The Work of Art and the European tradition of Humanism

An address to the 10th meeting of the European Cultural Parliament at Pécs, Hungary, 14th October 2011.

By Timothy Emlyn Jones,
Burren College of Art, Ireland

When I say “the work of art” I mean what art does and how it does it: the process rather than the product.  This may seem an unusual approach to art theory since most of what is said about art is about works of art, whether seen from the point of view of the connoisseur, the historian or the critic: all consumers.  Instead, I am speaking with the voice of an artist, as a maker.  Relatively little has been written about how works of art come into the world—the creative process—and some of what has been written argues that the process is unknowable. I am going to argue that the process can be considered within a humanist perspective.  Imagination and intuition seem mysterious because we do not understand them. Yet. That does not mean they are beyond investigation.  Here, I am looking for a bridge between rational humanism and a simple experience that convention likes to call spiritual.  Art is where these two meet.

When I say “European tradition” I am making a generalisation, recognising that generalisations are at best only part true and inevitably part false.  I will be contrasting Europe with America and with Asia, but I want to say upfront that I am very aware that the three are themselves interdependent, each serving to enrich and define the others in reciprocal relationship.  What I feel to be distinctive about a European perspective is an emphasis on a human point of view as distinct to that of a God on one hand and a partnership of Competition and Consumerism on the other.

The Idea of Creativity
For most of the twentieth century the dominant rationale for art was creativity.  That ended some time in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  Ironically, just at the moment that governments, inter-governmental agencies, industry and business came to speak of creativity as the means for driving the economy, art and artists had turned their back on creativity as the preferred rationale. Thus, the benefit of their experience is not widely shared.  Instead, art and artists have turned to critical theory or away from theory to pure egoism in the way favoured by the market place. Attention in the art world has turned away from the means of production and towards the means of consumption.  The world of art could have a lot to offer those involved in the new wave of interest in creativity, but for this to happen art and artists need to keep their focus on the means of production and not on the pleasures of consumption.  Consumerism is not a credible rationale for art.  When Philip Glass was asked what the works of Robert Wilson meant he reacted, “Nothing, I hope.”(1)  In this he expressed the apotheosis of consumerism in the guise of formalism, and there is an alternative.  Instead we should look to art as a process of enquiry, and thereby see enquiry as a creative process and value the knowledge and understanding it creates.  This rationale for art research—an aesthetics of method—is growing fast.

Part of the problem is that the concept of creativity is an essentially modernist concept.  Arguably it is the core concept of modernism in its emphasis on newness, progress and a linear view of history. This is the view of history as having led to us, and as having always been leading to us.  If we were to perceive ourselves as the highest level of existence to date then our lack of perception would be self-evident.

This modernist concept of creativity is essentially American in its source and I am arguing for a different concept that I see as European in origin. While connected, these two perspectives are significantly different and the key to understanding this difference is the concept of difference itself. In this paper I am advancing a post-Deleuzian concept of Creative Difference.  Deleuze overturned Aristotle’s view that difference follows from identity given that in his view identity is stable.(2)  Deleuze showed that identity follows from difference – from what Antonio Gramsci called “the pattern of formation” of reality.(3)  Here identity is not stable. Creative Difference consists of: dispassionately recognising one’s differences from others; self consciously becoming different from one’s self, by which I mean stepping beyond one’s mental, emotional and behavioral habits; and using those differences as the basis for making a difference of significance to others.  This process, I suggest, embodies principles more readily identified with Europe than America or Asia though it does draw on all three.

The American heritage of creativity since the 2nd World War has been based on the principle of competition exemplified by the Cold War and the Space Race. The source of motivation was the astonishing fact of the Russians getting into space first, epitomised by John F Kennedy’s commitment to lunar exploration in double quick time,(4) although its roots go much earlier to the drive to empire through globalisation beginning in the nineteenth century and to Fordism in the early twentieth.

By contrast, the European heritage of creativity since the 2nd World War came out of reaction to the Holocaust.  Joseph Beuys’ advocacy of universal human creativity was a response to the need for an alternative way of being German to that of the Third Reich.(5)  This meant an alternative way of being human, The question, what does it mean to be human? was, in my experience, constantly on Beuys’ lips. His reply was to say that everyone has the potential to be an artist in any form of social engagement.

Beuys’ friend and collaborator in the establishment of the Free International University, Heinrich Böll also enquired into what it means to be human. While his idea of the clown is well known in the novel of that name,(6) in my reading of his book Irish Journal(7) he also saw an alternative way of being human in the consciousness of the one European country to have been virtually untouched by the 2nd World War; Ireland. In this book, informality, illogic, quirkiness, indifference to time and resistance to order are raised to the level of principle.
In his research into the source of happiness, Mihalyi Csizentmihalyi searched for an alternative to the all pervading misery he witnessed in the devastation of post-war Hungary.(8)  Here too we see a search for an alternative way of being human.
In all three cases we see a strong contrast to the impulse to competition.  We see a distinctly European model of humanism and a distinctively European foundation for the generation of art, rather than its consumption. Later in this paper I will go further in characterising the processes of what I call Creative Difference and these too will emerge as distinctly European.

In putting forward the question, What does art do and how does it do it? I am mindful of the opinion that art does not do anything, but that it is.  Nevertheless, art always has an effect so it is reasonable to discuss how that is brought about.

What art does is enable us to understand ourselves and to understand the worlds of which we are part. It does other things too, but in this primary principle art and science are the same.  Where they differ is in how they do what they do.  Scientific method is well understood, though not uncontested, and much has been published about it.  By contrast, artistic method is little understood and little has been published about it.  A great deal has been published, however, about creativity, most of it from a modernist point of view.  Creativity is often portrayed as a special kind of thinking, Edward de Bono’s Lateral Thinking probably being the best known attempt to stretch the concept of thinking to the edge of credibility.(9)  Creative process is not a category of thinking.  No-one ever thought their way into an imaginative act or thought their way out of an intractable problem.  Several forms of intelligence are involved. Much of what has been written about artistic process, by contrast, emphasizes its mysteriousness.  The means of artistic production is not beyond understanding even though it may suit the art market to have things portrayed that way. The art market is a much underestimated driver of thinking about contemporary art.  The Romantic paradigm of the lonely troubled genius—that special person of special talents producing special commodities that, rivaled only by gold bullion, provide the benchmark of economic value—is  diametrically opposed to the idea of universal human creativity.

This exclusive paradigm underpins modernist creativity theory. There is a substantial literature on traits of the creative personality and most of it is based on the  difference of creatives from the rest of humanity.  Just as the art market depends on the exclusivity of its products, so the principle of competition depends on creativity portrayed as as exclusive quality.

Creative Difference
The Creative Difference that I am advocating recognises the universality of difference and the specialness of each person, every person.  The concept of Creative Difference described below centres both on the processes of personal difference and on processes of making difference in a given context.

Personal difference implies not only a person’s difference from other people but also a person’s capacity to become different from their habitual self.  There are many ways of conceptualising personal difference such as gender, ethnicity, temperament, personality and I wish to consider the latter two in particular because of their capacity for generating typologies that are valuable as analytic tools in considering comparisons and contrasts in personal difference.

The four temperaments of Hippocrates and Galen form the basis of Jung’s personality types which were developed into the well known Myers Briggs framework.(10)  This centres on four strategies: for energising; for taking in information; for processing information; and for coming to conclusions.

Mediaeval categories of virtue and sin have been taken as the basis for the Enneagram of Personality framework developed by Oscar Ichazo, Claudio Naranjo and others.(11)

Both of these typologies (and there are others) can enable processes of self recognition and self development.  One of the two principal benefits of these systems comes in identifying one’s position in relation to a creative opportunity, problem to be solved or issue to be addressed.  In the essentially subjective context of creative process one’s position is essential to understanding the given context.  The other major benefit comes in one’s efforts to change one’s habitual ways of thinking, feeling and reacting in becoming different from oneself.  Any change that is to be effected to an opportunity, problem or issue depends in large part on a change in the person or persons seeking to effect that change.

Creative Process
While the typologies to which I have referred provide a structure for understanding and facilitating change in the person, another kind of structure is needed in engaging it with the process of interaction with any specific opportunity, problem or issue: the means for making a difference.

Iterative process has long been a key principle in creative process. In an advanced form, this process comprises the positive dimension of considering the opportunity, problem or issue with each iteration providing learning and insight. Rather than repeatedly going in circles one rises to a higher level each time round in upward spiral progression. This model, characterised as the Gyre became a symbol of poetic and spiritual growth for WB Yeats,(12) as in The Second Coming, and was the inspiration for his 1933 collection of poetry The Winding Stair; a symbol taken from the form of the spiral staircase of his Irish medieval tower house Thoor Ballylee that takes one on an upward journey from darkness to light.  He may have been influenced in part by the symbol of ‘Pataphysics in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu,(13) Yeats having been in the audience of the premiere of Ubu Roi in Paris in 1896.  Yeats’ concept has come to underlie may European approaches to creative process.

The idea of distinct stages of a creative process is discussed by John Chris Jones in his 1970 classic text Design Methods.(14)  He suggests that what he describes is already well understood in design yet his account of it is probably the first.  He describes three stages of creative process in divergence; transformation; and convergence, and he describes methods associated with all three.

Divergence involves expanding one’s field of attention to include everything that might seem relevant to an opportunity, problem or issue no matter how illogically. At this stage, the voice of criticism or judgment of the cognitive mind is suspended as the range of possibilities expands. Jones describes a variety of methods for the divergent process, of which brainstorming is probably the best known.

Transformation comes about through a change of consciousness and with it a change of method that facilitates the making of sense. This is the ‘aha’ or ‘eureka’ moment; a dramatic or subtle transformation that feels unexplainable and moving, but which depends for its effect as a turning point in a longer process even though it might feel like sudden revelation.  James Joyce called it ‘epiphany.’(15)

The turning point in the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland was an agreement on both sides to change the language used to describe the problems. With the Good Friday agreement,(16) suddenly, everything seemed different and possible, with the terms of reference having been formally changed within the EU context of both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom being seen to be two parts of the larger context rather than oppositional realities.  In this respect, the EU can be seen to be an intrinsically creative agency, whether knowingly or not.

The turning point of transformation is a change in the terms of reference, change in one’s consciousness and the focus of attention so that one may both see differently and be open to what one sees.  MC Richards famously explained this Asian principle to a Western readership in her classic book Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person,(17) and immediately popularised the concept of centering across the 1960s.  A potter cannot centre a pot until the clay is centered, she explains, and the potter cannot centre the clay until he or she is centred.  The same applies, she argues, for poetry and personal development.  The core of this perspective is that one transforms an opportunity, problem or issue if one first transforms its terms of reference by transforming one’s own perception of it. Often this is effected by shifting from the narrow attention favoured by Western emphasis on thinking to the wide attention that is essential in martial arts. In Asian martial arts any focus on the competition would mean sudden death in combat for the competition is a distraction from core purpose; a point important in attaining optimal performance, and one that seems to have been recognised in Northern Ireland..

The stage of convergent process  is more widely understood as it comprises conventional project management.  It is the doing that so often obscures being.

In his version of an iterative learning cycle, David Kolb adds a fourth stage of reflection and evaluation, and this leads to a return to and new insight into the opportunity, problem or issue that was being addressed.(18)  More recently, aspects of this artistic process have been recast not as an iterative process but as a U-structure by Otto Scharmer.(19)  Scharmer takes this process of poetic, artistic and design creativity as his rationale for leadership theory and for reinventing capitalism, albeit without an explicit iterative dimension.  What we see here is one example of knowledge transfer from literature, art and design to non-art contexts.

I have described this view of creative process at length in order to demonstrate how something widely considered mysterious can also be recognised as rational if one allows for an expanded concept of rationality to include emotional and visceral forms of intelligence in addition to the cerebral. Neurologist Paul Maclean’s work on the Triune Brain in which he gives account of three primary and different functions,(20) and Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences,(21) and other sources imply the inadequacy of rationality that takes into account only logic.

While logic, clarity, certainty, order, accountability, openness and transparency have become shibboleths of the good citizen, the good organisation and the schooling that brings them about—and are the reason so many so-called good businesses fail—they can also be seen as the opposite to creativity.  Divergent and transformative being requires at least tolerance of and at best welcoming of quite different qualities. Illogic, ambiguity, indeterminacy and risk, disarray and trust are essential aspects of creative process, yet most schooling discourages them, and some schooling punishes these qualities. Transgression and disobedience are fundamental necessities to creative process in any of its guises.  They are rational and—in their place—necessary.  Creative process is not an add-on to what exists.  It transforms the opportunity, problem or issues addressed.  As part of a system or organisation it transforms the system. What was revolutionary politics in the early twentieth century (Gramsci spent much of his life in jail for his ideas) has become enlightened creativity and leadership theory.

A European Perspective
To see the workings of art as understandable and transferable beyond the art market has far reaching potential effect.  The shift in perception through art that I am advocating is comparable to the shift associated with the move from the Gothic period to the Renaissance. Then, the centre of attention shifted from God to Humanity. Pictorial perspective in the Renaissance meant reality in art was represented from the point of view of the viewer, not the maker, and this was one manifestation of a wider shift of faith at that time.  Humanism is sometimes referred to in the negative terms of a lack of faith—or atheism—although it is based on a profound faith in human potential.(22)  The workings of art have much to contribute to society if their wider perspective can be embraced.   As in the Gothic period, we are still asked to have faith in and submit to the systems that control us.  In the case of the economic crisis, the problem was caused by the banks, and the solution is being controlled by the banks.  Our economic problem is to be solved by more of the same processes that caused the problem, so it seems! Change of the kind discussed here is essential to survival.

In the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, the work of poetry is to make the familiar strange, so it is with all art,(23)  Any creative process depends on an appetite for strangeness, indeed to being foreign. Being foreign to oneself.  Being a foreigner in one’s own land (metaphorically speaking).  Being foreign to the problem, in order to transform the problem as well as one’s self.  Benefitting from the insights of friendly foreigners, such as the community that the EU aspires to be.  These perceptions are necessary to Enlightenment. This is Creative Difference: the work of art.
Notes and References

Copyright © Timothy Emlyn Jones 2011

1. A comment made by Philip Glass on the work of his friend and collaborator Robert Wilson in a British television documentary in the mid 1980s (source forgotten)
2. Deleuze, Gilles (1956), “Bergson’s Conception of Difference”, in Desert Islands and Other Texts (1953-1974), translated  Mike Taormina, MIT Press
3. Gramsci, Antonio (1929-35), Selections from Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited and translated by  Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Lawrence and Wishart, 1971
4. See for the full text of President Kennedy’s speech, prefaced by the following:  President John F. Kennedy delivered this speech, “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs,” on May 25, 1961 before a joint session of Congress. In this speech, JFK stated that the United States should set as a goal the “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade. Acknowledging that the Soviets had a head start in their space program, JFK urged the U.S. to work diligently to lead the achievements of space travel because “in many ways [it] may hold the key to our future on earth.”
5. Joseph Beuys’ expression “Every human being is an artist,” often referred to as as “Everyone is an artist” is widely reported.  He explained the idea to this writer on several occasions, notably at the Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh in 1973, and at the April Meeting, Student Cultural Center, Belgrade, 1974 on the occasion of exhibitions in which both were represented.
6. Boll, Heinrich (1963, 1965), The Clown, translated Vennewitz, Leila, Weidenfeld and Nicholson
7. Boll, Heinrich (1957, 2011), Irish Journal, Melville House
8. In his talk on at also see: Csizentmihalyi, Mihalyi (1996), Creativity: flow and the psychology of discovery and invention, Harper Perennial, and; Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1992, 2002), Flow, Rider
9. De Bono, Edward (1970) Lateral Thinking, Penguin
10. David Keirsey (1998), Please Understand Me II, Prometheus Nemesis Book Co
11. See Riso, D, and Hudson, R, (1996), Personality Types, Houghton Mifflin, Chapter2
12. Yeats, WB (1933) and (1920) in The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats, Wordsworth Editions, 2000
13. Jarry, Alfred (1896) “Ubu Roi,” in, The Ubu Plays: “Ubu Rex”, “Ubu Cuckolded”, “Ubu Enchained”, “Writings on the Theatre”, Methuen 1993
14. Jones, John Chris, (1970, 1992) Design Methods, Van Rheinhold.  The 2nd edition includes a preface by this author
15. Joyce, James (1944) Stephen Hero, New Directions. Written as an early version of Joyce, James (1914-15, 1992) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Egoist, Penguin. And published posthumously.
16. For the full text of the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) go to,
17. Richards, M C (1964), Centering in Pottery, Poetry and the Person, Wesleyan University Press
18. Kolb, David A (1984), Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Prentice Hall
19. Scharmer, Otto (2009), Theory U, learning from the future as it emerges, Berrett-Koehler
20. Maclean, Paul (1990) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions, Springer
21. Gardner, Howard (1999), Intelligence Reframed, multiple intelligencies for the 21st Century, Basic
22. See International Humanist and Ethical Union, The world union of Humanist organizations at
23. Wallace Stevens (1965), The Necessary Angel, essays on reality and the imagination, Faber  Random House. This perception, written 1951, echoes the concept of Defamiliarisation in Viktor Sklovsky (1917, 1990), Theory of Prose, translated Benjamin Sher, Dalkey Archive Press

Leave a Reply