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The Hidden Order of Art: The Child's Vision of the World.

In this post, I share my thoughts on Part 1 Chapter 1 of Anton Ehrenzweig's psychoanalytic text on artistic creativity.



Over the next few weeks, I will be reading Ehrenzweig's The Hidden Order of Art, using this blog to explore the passages and ideas that strike me as most interesting.


As a "survivor" of undergraduate philosophy, I am approaching reading in a new way. Rather than inhaling books and ideas, as I once did, I intend to read gently and slowly digest the contents of each chapter through writing and reflection. Nietzsche said that his works should be "ruminated" upon (like a cow chews the cud), and I now realise what he meant - although in Nietzsche's case, this may have just been an insult to his readers, a jab at the herd mentality.


There is no point in reading philosophical texts just to download information (or worse, mis-information). Nor do I think is there much point in reading philosophy with the intention to analytically tear apart and pass harsh judgements on what is written. I am aware of a behaviour in myself that passes judgment of 'right' and 'wrong', a behaviour that all humans are conditioned to have. It's very difficult to get past this when reading philosophy, because that's exactly what you are reading - in most cases, someone's judgment on what is right and wrong, what is logical or illogical, what argument stands up to opposition and what argument fall downs to fallacy. There is a lot of mental wrestling going on here, but really no one comes out on top when the ego is in charge. Philosophy is meant to be about finding truth, but truth isn't found in combat with another mind. Truth is encountered in a non-combative state where the ego steps aside for the sovereignty of insight.


Anyway - putting my issues with philosophy aside, I am writing this blog to reconnect with an intellectual part of myself that has been lost for some time. But perhaps, this is a new side of myself - not the philosophical 'fighter' but the curious child who wants to explore ideas for fun. I love psychoanalysis and the attempt to understand human life and the mind. I also love art - painting, creativity, the expression of the self.


And so, I am reading The Hidden Order of Art to explore a psychoanalytic study of painting and artistic creativity. I have only read the first chapter this morning, therefore a better summary of the book is yet to come. For now, I want to pull out some of the ideas and passages that stood out to me. I will discuss them in the order they appear:


Creativity as the opposite of mental illness; creativity involves successful coordination of conscious differentiation and unconconscious undifferentiation (pg. 4).

My knee-jerk reaction to this statement is that it is a bold and very strange thesis. But upon further reflection, it's an interesting idea. Certainly, the latter part seems to contain something intriguing - that creativity involves successfully merging the conscious mind, which separates and distinguishes phenomena, and the unconscious mind, which is an amalgamation and mixture of indistinct entities.


The psychoanalytic division between a conscious and unconscious mind is perhaps problematic. This is especially problematic when trying to get a clear definition of what the author means and whose theory they have sided with. Personally, I prefer the terms conscious and subconscious to relate to the psychological makeup of an individual, and unconscious or non-conscious to relate to the psychology of the intersubjective realm - what Jung called the 'collective unconscious.'


I think that the insight contained within Ehrenzweig's statement, is the idea that creativity supersedes the analytical mind and takes place in a realm that 'successfully coordinates' body, mind and spirit. This is not what he says exactly, and I think the problem here comes from the philosophical standpoint that the mind is sovereign. Creativity, in my opinion, is a fusion of body, mind and spirit. The body is what is lacking from Ehrenzweig's assessment. That 'unconscious undifferentiaton' he speaks of points to the spirit, the collective unconscious, the realm of intersubjectivity and human history, but it fails to point out the role of the body's physical intelligence, and the insight of the human being in a physical sphere of bodily connection, a sphere of 'no-mind' and 'flow' where the constraints of the 'analytic', 'conscious differentiation' are left behind and superseded. This is an all-too-common mistake of philosophers who forget the place of the body, and the balance of body-mind-spirit required to access the truth of human lived experience. The words 'conscious' and 'unconscious' point to a truth about human psychology which is inhibited by the mind-centred, or ego-centred, position of Western philosophy.


If creativity requires a balance of body-mind-spirit, as I would argue, then is mental illness the 'opposite' of creativity? I suppose that the opposite of creativity is 'nothingness', but in a kind of lifeless, almost dead sense. On the other hand, a more popular antonym to creativity is 'destruction', but for some reason, this doesn't sit right with me. Creativity involves movement, action, and connection, so the opposite must involve non-movement, inaction, and disconnection. Strangely enough, these terms describe rather well the feelings of depression. I suppose that destruction might also be present in some forms of mental illness. I can certainly see how the opposite of creative tendencies might be synonymous with the lived experience of depression (feelings of nothingness, disconnection, non-movement); however, I think that referring to creativity as the literal opposite of mental illness goes too far. The term 'mental illness' encompasses too many different lived experiences which cannot correctly be assumed under an umbrella term. For example, in my lived experience of PTSD, episodes of illness were not entirely antithetical to creativity. In fact, I was often surprised at how I found myself able to paint in periods of illness where I was unable to do little else. It is interesting, however, that the opposite of creativity (non-movement, inaction, and disconnection) is very similar to depressive states.


"The artist, too, has to face chaos in his work before unconscious scanning brings about the integration of his work as well as of his own personality." (pg. 5)

I am in favour of considering ideas on human psychology in relation to lived experience, as opposed to making ungrounded theoretical arguments. Therefore, I will consider this idea in relation to my own experience of painting.


Now that I have said this, all I can think about is Nietzsche's remark, "you must have chaos within yourself to give birth to a dancing star." Sometimes I think that Nietzsche's ghost must be looking down on me, either that or I have read too many of his books.


Anyway, back to painting. I can certainly see this in my own work, and it is exactly why I find freedom in painting as opposed to technical drawing. When I paint, although I often first lay down a rough sketch, I will begin "chaotically" by adding areas of colour to the canvas, using light and dark to build up the image from a spontaneous dabbing of colour. Then eventually, something begins to happen where the 'random' (not so random) blobs of colour come together to form a more detailed, recognisable image. Often, there is a period in the chaotic stage where the work looks really interesting, and I wonder if I should just leave it in what Ehrenzweig might call an 'unconscious' undifferentiated state.


Ehrenzweig seems to describe the integration that occurs as a conscious analytical integration and differentiation. I think, however, there is something different between conscious analytic integration in painting (where the mind comes in and makes conscious decisions, giving judgements, creating doubts), and a state of emptiness where the physical intelligence of the body in connection with the mind and spirit come together to create in a realm that cannot be described as purely mental. That connection between the painter's hand, arm, brain; the unconscious elements of human history; the painter's lived experiences, his or her emotions, fears and phobias, all of this comes together to create a state of both fullness and emptiness in which creativity can occur. I do not mean to make this sound like a strange mystical experience, it is what I feel when I paint - complete emptiness, and at the same time a fullness and a calm enjoyment in the work. It is not only the 'unconscious' that scans, whatever that may mean, but the self as an integration of mind/body/spirit that succeeds (or fails) in creating art.



As the child gets older "syncretistic vision" becomes "analytic." (pg. 6)

Ehrenzweig speaks of "syncretistic vision" which sees the whole picture in favour of its parts, in contrast to "analytic vision" which differentiates and divides the world into distinct entities. I'm not sure exactly on what research this is based, but it is argued that around the age of eight years old, the child's perception of the world shifts from syncretistic to analytic. This is seen in the shift from young children's bright and colourful abstract art, to an older child's anxiety, doubt and tentativeness in trying to make more 'realistic' adult art which becomes duller and less sensitive.


Looking at children's art would be an interesting area for reflection and research, but I suppose it is very difficult to make generalisations. Children will create artwork and approach creation in a way that is unique to their own lived experience. Ehrenzweig argues an interesting point that the seemingly 'primal' perception of the child is actually more sensitive than the analytic vision we develop as adults. I have to agree with Ehrenzweig's positive valuation of children's art - I think that children could teach us a lot about the joy of mindless creation.


Without research into the ways that children perceive the world and create art, it's difficult to comment on Ehrenzweig's argument with any sincerity. It does, however, point me towards the idea that the analytic mind is an obstruction in the process of creativity. This, although perhaps not Ehrenzweig's point, I would wholeheartedly agree with. I am very interested in the idea of getting the analytical, judging mind out of the process of creativity and connecting in with a more balanced, more empty state of being, which allows the physical intelligence to take charge.




"Syncretistic vision is never entirely destroyed and can be shown to a potent tool in the hands of the adult artist" (pg. 6); "Syncretistic vision appears much more flexible than analytic vision; analytic vision is "cruder" and "less sensitive." (pg. 9)

Again, this idea is most interesting to me in terms of getting the analytic, critical mind out of the process of making art. Children are conditioned from birth to have certain behaviours, beliefs, and reactions which don't suddenly change or appear out of nowhere - although they may only be noticeable in their later years.


I think that the key in getting to a place of calm and emptiness beyond the restraints of the analytical mind is in unlearning, and crucially, not adding new theories or delving deeper into the mind, but by undoing the harmful psychological mechanisms and behaviours through deep work. It is the deep work, the internal self-observation and understanding, that allows the mind, body and spirit to achieve a state of balance. This is hard work, and perhaps not something that would be promoted in a philosophical text, but I think that any truthful psychoanalytic text needs to point out the importance of doing the difficult internal work (the therapy, the self-observation, and the processing) to achieve the external work, by making space for freedom, spontaneity and creativity.


I will conclude my reflections on Chapter 1 with this beautifully written quotation, which I think, needs no analysis to appreciate its value. Sometimes it's best to leave the analytic mind behind, and let the insight and beauty of words shine through to a deeper, subconscious layer of being:


"It is the privelege of the artist to combine the ambiguity of dreaming with the tensions of being fully awake. In the moment of inspiration reality will appear to him super-real and intensely plastic." (pg. 12)

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