Creativity and the Shadow in a Dualist World
Most people who ponder the meaning of artistic creativity ask themselves whether hardships and suffering are conducive to good art. It is still very much an open question and therefore worthy of more contemplation. In the following, I will talk about the nature of creativity in general as well as attempt to address this controversial topic from my personal point of view. One of my guiding themes is the dualist nature of reality which echoes the way we orientate ourselves (up/down, light/dark, good/evil, positive/negative, etc.), but is also responsible for the fact that our minds are incessantly taking sides (if one thing is perceived as positive, its opposite will undeniably be negative). Another theory that governs my thinking is the Jungian concept of the Shadow. It is the part of our psychological reality that is not readily accessed by every day consciousness, yet another truly significant consequence of the dualism I've been talking about. Not only does it play an important role in the artistic process as subconscious material tends to surface when you express yourself, but I will also argue that it plays an important role in truly meaningful art as it mirrors the collective shadows that make this reality into such an intriguing place to be.
I did not have a happy childhood, but my parents were professional photographers and so I got used to hearing arguments about imagery, and looking through photomagazines became a favourite past time of mine. My mother tried to encourage me to be creative, but all that I remember of that is that she wanted to prevent me from using any premade drawing patterns and insisted that I exercise the faculty of observation instead. I was emotionally blocked and probably not particularly creative, although I obviously had a talent for artistic expression that was encouraged at school. When I think back I find it rather curious that I was the only one at school who was any good at drawing. Because I had no challenging competition, my abilities in this area were never questioned. I have no doubt this gave me the confidence to enter the the world of art later on in life.
To begin with, I didn't have the confidence to make fine art. I was admitted to Helsinki University in my native country where I studied philosophy and the history of art for a few years. I was rather good at analyzing other people's work, but at some point I had to ask myself whether my approach was in fact purely intellectual and not emotionally attuned. I also wondered whether there was a well of creativity somewhere deep within myself that I had yet to discover.
I thus set out to uncover my stealthed emotions and find out about any potential creativity that might be lurking in the subconsciuos mind. I made it through the entrance exams in an arts college in the South of France where I did a year of general arts. After this, I was accepted to a college in Normandy where I did graphic design for a year and illustration for two years. Looking back, I think it would have been rather nice to have gotten a proper fine arts education, but if I am to be honest it was probably illustration that helped trigger a sudden ability to express myself artistically. While studying my dreams I was jolted into a spontaneous, rather illustrative, symbolic expression that has been mine ever since.
Curiously, creativity was not encouraged at L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts. I found that most teachers were geared into negativity and praise was rare. This made it very hard for me to find any joy in what I was doing, and completing the assignments was incredibly laborious. I was young and stubborn, yet I only persevered for four years until returning to Helsinki University. This time I took up comparative religion and wrote my MA thesis in 1999 about the ontological status of creativity within the New Age movement. I wanted to know all that there was to know about creativity, but this time I took the intellectual approach and only used this particular form of spirituality as a pretext for my research.
I had noticed, that creativity was an often talked about phenomenon in New Age circles, and that it seemed to own a rather peculiar status. This status was ontological, which means that there is an assumed equation mark between creativity and the basic nature of reality. In other words, in this view creativity is a fundamental to life. I found that the arguments went back to Quantum Physics and the idea that on a sub atomic level there is a boundless sea of creative potentiality waiting to come into existance. Especially the quantum physics David Bohm and Danah Zohar did a good job in demonstrating this viewpoint. From an esoteric point of view, it is the mysterious spiritual force called Kundalini that owns the same ontological status within every human being. This is an ancient sanskrit term adopted by the East looking modern spiritual adepts, and it is commonly thought that “rising the Kundalini”, in other words awakening a dormant subconscious energy, enhances creativity and over all well being, as well as helps connect with higher levels of consciousness. In fact, this force is interlinked with evolution itself (and by this I specifically mean the evolving mind or consciousness although in a general sense it covers all of life). It appears that this force is always active to some extent, which accounts for a general ability to be creative. Various blocks within the human energy field prevents this force from functioning in a harmonious way. Over stimulation of the Kundalini force can, on the other hand, have disastrous results. The unprepared psyche could go into psychosis, nor would the body be able to handle such a powerful energy. Personally, I find this a totally fascinating and very rewarding theory about the nature of the psyche.
Over the centuries, various esoteric cosmologies have pointed to the idea that reality sprouts from one source, a divine “all that is”, the very matrix of reality, and that in fact, the created and the creator are one and the same. The artist, who is the obvious exemplary of creativity, would be the conduit of reality's basic tendency to manifest creativity out of pure potentiality which in a paradoxical sort of way is underlying reality but of it at the same time. The rise of individualism instigated philosophy that pondered the real nature of the subject and the object, and how this dualism was part and parcel of evolutionary progress as, in Hegel's terms, thesis and antithesis gave rise to synthesis.
Modern spiritual views have found a scientific argument in the research done by the quantum physics, especially the theory that the observer of a phenomenon will affect the nature of the observed object. Without going into all the complicated details and consequences of this way of thinking, I wish to bring out the rather exciting thought that the creative person is intrinsically connected to the creative product. In a sense we cannot avoid expressing ourselves precisely the way we truly are unless we manipulate our products in order to ingratiate ourselves with someone else. By expressing yourself authentically, be it through suffering or joy, you are expressing what really is in a deeper existential way. The division between subject and object may thus be an illusion, if we are to believe the idea that dualism is just one of the mind's way of making sense of reality. One might even go as far as suggesting along with many esoteric thinkers that we create our own reality, yet this time I will have to leave this open to interpretation. Nonetheless I urge anyone who is seriously interested in the subject to allow themselves this thought experiment. Personally, I have found dualism to be the very fabric of the messages I wish to bring forth in my art and writing.
Esoterics aside, I think that as soon as you look at creativity as an inherent part of being human, it changes your perpective altogether. To me it is very much a force that can never be completely eliminated, and it will always look for an outlet in one way or another. When you think about it, creativity really does sprout in the most dire of circumstances. It is literally all around us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, especially known for his theory on the flow creative moments, has remarked that the less options people are faced with, the more likely they are to be creative. This suggests that restrictions can be beneficial to creativity. On the other hand, if the mind is very shattered and unable to focus, you are not very likely to enter the flow characterized by great creative inspiration.
Although we are naturally creative and have a complex civilization to show for, it is also quite clear when we look around us that some people are incredibly creative and some are much less so. My impression is that people do need a driving force, a real fiery passion, in order to be truly creative. I don't really think it matters what this driving force is. It could be a general desire be expressive of the self and to communicate this with others, or it could be the sense of “mission” so that a certain topic becomes the goal of creative acts. Emotional dysfunction can be a hindrance, but it seems that it isn't necessarily responsible for creative draught. I was in my teens when I started to have a very pressing need to write about my own lack of emotional connection. In actual fact, a lot of what I wrote was insightful and creative, and when I didn't write I felt disconnected from a mysterious and indefinable inner source. Later on, I equated creativity with being able to create images, but I can now see that the reason I felt this way was that I had more trouble finding my personal visual expression. Once I found it, I was able to churn out a great deal of artwork about my emotional process, and this was a goal in itself. When I had reached a point in life where I was emotionally open, I also felt that I had said all there was to say about the really important things in life. Part of it was being less emotionally tormented, and part of it was a feeling that spiritually, I knew where I stood and had no pressing desire to explore it further through my art. On top of this, I also felt exhausted from years of hard work in putting up exhibitions. Since my health has always been frail, in fact there was much suffering involved in getting the art to the public.
There is a kind of luminous state of mind, a state of something that could be divine inspiration. I have felt it sometimes, either writing or coming up with imagery. I dug up so much emotional material after years of working with myself that I got rather swamped in it all and I do feel that in a sense all this obscured some of the luminosity. We can only be what we are at any given moment, and in the end it is all part and parcel of the human condition and life in the widest sense of the word. I believe that one can get very self-absorbed and sollipsistic about certain shadows, and lose sight of what is truly important. It's easy to think one has a mission of sorts when it's really only serving an egotistic purpose. Yet sometimes I feel a need to express a problem of the collective shadow as if this issue has relevance in a greater sense and has an illuminated quality about it.
There was indeed a turning point about ten years ago. I had been very driven to create images that expressed the conflict I experienced from living in a dualist reality. However, rather than being torn by this conflict, I sought reconciliation and acceptance. My pieces expressed a tension between a belief in a higher form of reality and the real life struggles to survive physically and emotionally. The paradox that came out of this tension is what I believe makes my pieces unique. Apart from attempting to uncover my own “Shadows” in the Jungian sense, a medical condition I deal with since childhood was the reason for many of the negative feelings I was experiencing. Nonetheless, I felt I was making pictures in which other people could mirror themselves, and people did indeed buy my all of my art. I trusted that even if they didn't know why a piece attracted them, they could sense my intentions subconsciously, but also make up their own story whenever necessary. It was all about sharing with the aim of helping others to understand their own difficulties. And hardships do help me understand more about life and the human condition. Yet it also goes without saying that some circumstances are overwhelming and stifling, and for instance financial difficulties often stop artists in their tracks.
My medical condition was, however, also responsible for the fact that I had to change from drawing and painting to collaging. My view of reality was at this point becoming more complex, and it seems to me that this was also reflected in my art. Did I still have anything valuable to say? I keep on going, realizing that my life's work was always going to be more about understanding the shadow side of life rather than pointing to the sunshine, and I accept this as a fact about my life's purpose. Although in reality I embrace both sides of life, I feel an urgency in helping to clarify the issues about the human psyche that make things go wrong. In fact, even creation itself can entail a bit of suffering as I struggle to focus and get it right. In my case, I believe suffering has been a prerequisite to the creation of my art – it is art with a message about the human condition and ways to improve it. I think it is perfectly possible to create art which is not based in suffering and only in passion, but I would question its deeper significance in this time and age. However, I believe there is nothing wrong with a piece of happiness on your wall or in your space if that's what makes you feel better about life. In the end, all things are relative in a dualistic world.
© Vivi-Mari Carpelan 2011. Any anauthorised use of this article is strictly prohibited.
The factual references in this article were taken from my MA thesis:
Carpelan, Vivi-Mari 1999
Vid kreativitetens källa. Kreativitetens ontologiska status inom den nyandliga världsbilden
Avhandling Pro Gradu, Religionsvetenskapliga institutionen, Helsingfors Universitet
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Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly 1996
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Mokerjee, Ajit 1983
Kundalini. The Arousal of the Inner Energy. London: Thames & Hudson.
Sannella, Lee (M.D) 1987
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Zohar, Danah 1990
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Zweig, Connie & Abrams, Jeremiah (ed.) 1991
Meeting the Shadow. The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
Artwork: "Beckoning Shadows II", abstract photograph, all rights reserved 2011