I find that photo above my mantle irresistible. If I gaze into it long enough my spirit sings; I’m there, in that place where the photographer found a peaceful moment early in the morning. What I feel is the intent of the captured moment. The photographer – Paul Camponigro – did a great job of connecting his experience with mine through his creation.
Emotions are the simplest reality; our first awareness. Our thoughts can carry us to complex reaches of imagination, but our feelings are more primitively connected to the earth. Emotions lead the mind; we feel before we think. In effect, a statement like, “I can’t believe the way I’m feeling about this” implies that there are two of us: our thinking selves and our feeling selves. Emotional feelings are distillations that can explode into complex thought. Both learned and inherited, we have emotions before we know what we are feeling. We are indifferent until emotions are triggered
It’s difficult to discuss emotions relating to creative artistic expression without digging at the roots of emotions themselves, but it’s not hard to experience the emotive nature of creativity. Artistic expression or performance has an emotional component: Etta James in full voice, an Ansel Adams retrospective, or a dance company performing the Nutcracker are good examples. Back in the 80’s, I choked up watching Larry Bird trade baskets with Dominic Wilkins during a critical NBA playoff series; a creative human performance at its most inspiring. Perhaps a Brahms Concerto brings tears to your eyes or is it the accomplishments of the 17th Century Dutch Masters? What’s up with that? How do these feelings reach us?
Peppering a musical staff with shotgun holes and playing them as notes is music. It’s music because it is in the form of music and can be played. Provoking as it may be, shotgun music is bad unless you are lucky enough to shoot holes corresponding to a Beethoven Symphony, or at least an emotive measure or two. That is, an emotion other than anger at being subjected to noise. Like a computer randomly selecting musical notes, the artist (marksman) made no attempt to interpret, reveal or otherwise transmute a feeling about their creation. Yet, I wouldn’t discount luck.
The next rung on the “low emotion” musical ladder is that designed for public soothing; those homogenized tonal equivalents of raw tofu. A grocery store tune crackling through a 4″ speaker is an emotional wasteland. Imagine you’re eagerness to connect a friend with the best psychiatrist you know if they boasted an intense emotional connection to a Musak interpretation of the “Long and Winding Road”. His psyche would need investigation, don’t you agree?
Wedding bands play mechanical versions of old favorites, as if the goal is to add as little of their own style as possible. “Hey, that sounds exactly like …” Fill in the blank. At a wedding last month, a version of “Stairway to Heaven” was close enough to the original to make me groan out loud. It was followed by the best “Last Train to Clarksville” replication I’ve heard since the Monkeys split. Each member of the band is a talented musician producing near soul-free versions of familiar once popular tunes. At the same time as the music is played, creativity is scantly identifiable without a fresh contribution from the artist. Show me emotion; risk something.
Sharing our feelings makes us vulnerable. With artistic expression, emotions offer a distinction between artificial and genuine art. The artificial are those masquerades – no matter how well performed or polished – that pretend to be creative through imitation or rote. Even a small emotional connection at the right moment can change lives. While that may seem melodramatic – it’s frequently true. Artistic expression sans emotion is a dead end; it connects with no one.
Great artists supply emotional tension to invariant forms. A rendered tree can be a child’s pencil line of trunk and branches, but the tree in a Camponigro photograph carries a stronger emotional tension. A tree Paul Cezanne interpreted may prevent me from seeing a tree the same way hence. My past is projected on his interpretation; I visit emotions that the image evokes. In a sense, I find new meaning in the tree through his illustrated perceptions; I draw analogies from my past upon viewing the intimately rendered tree that make me feel something new. He created imagery that left room for my own interpretation: mixing old with new, mine with his.
In his landmark book, “The Courage to Create”, Rolo May offers this insight: “Artists pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean something …They immerse themselves in chaos to give it form.” In other words, form is an interpretation communicated through their world view, and artists bring emotion, once buried in chaos, to the surface.
Emotions disturb equilibrium – at equilibrium we’re neutral. Exceptional art isn’t neutral and neither are significant artists. The stereotypically tormented soul of a painter, sculpture, musician or writer, removed from their torment, risk equilibrium thus dulling creativity. Offer an emotional pillow; comfort, or long term contentment and a muse may be ignored. Orderliness, comfort, and contentment, eliminates the turmoil in which artists plunge to reveal their creation. An artist in emotional retreat is comfortable; no longer struggling against turmoil or challenging complacency.
While I’m not suggesting that all great artists are tormented, [although it may seem that way] I do claim, however, that they challenge reality in a way that peaks them emotionally. Stereotypes don’t emerge from nothing; the artist temperament is well documented. Much has been written about why artists act the way the do. Google it and you’ll see.
Why are artists so damn sensitive [I hear you ask]? Perhaps it’s because they’re receptive and stay emotionally in tune with their surroundings. Or, maybe because they are hopelessly insecure – they are, after all, “putting it out there” – so to speak. I believe, In part, they appear sensitive because of risking emotional vulnerability. That is, if they’re any good. Artists need to stay receptive, like an antennae pointed toward the sky; emotionally open to feel the encounter with reality that brings together imagination, craft, and emotions to the act of creation.
Imagination confronts reality through its muse. Creativity is, at least in part, the manifestation of the artist’s emotional encounter with a muse; imagination merged with reality filtered by an emotional world view.
I know from my experience as a photographer that clicks of the shutter give a nanosecond peak of pleasure; a joy of being in the moment. The best photographers don’t look for that moment so much as they feel it. Once in a target rich environment – whether staged or found – the intellectualizing is over and the fine nuance of emotional connection begins. At that point, composition and other skills take a back burner to the subject / artist connection.
Finally: conformity, authoritarian power, material success, and apathy corrode our creative powers: these are anti-creative forces. In contrast, childlike emotional freedom, when added to adult passion for creating the immortal, amplifies creativity. Like the ultimate creation we achieve through sexual relations, artistic creations return a potent pleasure.