Friday, 13 February 2015

Critical Review - The Creative Process


I find myself pondering how it is that what I consider to be the decline through the 50s and 60s of the visual arts has come about.   The tendency is to apply:  philosophical, political and social definitions and concepts to a non-symbiotic world or discipline.  These concepts are not irrelevant but in my view are peripheral.  In order to arrive at a different, more accessible interpretation of the art world I consider that not only must the language change but different perspectives are needed to add more pertinent weight and depth to the understanding of the creative process.


The Conceptual creative process is almost the reverse of the traditional aesthetic approach.  A concept is conceived almost as a textual document and this equals the art, moving away from authorial ownership towards self-reflexivity so that a work reveals the process of its own making in order to avoid the illusion of art.  Yet, it seems to me, it is the illusory nature of art (artifice) that opens doors to emotional reaction, thoughts and ultimately an understanding of the work before us. Without that imaginary veil I wonder if access to our hidden/subconscious perceptions is limited.  Would we merely perceive in a direct retinal, or optical way minimising the artist’s psychological motivations? In the case of conceptual art would the viewer look, see, then move on, without being beguiled or inspired? Conceptualism appears a cold methodical way of working that has little in common with the ethos of art as an emotionally rewarding activity for the spectator, or does it offers more, a ‘mind mapped’ view of our world? Greenberg says  “The essence of Modernism lies the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself – not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence”[1]  Is it that the engagement of the viewer is no longer important, or does the viewer need to become more informed?  Conceptual artistic value is difficult to interpret and award; the hard work has to be done by the spectator from very little by way of visual clues. 

To compare the thought process between these two approaches would be interesting but I am insufficiently familiar with the conceptual approach. However, I will do my best to outline my personal method and try to assess where the conceptual artist might digress.



How does the creative process begin?  This is my brief, speculative interpretation and is probably far from the truth. Benjamin and Adorno viewed artwork “as the space in which the experience of thought can be exposed to its own potentialities, contradictions, and conditions of possibility”[2]  I would venture to say that is a pretty good description of the brain.

It seems to me that an initial “idea” a sort of spark is triggered in the brain probably by some electro-chemical mechanism, possibly called a neuron, which lights up like a small starburst – a “flash” of inspiration.  It is interesting here to compare a starburst with similar images, explosions, the big bang, starlight, cancer cells, nuclear fission, sparks; they all have some sort of nucleus with emanations leading off in diverse directions, and are associated with creation or destruction. 


However, returning to the “idea” -  pathways whiz off to various other networks triggering all sorts of related ideas.  For the sake of clarity, the example “idea” is that of the bull (which has featured in a recent painting).  So “bull” has lit up somewhere in my cerebral cortex (?) That thought triggers all sorts of other ideas and now sparks are firing in all directions: Spain, Picasso, bull fights, birth sign, strength, stamina, black, horns, smell, danger, bulk, death;  the neural pathways are alive with activations that are spreading further and further a field, colour – red, black, texture, Guernica, fear.  Yet this all takes place in split seconds, and is not defined by any language easily transmitted.  The conceptual artist is probably stimulated by different things at this stage, probably from his left brain.

Wittgenstein[3] says that Expression depends on idea of intention to express a meaning, this will or intent comes before verbal or visual consolidation and is therefore internal and private to ourselves but unknown to others.  He goes on to say that a word’s meaning is established in its use and that words become a sort of language game, they are learned and practiced interpersonally and gain credence and meaning in that way.  He therefore asserts that private expressions make no sense as they cannot be articulated.  In semantic terms, I feel he conflates “words” with” ideas” in the term ‘expression’.  Ideas can be expressed visually even without a meaningful linguistic vocabulary to express these private thoughts. It is through the process of shared visual symbols that the viewer might experience mutual understanding. The Jungian subconscious springs to mind.

I assume conceptual artists will experience academic and linguistic thoughts relating to his project.  Back to my “idea” lighting up the circuitry of my brain.  This thought has to be realized in some way so I invent the simulacrum of a canvas support in my brain where I might attach the “idea” of a bull.  The move towards actual realization is probably occurring in a different part of my brain, it feels different, it feels more substantive, less shadowy.  I am still being bombarded with distant links, I recall witnessing a bullfight, I think of my Spanish holidays, and I am reminded that Taurus is my birth sign. My thoughts are going off-piste, I have to control and guide them towards the prospect of creating a painting. With these sub-thoughts appended to the main “idea” I have to find a way of making choices, or will my brain do that for me?  Will the low light starbursts disappear off the radar leaving a manageable number of selections from which to choose or am I focusing on the more interesting/relevant elements?  I don’t know.  However, my library, which will be unique to me, will have similarities by way of Platonic “forms” (for want of a better description) in other people’s minds, and this, I conjecture, is why generic symbols are ubiquitous. The conceptual approach might be similar though the personal library could be quite different.

BUILDING BLOCKS (Referential Hooks)

There are timeless conventional building blocks used in the creation of a painting, and regardless of the desire by some contemporary artists to shun their worthiness, they remain valid, i.e. colour, composition, texture, media, support, perspective (?), certainly in terms of a painting, maybe not so much for an installation and conceptual art.  These are inevitable functions of the creative process, which at least Francois Morellet[4], painting in the 50s did acknowledge.   But I am ignoring chance and probability.  Is this something that needs to go into the mix or by its intrinsic nature will it occur anyway? I think the latter, as one can never have total control over one’s work and neither would it be desirable.  So this part of the process is relatively easy, colour I know should be red.  I have been studying Klein’s monochromes so that confirms my decision.  The bull happens to be my star sign and now I am thinking of my birth-date and rendering letters and numbers, texture has to be relatively flat but interesting.  Another lot of starbursts as further possibilities come to mind.  I also think about the Guernica bull and how I might incorporate that and the photograph of a bull taken in Spain.

These ideas are now cohering on my mental canvas and are arranging themselves but they are still in a state of flux.  How do I achieve a balance (i.e. composition), is it desirable?  If not, what attribute replaces it?  Indeed, is an alternative necessary?  I find it difficult to grasp the idea of something being cogent and mindfully constructed yet relying on effects engendered entirely by random chance.  My thoughts vacillate, as random elements have an appeal, much as automatism appealed to the Surrealists, and Abstract artists relied on its magic too.  These thoughts I sense will only become manifest when I begin work.  Shall I use collage?  I want the look of torn posters and I have a photograph of some worn, torn posters of Queen on a wall in Spain, I’ll print those and use them as collage.  For the support, I will use hardboard, without gesso and I’ll scribe it with a knife to add texture, the blade that kills the bull.  My thoughts are emerging, coalescing into the visual realization of my initial “idea”.  I am nearly in clear air where the actual work can begin.


I have done the mind work, the real work will involve taking decisions but most will be instinctive rather than worked out pragmatically, because for me that is where the creative energy takes over, working both internally and externally, which is what I believe Jackson Pollock and others have meant by being “in” the painting.[5] The “idea” is conceived in the mind and is shuffled off the simulacrum canvas only to emerge on to the real canvas yet somehow the mental thought processes continue to inhabit it, so that the two canvases seem to converge in an indefinable way. The eventual outcome evolves in unpredictable ways, because the control mechanisms of the mind are somehow sublimated to the creative process itself.

The real empty support is in front of me. I now have to assimilate some sort of order to my thoughts.  First, I scribe the hardboard with a knife.  Fontana, left it there and submitted slashed canvases for his artwork.  I will go further. I will use little texture but need to sink some colour into the surface as it will be very absorbent without gesso.  I apply red acrylic paint and texture it with a brush, cling film and impasto.  It’s good enough as a monochrome right now, interesting surface on which to work. I think about the collage element:  photos of some red peppers (implying intestines), photos of Freddie Mercury,  a photo of a bull construction.  I work freely, the bull will dominate and I add collage that will work as a Bull’s eye.  I stencil my birthday in individual letters and mix them up creating “I am” Descarte’s expression, as well as “i bull”.  I continue staining the collage and adding black to give more contrast.  I make marks with oil pastel, and add pastel powder for texture.  Once “in the zone” or “in the painting” ideas keep coming and I am balancing the painting, adding collage, paint and texture gradually building up the whole thing until it becomes a harmonious coherent piece of work.


If a discussion of the creative process leads to better understanding then we will have an improved experience of the art world. It will enliven and deepen our interpretation of works of art hopefully encouraging a wider, younger audience. Process Art reveals rather than conceals, but does it ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ by eliminating artifice?

With artists like Grayson Perry  we are being introduced to more interesting exhibits that amuse as well as excite the viewer, and through his Reith Lectures during October 2013, it is clear he is in the vanguard of a more positive validation of art appreciation.

Perhaps the timeless “building blocks “ are back, and with them the creative process, works that give appeal to the eye and the mind - we may no longer be corralled into black corridors looking and listening to digits and text, mirrors and sounds,  thinking: what am I supposed to be thinking?


Source and Reference material:

Art since 1900, Hal Foster et al, Thames and Hudson, published 2004

Shock of the New, Robert Hughes, published 1980, Thames and Hudson

Aesthetics, Alessandro Giovannelli, published 2012, Continuum

New Art in the 60s and 70s, Anne Rorimer, published 2004, Thames and Hudson

[1] P.11 Clement Greenberg, New Art in the 60s and 70s, Anne Rorimer, Published 2001, Thames and Hudson
[2] P 147 Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno by Gerhard Richter -  Aesthtics edited by Alessandro Giovanelli,  published 2012 by Continuum
[3] Source and Reference material: Art since 1900, Hal Foster et al, Thames and Hudson, 2004, Johns and Stella, p.407 Ludwig Wittgenstein
[4] Source and Reference material: Art since 1900, Hal Foster et al, Thames and Hudson, 2004, French Conceptualist painting, p517
[5] P 313  Shock of the New, Robert Hughes, published 1980, Thames and Hudson

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