work of art.
We can discuss their manifestation and analyse their relationship but ultimately they indwell one another completely and cannot be torn apart without the work itself being destroyed. The essential properties of any work of art then are to be found also in the essential properties of human life itself when the conditions for it are right.
We have to prepare the cultural forcefield and practise ongoing cultural ecology. It requires continual steady work. We cannot neglect our artists without losing one of those three trees so essential to our human, communal well-being (the commonweal) and it could be claimed, that it is the one that holds the other two together.
Finally I'd like to tell you a story of two holidays. One of my daughters took her children to stay on Raasay, where my son lives, and which is an island dominated by magnificent views of the Cuillins. Another daughter had saved up from her first paid job after bringing up her kids, to take them to a Greek island. The two daughters were comparing holidays and the talk was all of the glories of sun and sea on the Greek island. The conversation was interrupted by a three-year-old who had holidayed on Raasay, with the key question: But did you have a Cuillin?
That's the creative potential massively present among us, in our landscape, our tradition, our languages, our stories, our daily practices, our aesthetic way.
When it works it feels like play: we are ourselves transformed in the work of transforming.
This article in its original form was a lecture at an event of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland. Tessa Ransford died in 2015.
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