Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sting, Goethe, and the Creative Process

"Basic characteristics of an individual organism: to divide, to unite, to merge into the universal, to abide in the particular, to transform itself, to define itself, and as living things tend to appear under a thousand conditions, to arise and vanish, to solidify and melt, to freeze and flow, to expand and contract....What has been formed is immediately transformed again, and if we wish to arrive at a living perception of Nature, we must remain as mobile and flexible as the example she sets for us." - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

My wife and I recently went to Sting's Symphonicities concert, when his tour stopped by in northern Virginia. Apart from enjoying his music (backed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra), and observing the inevitable aging of his/our generation first hand - there were many, many more 40/50/60-somethings at the concert than anyone who can still remember pimples on their young faces (my wife recalled the puzzled look on the face of our 17 year old baby sitter when she told her where she and I were going for the evening; "Sting who?" she asked), the evening gave us a chance to muse on one of the reasons for Sting's longevity, and what it may say about the creative process in general.

There are some who have criticized Sting's recent forays into decidedly non-traditionally-Rock-like music oeuvres (such as with his If On a Winter's Night and Songs From a Labyrinth albums). And his most recent Symphonicities album has been described as same-ole / same-ole embellished with a full orchestra (an overly harsh assessment, IMHO, as much thought and craft obviously went into integrating new voices and new accompaniment). Of course, it is precisely by continually venturing into new musical territories and challenging himself to rework older material that Sting stays a potent musical and creative force. Sting also challenges us to consider just who "Sting" (or any artist) really is, and whether being content with "sameness" is a form of artistic decay, at best, or artistic irrelevance, at worst.

Ansel Adams, with his piano skills, was fond of comparing the relationship between prints and original exposures to performances of scripted musical scores; and was equally fond of "reworking" old plates with new techniques or aesthetic sensibilities. The "Ansel Adams" of 1980 was similar to but not entirely equivalent to the "Ansel Adams" of 1960 or the "Ansel Adams" of 1940. Yet we use the same "name" to refer to all three periods, and have a mental picture of the "same" Ansel Adams when referring to any of his impermanent historical versions. Szarkowski's Ansel Adams at 100 shows a few examples of Ansel's evolution as a printer (the difference between Ansel's original and 20+ year-later version of his well-known "Mckinley" print are particularly striking).

There is a deeper - philosophical / epistemological - problem lurking here, hidden in a seemingly innocuous question: "What is the difference between the 'name' of something that is alive - a flower, a pug, an artist, or an artwork - and the 'living being' itself?" Richard Feynman, the great physicist, told of an important lesson he was taught as a child. His father - a methodical observer of nature - delighted in sharing with his son his voluminous mental notes on the rich lives of all the birds that lived in their neighborhood; when they came out in the morning, what songs they sang, what food they ate, and so on. All of this his father learned on his own, not by reading books, but by carefully watching and listening to the birds for years and years. Young Richard's lifelong lesson came one day when his peers laughed at him for not knowing any of the birds' names, something he never learned from his father (who himself did not know). His father gently explained to Richard that he actually knew far more about the birds than any of his friends: "All your friends know is a jumble of sounds that help them point to a particular bird. Only you know who those birds really are!"

This holistic approach to "knowing" can be traced back to Goethe's way of doing science, an approach which Henri Bortoft (in his masterful work, The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature) describes as "dwelling in the phenomenon" instead of "replacing it with a mathematical representation." It derives from the "simple" observation that living beings are growing, evolving processes that are as much "things in themselves" as interconnected components of lesser and greater processes. To identify any one state of such a being with the being itself - i.e., by using a "name" to designate "what the system is" at some arbitrary time during the course of its evolution (such as by taking a picture of a tree in your yard one day and calling it "the tree in my yard"; or by taking a picture of the Atlantic ocean from some beach on Long Island - see picture above - and calling it the "Atlantic Ocean") - is to miss completely what the being really is; namely, an organic instantiation of a continually unfolding dynamic process of evolution, metamorphosis, and transformation.

In describing the movement of metamorphosis in the foliage of a flowering plant, Friedemann Schwarzkopf (in his The Metamorphosis of the Given: Toward an Ecology of Consciousness), suggests that "...if one could imagine a person walking through the snow, and leaving the imprints of its feet, but with every step changing the shape of its feet, and if one would behold not the trace in the snow, perceptible to the sense-organs of the physiological eyes, but the living being that is undergoing change while it is walking, one would see with the inner eye the organ of the plant that is producing leaves."

And what of the lesson for the photographer? If only we could see the world as Schwarzkopf - and Goethe - suggest we see a plant! The inner creative process that drives what we do (why and what we choose to look at, what moves us, what grabs our attention and demands to be expressed) is just as much a living force as what we train our lenses on in the world at large. I would argue that in order to become better - more impassioned, more sincere, more artfully truthful - photographers, requires a more Goethian approach; it requires us to learn how to dwell in our subjects. Don't focus on objects or things. Pay attention instead to process; and revel in your own transformation as you do so.

Postscript. Goethe's The Metamorphosis of Plants has recently been reissued in a beautiful new edition. Highly recommended for anyone interested in learning about the " of an organism." For those of you wishing to pursue Goethe's approach to nature, I urge you to also look at two recent books: (1) Meditation As Contemplative Inquiry, by physicist Arthur Zajonc, and (2) New Eyes for Plants: A Workbook for Plant Observation & Drawing, by Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald.


Unknown said...

Gustavo Osmar Santos
Estuvo Aquí...wonderfull.

Tom dinning said...

Hey Andy. I'm brousing and looking for a good arguement. It's in my nature, so to speak.
Don't you ver do ordinary stuff, like eat and fart and loose your keys and hate housework and forget to put the garbage out? Of all the things we are, above all we are human and all the things that define that. It's not just about Adams and Sting and Goethe and all those really cool thinkers. Somtimes it can be about the ordinary things in life. I fear that if we spend too much time trying to find meaning in what we do we might not notice the bus leaving the depot.
I like taking picture. I try damn hard to take good ones. Once in a while I succeed. I also mow the lawn, cook write a bit, look after kids with disabilities, love my wife and daughter, take my medicine and worry about the future. I like a good arguement and and better laugh. I like reading philosophy and physics and Lunig and the Women's Weekly in the doctors surgery. I lke looking at your picture. Nice work. Reminds me a bit of Harry Callahan. Minimalist stuff.
We can discuss the theories of Consciousness until the cows come home but there is nothing like stubbing your toe on a rock to bring some reality into it all. And that can happen if you don't watch where you are going.
And on the odd occasion, look behind and see what you have left in your wake. The first thing you will notice is how quickly the watres close in behind you. The next is how little froth you generate. Sure, there is always some remnant of our existance that remains behind. A tombstone with a cryptic comment. "I'm not ready yet" is Groucho's. Don't you love that? Maybe something as long lasting as an idea or a new piece of information or a child or an edifice. But in the scheme of things, how significant are those things. What will they think in a year or 100 years or 1000 years or something geological like a million or 10. And how much will be added or taken away from that bit you left by others after you.
In the entanglement of understanding we have the truth: there are atoms and there is space; the rest is mere conjecture. (not my words, Rutherfords I believe). So while I ponder lunch and you ponder the meaning of the Universe is either of us any closer to understanding? I think not. You too will need food and I too will need enrichment. I just think we need food moreso.
Now, is it a cheese and tomato sandwich or a piece of leftover pie?

Andy Ilachinski said...

Tom: thanks for stopping by and for your - Ahh, "illuminating" comments (put a smile on my face for a variety fo reasons). The answer to your general question - "...Don't you ver do ordinary stuff..." lies (almost entirely) in the span of images you see in my portfolios. Indeed, I'd venture to say I rarely do anything OUT of the ordinary (like take pictures of trapped air-bubbles in acrylic candle-holders - pretty ordinary struff that - soon after diving into some meat and potatoes at a family dinner - see my "Micro Worlds"; or like training my lens on some reflections of my mother-in-law's dining room in her Nambi-style salt-and-pepper shakers after enjoying a delicious Thanksgiving meal with the whole family; or...) Art, as I've always known from watching my dad create his own magic out of nothing, is itself an "art" of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.
So, no "argument" per se from me I'm afraid; though if its a dialectic you wish, you've stopped by the right place ;-)

Tom dinning said...

Hi Andy,
I only use 'arguement' in the political sense. I'm actually doing a bit of inner searching myself. I'm pleased you have another layer. I was deeply concerned that your thoughts on the meaning of life, as it were, would bring about a severe headache or give you constipation. It does me, sometimes. But, then again, it may be my age. Christine seems to think so.
I had a dad like that. Maybe all son's did. Working away in his shed and bringing out bits of furniture for the house. It all seemed like an Aladin's Cave. Oh, the magic of youth.
The art stuff has bothered me for a while. Not in a wasteful sense; more in an inquisitive way. So, as in Westerman's 'Ararat', I, too, am in search of the 'mystical mountain'. And it is turning out to be quite a mountain.
If you have a moment you can read about my discoveries on
Please feel free to comment. I seem to be acumulating more questions than answers.

Like you, I have a physics background but left that far behind for a greater cause. I now teach children with a vision impairment. It's a very real world and no amount of procrastinating can make a difference when all they need is access to an education like the rest of us. I was once asked what motivates me to do this work. I pondered for some time to find an answer that satisfied me, not the listener. It's simple: Anger. It may not be politially correct or even good for my health and sometimes it creates blockages. But it works for me.
So, I guess when I read much of the ideas and philosophies about consciousness and wholeness and change I wonder if there isn't something real,something a little more concrete we can do to make a difference.
I got on the elevator as I do every day to get to my office. It's usually packed. On this occasion it was just me and a middle-aged woman I had never seen before. She looked nervous and unsure of herself. We travelled 3 floors and never said a word, yet I felt like we were the only 2 people left on the planet. Then I noticed she was staring at me. I thought my fly was opened but chose not to check least the actions would be misconstrued. She was wearing her 'best' blouse and skirt as if she was heading for an interview.
'Going for an interview?' I asked.
'Yes', she replied.
'You look great. Give them heaps' and the door opened for my floor. She had the biggest smile I have seen on anyone for sometime .
Is there a point to all this? There probably is but I'm not going to dwell on it; just do it more often.
When I looked behind me that morning I notied the wake I had left was just a tad wider.

Seinberg said...

Funny, semi-related, tongue-in-cheek "poem" from the New Yorker: