Dr. Gil Dekel
“This 20- minute lecture by Dr. Gil Dekel is worth a listen. The feeling at the end is, “How awesome creativity is!” What is the artist really saying in each and every painting? Dr. Dekel tells us.”
– Mary Gwyn Bowen, nurse and art educator.
How artists are inspired to create artworks?
What is inspiration? How it ‘comes’ into the artist and makes them want to create artworks?
Now, many people will tell you that artists are inspired by the external environment, by the historical events that they have been living through; by their culture, the time, the place where they live, their society.
However, I have observed that artists have been creating art in any time throughout history; artists have been creating art in ancient Greece and they are creating in modern Britain. Artists have been creating art in times of great prosperity and peace, but artists were also creating in times of great famine and wars.
It seems that artists have been creating art throughout history, at any time, in any place and in any culture. So these ‘external influences’ (time, space, cultures) do not seem to me to inspire the artist to create; they do not instigate creativity. They may influence the tools that you would use in art, the techniques that you would use, and the events that you would describe in your artwork, but they do not inspire artists to create the artworks, because artists have been creating at any time, in any space, in any situation…
I would like to show today through examples of works of art that artists have been trying to tell us, they have been trying to ‘shout’ out loud and say that inspiration is something unique. It’s beyond what we may think, and through the history of art they have been developing artworks, that is - paintings have been evolving in such a way that give us some clues (through the artworks themselves)that tell us where inspiration is coming from, how does it affect the artists and how we can all learn from it.
So how are artists inspired to create? What is inspiration?
To get an answer to this question we can draw back to the great Aristotle. Aristotle suggested that there is an initial problem with the way that we observe things. He would say that if you look at an object, for example a bookshelf, what you would see is the surface. On the surface you would see the colour. Now, the paint that you see on a surface does not tell you much about the materiality of the shelf itself.
The paint, the surface, has its own essence, and the materiality of the thing (the shelf) has another essence, a different essence. So if you look at a shelf, what you see is only the surface, the colour, the paint, which has nothing to do with the materiality of the object (the shelf).
Aristotle says: ‘there is a problem with the way that we see things; what we see does not tell us about how it came to be.’
Aristotle was suggesting that we observe processes of nature, and learn how things come to be, how things join, how things turn from one thing to another.
That is Aristotle’s suggestion in the exploration of what is inspiration, what is creativity, how things come to be… and he puts that task on artists.
Aristotle was saying: ‘artists, you are good at looking and observing. Your job is to go around nature and describe, to draw, to paint the processes in which nature evolves. Teach us how nature evolves and develops through making paintings of it.’
So, to go out to nature and draw what we see; draw the processes happening in nature. And initially, modern artists were ‘answering’ this call; indeed, they would paint and draw in a naturalistic, realistic manner. They would paint what they see.
For example, the work ‘View of Delft’ by Vermeer, 1616. What you see here is a realistic representation of reality, of nature, showing the city and a river the way they look. The artist was trying to draw the river as he sees it. The artist is trying to portray what he sees in nature because Aristotle was telling: ‘Look at nature, try to understand the process and just draw it’.
This is as if you had a camera and you took a photo.
So the first works of modern artists were realistic, as if they had a camera; just trying to take a snapshot. And in doing so they tried to convey or learn about the processes of inspiration and creativity within nature.
Now, Aristotle’s suggestion was useful, however he suggested looking at the creative process within nature, and not within art itself… He was telling artists: ‘you should observe nature.’ Aristotle didn’t really ‘care’ about the artists themselves, so to speak, rather he was just suggesting employing them as ‘tools’ of exploration.
William Blake, the English Romantic poet, brought about more insight into this quest for inspiration. William Blake, like Aristotle, was indeed admiring nature. He was saying that the best place to create art is in nature; so being in nature would be the best place to create art.
Like Aristotle, he suggested that there is indeed a problem with the way that we perceive reality; there is a problem with perception.
Blake was saying that we do not perceive with the human eye. Unlike Aristotle he suggests that perception is not bound to organs.
So, Aristotle was telling us: ‘look at nature, and tell me how the creative process operates there.’
William Blake said: ‘Yes, I love nature, but as an artist, my process of inspiration and creativity is not bound to perception only. I cannot just look at nature. I can be in nature. Nature is the best place for me to create – but perception is not bound by organs, it is something that comes from within, something beyond the human eye.’
William Blake was suggesting that we should try to look inside to see where creativity and inspiration are ‘coming’ to the artist. And indeed, we see that there is a change in the works of art created.
For example, the work by El Greco, ‘The Opening of the Fifth Seal’, 1608–1614. This work is one of the first attempts to deconstruct or abstract nature.
When I say ‘abstraction’ I mean a process of painting the ingredients and processes of ‘coming about’ instead of painting a realistic painting. If you look closely you see that the lines are very much vibrant in this painting. ; So El Greco was trying to break the shapes that he sees in reality, as if he was ‘saying’ through this work: ‘Yes, I admire nature; indeed we need to learn from nature; but look, the nature that I depict here, the sky, the cloth, the earth, are portrayed with my vibrant brush strokes.’
Vibrant brush strokes suggest that he wants to express himself. What is this ‘deconstruction’ about? It’s about the artist who draws. It’s not about what he depicts any more; it’s not about what he shows, but about the technique that he’s employing when he paints, and the technique is his own personality.
In this work El Greco is trying to tell us that there is a balance. There is a balance between nature (the external world) as a thing that inspires the process of creativity; ‘but I’m going to depict it’, El Greco tells us, ’in an abstract way, in my own way, in the way that I see it as an artist.’
As William Blake said, the process of creativity and inspiration is something that comes from within the artist. So here we do have a balance between the external world (we see nature) and the internal emotional world (nature is abstracted, and looks like the artist’s inner emotion).
Why is it so important to abstract nature in art at all? I think that abstraction is the way in which we observe reality through the artwork, and not through nature.
Taking a further example, William Turner, in his amazing work from 1844, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, 1844. This impressionist work is on the verge of the expressionism style. For the purpose of this article I will discuss the work’s elements of abstractions.
This work represents the next step in abstraction in the history of art, where artists are trying to ‘tell’ us: ‘it is something that comes from within, not from without.’
How artists are saying this? By abstraction of artworks…
If you look closely at this work, the first thing you will see are the brush strokes, the way that the artist laid his paint on the canvass. You will notice that even before you may notice the subject drawn (train, bridge). The work is very much abstract; you may not ‘understand’ what is painted. The first thing you see is the personality of the artist; it is the artist ‘talking’ to us. Only when you look closely, you will see that there is a train here, there’s a bridge here. But, looking at this work, the first thing that you see is the artists’ quality and message talking to us. Only when you look closely you will see that nature is depicted in this work.
If we compare this abstract work to Vermeer’s realistic world, we can consider what grabs our attention. With Vermeer, we note houses and a river. Only when you look closely you will see the quality of the brush strokes created by the Master Vermeer; his own unique artistic ‘signature’.
But looking at modern abstract example, such as Turner’s work, we see the exact opposite, i.e. the first thing we see is usually the brush stroke; we see a lot of colours, shapes, compositions. We don’t know what he’s trying to tell us… He conveys his signature, his personality, and we see it at first glance, through the way that he painted. Only at a closer look that we see and recognise that there is a subject matter – nature, train, bridge, depicted.
In this way artists, like Turner, are trying ‘tell’ us that creativity is something drawn from within, from within the art and the artist, and not from the external world.
The next example is in the style of ‘deconstruction’. Piet Mondrian, ‘Grey Tree’, 1912. What we see here, again, is nature – a tree. So indeed, the artist admires nature enough to make it the main subject of his work. But he takes the shapes and image of tree that he sees in nature, and he is trying to break them down in order to distil a minimalist minimum shape, colour and line.
Why does he do it?
I would argue that Mondrian was saying: ‘indeed I admire nature; I love nature; and nature inspires me to see beauty. However, the mere act of seeing beauty in nature is beautiful in itself.’
It seems to me that Mondrian did not try to depict the beauty within nature, but the ability of the human mind to see beautiful things… And to do so, he starts to abstract nature to its minimal ‘ingredients’, because through abstraction Mondrian gives us the elements that make image, the ingredients that the brain then take and ‘compose’ into beauty’. Mondrian’s abstraction is his own signature as an artist. This is his ‘tool’ to educate and convey messages of self-awareness.
The power of being aware of lines and shape is immense. After all, lines have always existed; and shapes always existed. A triangle is not something that we invented yesterday… A circle has always been there, even before any artist ever lived… And so it is not the shapes that we are coming to ’sell’ in art works (because shapes always been there and they ‘belong’ to everyone), but rather art is trying to ‘sell’ the unique way that the specific artist is using the shapes in his/her art.
A triangle, for example, is something which is international, so to speak. Everyone ‘own’ the concept of a triangle… But it’s the way that this artist is using a triangle, and using the shapes, colours, compositions, which make his/her own signature.
The artist Sol Lewitt was saying that if you draw a portrait of a person, then the portrait is not the real thing – it is a portrait, but not the real person it depicts. However, if you draw a line on a canvas, then the painting is the real line. It is real. A painting of a line is the intrinsic reality of the line, that’s where the line lives… So, arts in that way represent the true reality of things, when art depicts shapes and forms, simple shapes and forms.
Mondrian was saying: ‘I’m going to deconstruct nature into minimal shapes, lines and colours. I’m going to compose it in a new way, my way. That is my contribution. That is how I’m portraying the act of deconstruction as an act of creativity, the process of creativity.’
And so we started with looking at Aristotle who was suggesting to observe reality in order to understand how inspiration and creativity operate in nature, and then paint exactly what we see.
Modern artists ‘obeyed’ Aristotle with realistic, naturalistic artworks. Then gradually there was a progress where artists were saying: ‘Fine, yes, there is nature; nature is great in influencing us, but there’s also the inner emotion state within us, as artists, and creativity is something coming from within.’
Artists started to abstract reality, and to make art vibrant and individually emotional.
And they continued… the first thing you will see in the next phase of art works is only the inward; only the colours, shapes, deconstruction, emotion, and the brush strokes that represent the inner world, as seen with Turner’s.
Only as you look carefully you will see representation of nature. Artists are telling us that creativity is within, something drawn from inside.
And we progress further to artists who are telling us that it is not just about the inward, but it is also the act of deconstruction – so, it is an intellectual and emotional active act in which artists look at nature and break it to its ingredients. In that way, artists ‘declare’ that they are not just inspired emotionally or intellectually but that they are actively doing something. They engage, observe, decode, and de-construct.
The next step taking this idea further comes in contemporary modern art. In a photograph of Jackson Pollock at work, we see that Jackson is holding a stick that he used as the brush. This is the stick that you would get with the tin of paint that you buy in the shop. It is a stick that you would use to mix the paint. So, Pollock was probably buying paint tins, then mixed the paint with the stick, and then he uses the same stick as a brush (to splash the pain unto the canvas).
Instead of throwing the stick, he uses the stick – the same stick that he used to prepare the paint with – to create the painting. The paint is dripping from the stick and on the canvas.
What I can understand from this process is that Pollock was telling us, that even the process of preparing art (like using the stick to mix the paint) is now becoming part of the art itself. This idea fits well with the notion that life itself is part of the creative process of artists.
Of course, if you were to tell Pollock what I propose here, he would probably say: ‘this idea has nothing to do with me… I just used the stick because it was easy to use it to splash paint, and it saved money on brushes’…
Yet, when we look retrospectively through the history of art, we can see reasoning and make connections. We can make these suggestions, because we ask artists: ‘what is inspiration, how does it come to you?’ I have interviewed many artists, and they reflect on inner-emotions, and seeing the process of making art (not just the final work) as part of the creative process.
Indeed, we have two interesting contemporary living artists, the duo Gilbert and George, who declared: ‘we are the art and the artists.’
The artists argue that they are part of the artwork, that creativity is something from within; as we live, so do we create… Gilbert and George created an interesting work called ‘The Living Sculptures’. They painted themselves with shiny metallic paint so they looked like sculptures. And then they just stood in a gallery and started to sing. Now, some people may argue that visually, that work is not interesting. Yet, the idea is that the artists declared themselves to be living sculptures. So, firstly they are ‘sculptures’ and then the sculptures are ‘living’ and singing.
They don’t say: ‘we are now going to portray ourselves as the artwork.’ They do not say: ‘we are going pretend being human-sculptures,’ rather they say: ‘we are sculptures.’ So, the first thing of being an artist is being his/her art – in this case, being sculptures. Gilbert and George are sculptures. Artists are moving away from being humans-that-create-art, and into being the-art-work.
Artists are constantly trying to push the limit, and say: ‘it’s within us… Yes, external reality is there; and yes, we are influenced by nature and the world; but inspiration is something that is within, and it instigates creativity.’
In the many interviews with artists I was asking them: ‘what is inspiration?’ And they keep telling me that they feel being instrumented by something larger than themselves. They feel being just a part, a process; being told or ‘dictated’ to create the art.
We have an example of this in the work of contemporary Natalie Dekel. The artist was saying that she was so inspired to create that it felt physically as if her hand being guided to put the brush strokes in certain areas. The sense is that she feels been guided, being ‘told’ where to put the brush on the card, and what shapes to create.
At this point we see that inspiration is not just a creative force from within; but rather something which is ‘dictated’ to artists; something that is told or conveyed to the artist. In that respect, artists are servants, being ‘told’ to create, by some force or artistic-intelligence.
William Blake was describing this artistic-intelligence with the word ‘angel’. Blake argued that he ‘sees’ angels day and night. And this is probably why Blake was not very popular in his times, and seen crazy. But he had the courage to preserve and say: ‘I am guided by angels day and night.’
The great psychiatrist, Carl Jung, was taking this idea further. Jung was talking about ‘the knowledge beyond’. When I did a PhD and people were scared of the word ‘God’ or the word ‘inspiration’, I would then talk about ’the knowledge beyond’…
Carl Jung was experimenting with deep meditations, and going within to find his own inner-self. And what Carl Jung happened to see is a visualization of his own thoughts. Jung was visualizing himself in the form of a spirit guide which he called Philemon.
Philemon, the visualization of Carl Jung’s self, was telling Jung that Jung’s own thoughts are not really his. Philemon was telling Jung:
’Your thoughts are not yours.’
But what did Philemon meant? We all hear our own thoughts inside our mind. And we hear them in our own voice. But Philemon insisted: ‘no, your thoughts are not yours.’
Rudolph Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, was taking this idea even further. He said: ‘not just that thoughts are not yours, but thoughts are other beings speaking to you.’
To me, this seems a great idea. If my thoughts are not mine, rather they are other beings speaking to me then I can learn to get rid of thoughts, if I have too many thoughts running in my head. They are just messages coming to us…
I mentioned this idea to my friend and he couldn’t accept it. He couldn’t accept the fact that his own thoughts are not his. I guess that we are so locked-up in the idea of ‘I have thoughts and thoughts are created
By me in my mind’ that we cannot think otherwise…
But this is not new knowledge. Rather it seems we’ve known it for centuries now. If you look at the work of Imannuel Kant, the German philosopher, you will find that as early as the 18th century, he discussed how people are locked in set perspectives. Immanual Kant was naming it ‘a-priori’.
Kant was saying that a-priori are notions (categories) by which our mind operates – notions, categories, which we cannot go beyond. And he defined these notions as time and space. Kant was saying: ‘the mind can think only within the boundaries of time and space. These two are the only way that the human mind can think.’
Indeed, it seems we cannot think otherwise. Still, we do know that there is reality beyond time and beyond space. But when we try to think about it, we cannot imagine it… Can you think of something which is not bound to time? Anything that I will think of is bound to time or bound to space, so much so that we use these two words, time space, as one word ‘timespace’.
The human brain cannot comprehend, cannot understand things beyond it. Contemporary scientific findings portrayed in quantum physics, tell us that there are far more dimensions than we think, and there are far more appearances than time and space.
Quantum theories also suggest that the human brain actually affects matter.
So we started off with Aristotle who was saying: ‘when we look at matter, we see the surface, the paint, the colour – and this is one thing, which does not explain the material and how it came to exist’. Aristotle asked artists to depict processes in nature.
We then go through the history of art, where artists are trying to gradually deconstruct art, and by that convey their unique singular signature through their use of shapes, colours and brush strokes. Artists were saying that processes are something within.
We then hear from artists William Blake and the poet Yeats who tell us that there is some insight, an inspirational-pulse through us, but not from us. The pulse is coming through artists, but the source angels, spirits, the gods.
And we conclude up with quantum theories that suggest that the human brain has the power to affect and change those materials, which Aristotle then tells us we don’t know what they’re made of…
Thank you very much.
© Dr. Gil Dekel.
Video 2012, embeded in this website 6 March 2015. Text uploaded 23 Aug 2015.