Inspiration: a functional approach to creative practice.

PhD thesis in Art, Design & Media, by Gil Dekel.


7. Literature Review (pt 2 of 2)

Carl Jung (1990: 72), discussing creative processes in what he coined ‘extraverted art’, uses a plant as an illustration for this idea. Jung says that a plant is not a mere product of the soil, but rather is a living self-contained process, which in essence has nothing to do with the character of the soil. In the same way, Jung explains, the qualities of an art work are inherent within the work, to an extent that one might describe art as a living being using the artist as a nutrient medium. Art employs the artist’s capabilities for its own creative purpose. Artists seem to describe feelings that support this idea on different levels. Some acknowledge expanded feelings that are remarkable and that the artist is part of, while others acknowledge expanded feelings of larger sources that seem separated and coming from beyond the artist altogether.

In that respect, the poet Keats (Ackroyd, 2006) asserts that poets have no identity or self, but rather they imagine the self in thousands of living forms. The poet Anne Stevenson (Curtis, 1996: 54) says, ‘The truth is vaster than the alphabet’, and the video artist Bill Viola (Shambhala Sun, 2004) declares that he observed ‘art inserting itself into experience’. The Suprematist Malevich (Drutt, 2003) discusses the use of pure geometric forms, which represent a universal essence that belongs to all people and have no single culture. These artists belong to the first group, which acknowledge intensified or larger emotional capacities in which the artist takes part. Jephcott (1972: 12) refers to these experiences in his study on Rilke and Proust with the term ‘Privileged moment’.

To the second group belong such artists as William Blake. Blake (Bowra, 1976: 44) argues that he feels the presence of something larger than man during the experiences which inspire him to write, and declares (Halpern, 1994: xv) that he is under the guidance of angels day and night. Yeats (1966: 272), who was known for his automatic-writing experiences, also supports the notion of knowledge or creative power that comes to the artist from beyond the artist’s own mind. These forms of knowledge are seen by the cultural and literary critic Marina Warner (2006: 237) as important forms which can reveal what would otherwise be hidden, and are thus useful for research studies.

Taking the same view, Jung (1963: 176) adds that some things in the psyche seem as if they were produced by themselves and not by the psyche. Jung describes an experience where he entered an intense mode of observing his own way of thinking. During that experience he visualised an imagined figure named Philemon, who asserted to him that his thoughts are not his own and are not created by his own mind. Likewise, the architect and founder of Anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner (1993: 40), asserts that thought should be treated as an external object, since thoughts are basically the speech of another being speaking to us.

To describe the totality of all psychic processes and contents, Jung coined the term ‘collective unconscious’. Art, he argues (1990: 80), originates from the collective unconscious, and not from the artist’s own personal unconscious mind. Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious seems to be echoed by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard who coined the term ‘Absolute image’. Bachelard (1969: 153) explains that absolute image is a self-contained image which is not prepared by thought, and is not the result or influence of a previous image in one’s mind; rather, it is absolute. The poetic image, Bachelard (1969: xvii) explains, has no causality, therefore it is absolute image. This notion could be compared to Immanuel Kant’s important idea of the a-priori and synthetic thought, as discussed in his Critique of Pure Reason ([1787] 2000). Kant argues that thought itself is based on a-priori categories of space and time, which exist in the mind of the person even before the person thinks. Kant makes a distinction between thoughts that are the results of previous thoughts (‘post-ideated image’ in Bachelard’s terminology), and synthetic thoughts that are not produced from previous thoughts.

Kant, Jung and Yeats can be viewed as representing the notion of inner faculties, and may convince us that there are unsolved or poorly-understood influences on how we perceive and think. However, the literature on quantum physics may shed important light on this issue. Recent theories in quantum physics (Arntz, Chasse & Vicente, 2004: minute 5.27) suggest that the mind can have an influence over matter, to the extent that the mind, or thoughts, seem to alter or form physical objects. Such studies, as Professor Josephson Brian’s (n.d., para 1) Mind-Matter Unification Project in Cambridge University, imply the possibility that people may have a greater influence over reality than was previously understood. In that respect, artistic creativity could be brought closer to an understanding through the artists who create.

The literature does not seem to reach a conclusion in regard to the influence of the mind over matter or the seemingly transcendental sources of inspiration that inspire artists. Piirto (2005: 10) uses the word ‘Muse’ in relation to the transcendental inspiration source in art, quoting Ted Hughes as saying, ‘Poems get to the point where they are stronger than you are’. Piirto seems to touch on a crucial point in regard to the transcendental Muse: the Muse, she says, comes from afar but from within the artist. Albeit remote or beyond the artist, the inspirational source seems to come from within and through the artist. Piirto notes that such a form of inspiration is accessible as a result or in response to the artist’s emotional state. In that respect the artist’s feelings, or emotions, can be seen as a gate, or an access point, to inspiration.

However, feelings may not be evident all the time, and thus difficult to evidence on inspiration. In The act of creation Arthur Koestler (1964: 148) quotes Plotinus (ca. AD 204–270) who argued that feelings can be present without an awareness of them. It seems that some forms of feelings, from which sources of inspiration may come, are felt by the artist but cannot be evidenced for in the literature, while some other feelings can be evidenced for. More so, the poet and critic Kathleen Raine (1975: 120) suggests that those feelings, once felt, seem familiar, as if they were a normal part of the artist’s psyche. The poet TS Eliot provides an example in one line from his poem Burnt Norton in Four Quartets. Eliot (1970: 16) suggests a meditative mode of experience where one is under ‘concentration without elimination’. Concentration without elimination suggests a state of paying attention without trying to eliminate or filter what one feels. In this way, while the literature may not evidence on the totality of feelings from which the artist derives inspiration, it can relate to those feelings that one is aware of and can make sense of. The poet and critic Archibald MacLeish (1965: 18) explains that the poet actively labours against the meaningless, until he or she forces it into meanings.

The conclusion of the literature at this point brought me to an understanding that artists have moved from depicting external appearances to depicting the means of art itself, and the means by which the artist himself or herself engages in art making. That process led to the exploration of inner sources of inspiration, suggesting that inspiration is accessed through the artists’ strong feelings that are later given meanings which can be communicated.

The process of giving meanings to strong feelings allows artists to make sense of their experiences. Giving meanings to experiences suggests coding experiences into language. Language, according to the philosopher of art Susanne Langer (1982: 65), is a form of logic and thought. Naturally it can be said that using that form the artists can then communicate their experiences to audiences. However, the poet and critic Wallace Stevens (1952: 13) in his essays on reality and imagination, suggests an opposite view. Stevens asserts that poets have a desire within them to actually ‘kill’ language by stripping words of all associations. Artist Anish Kapoor (Bickers & Wilson, 2007: 337) seems to join this feeling, confessing that once he has an idea in his mind he would resist to draw it on paper for a while. Anish asserts that an idea is ‘much more alive’ in his head than on paper. In that respect, I infer that artists may not be said to translate feelings and experiences into meanings for the ultimate purpose of communicating, but rather for the purpose of expressing. Indeed, the literature focuses on the artistic language – colour, shape and line – suggesting that artists translate meanings to these artistic forms. Installation artist and educator Joseph Beuys (Thistlewood, 1995: 57) argues that these forms are the natural place of meanings or ideas. Beuys argues that ideas cannot exist by themselves in the form of verbalised representation, but must be rendered in colour, shapes, pictures and imagination in order to ‘live’. The act of giving meanings by artists to feelings and experiences is the act of expressing ideas, and giving them their natural forms in which they can ‘live’.

Picasso refers to a different importance in the process of inspiration and art making. By asserting that ‘… it is the realisation alone that counts’ and ‘Others talk, I work!’ (de la Souchère, 1960: 13-14), he notes that the most important part in the process of creativity is the actual application of artists’ ideas into the artwork. The work of the contemporary painter Felice Varini indicates a new approach in the way that artistic forms are applied to actual works of art. Felice (Muller, 2004: 43) abandons the canvas as a surface for paintings and instead uses architectonic spaces as canvas. Painting his localised-perspective paintings on buildings, streets and spaces, Felice moves away from such as Pollock, by using reality as the place to create art as well as the canvas for the work (fig. 4).

Figure 4: Felice Varini, Between Heaven and Earth (2005, acrylic paint on buildings, street and sign post.) Image © the artist. Permission to use image obtained from the artist.

Figure 4: Felice Varini, Between Heaven and Earth (2005, acrylic paint on buildings, street and sign post.) Image © the artist. Permission to use image obtained from the artist.


Works in public spaces, Bal (2001: 3) explains, cannot be seen as individual creation by the artists only, but collaborative creation with the viewers. The inclusion of the viewer in the process of public works of art indicates another interesting implication. According to Blake (Wilson, 2001: 226), the true mode of knowledge comes from experiencing, from the actual making and from participating. In that respect, by putting artistic forms into practice, artists generate frameworks that enable both the artists and the viewer to experience forms of authentic knowledge. The Romantic poet Wordsworth is quoted by the psychologist and education reformer John Dewey (1933: 37) as saying that all our senses are acted upon by the environment: the eye sees, the ear hears and the body feels. Wordsworth’s statement supports the notion of authentic knowledge, which is ‘felt’ and understood through the body, rather than the mind. Wordsworth indicates that at an early age, the whole body of the child is ‘curious’, in a state where curiosity is still removed from thinking.

The literature brings me to an understanding that artists apply artistic forms to practice, in a way that incorporates new forms of knowledge. The literature suggests that applying artistic forms into practice is not merely an act of artistic expression of those artistic forms, but rather an act of expression of embodied knowledge through practice.