Sunday, January 18, 2009

Creativity and the richness of brain concepts

In two recent blogs, I argued that self-censorship, whether known or unknown, is an unwelcome brake on creativity; it stifles self-expression and hence prevents a work from reaching the heights of great art. But, as I have argued in my recent book Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, it is not the only impediment. I view all art as an effort to translate brain concepts into a work. These brain concepts are synthetic ones – the result of many experiences. But a single work of art, or even a series of works, more often than not cannot translate these synthetic concepts adequately. Yves Saint Laurent once said (I think to Christian Lacroix) that he suffered greatly when creating. He is not alone in that. Most artists do the same and say as much.

One, very common, way of avoiding this difficulty is to abandon all attempts at creating a work; another is to leave it unfinished. But Balzac in particular highlights a third way, which also ends in failure. In his The Unknown Masterpiece (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu), he writes of a painter who progressively destroys a painting through the richness of concepts in his brain, by trying to put too much into the work. When he finally allows others to see the painting, on which he has been working secretly for 10 years, they see nothing but “a mass of confused colours contained within a multitude of bizarre lines”. Of it Balzac wrote that it was about “a work and its execution strangled by the great abundance of the creative principle”, which I translate into the richness of the synthetic concepts in the brain.

It ends, of course, with the suicide of the artist, just as in Zola’s novel, The Masterpiece (L’Œuvre), the painter Lantier commits suicide because of the richness of concepts in his brain.

It is interesting to note that both Cézanne and Picasso greatly admired Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece. Picasso was so taken by it that he purchased (or rented) the apartment in Paris in which it was set. Of the principle character in the short novel (Frenhofer), Cézanne said, “Frenhofer, c’est moi”.

The novels of Balzac and Zola constitute, in this context, very interesting neurobiological documents. But they do not address, and neither has neurobiology to date, the mechanisms that drive an artist to want to create, often desperately. It is an extremely interesting problem for neurobiology, which stands to gain a great deal from learning about the problem by studying what the great creative artists have had to say about it.

1 comment:

Halewyn said...

It would be not only interesting - but necessary- to state (from a scientific point of view) the difference between:

1) Self-censorship in relation to oneself: The "This is really what I want?" idea.

2) Self-censorship in relation to the others: The "What will they say?" idea

It's my hope Neuroesthetics field will make interesting discoveries in the near future, because all what we have is essentially the perception of ourselves in opposition to the perception of the others.. or what some call the "inner" and the "outer" world.