Academic journal article Cithara

Understanding Artistic Creativity through the Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain

Academic journal article Cithara

Understanding Artistic Creativity through the Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain

Article excerpt

In her 2009 TED Conference talk in Long Beach, California, novelist Elizabeth Gilbert speaks frankly and engagingly about the challenges of the creative process of making art; in her case, in writing novels (Gilbert, TED Talk). Her talk centers around the rather unexpected reaction she receives from people since the "freakish success" of her best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love. As a result of the book's extraordinary popularity, people now greet her as not only a successful artist but also a doomed one. This draws a laugh from her audience. Doomed-what does she mean? Gilbert tells her audience she is doomed because of the question she is invariably asked: "Aren't you afraid?" Afraid of what, Gilbert wonders. "Aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that?" The fear in this question is the same fear Gilbert heard as a teenager when she announced she wished to be a professional writer. Back then, "Aren't you afraid?" was followed by: "Aren't you afraid you are going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing's ever going to come of it and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?"

Good-natured laughter meets her comments during the TED talk; but one can be sure laughter has not always been a part of that exchange. Fears of failure and suffering haunt Gilbert's admirers and also permeate our culture, and the artist is not untouched. In fact, it appears to Gilbert as if, culturally speaking, the creative artist is regarded defacto as a human being destined for suffering.

Reflecting on this situation, Gilbert poses a number of questions to herself and to us. She asks: is it rational or logical that "anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do?" In the forty years that her father pursued a career as a chemical engineer, Gilbert does not recall anyone ever asking him if he was afraid. Earning yet another laugh, Gilbert says she does not remember people concerned about "that chemical engineering block John, how's it going?" Somehow, she says, we have "completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish."

Understandably, Gilbert wants to continue a productive and rewarding life, engaged in the work she finds meaningful and that she loves. Her vocation as an artist should not presume a life of inordinate suffering, although stories proliferate of creative artists who do meet such fates. She reflects this concern when she remarks that one only has

to look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? And even the ones who didn't literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know. Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said, "Every one of my books has killed me a little more." An extraordinary statement to make about your life's work.

Gilbert seeks to avoid such a fate in her own life, and she begins her search for the way to achieve this by sharing with her audience what she has experienced in her own creative process. Her experiential knowledge of the modalities involved in the creating of art is supported by accounts of the other artists she mentions in her talk (Ruth Stone, Tom Waits), and in my own research, by numerous artists' memoirs (see Bemac, Cameron, Hines, Kirkland, L'Engle, Tharp). It is also consistent with the findings of educational psychologists Howard Gardner and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in their studies of creative people (see Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi). It appears, according to the artist's perspective, that there are two distinct and primary aspects of the artistic creative act. The first is the discipline of the artist and the artist's commitment to regular and extended effort and practice. …

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