Blog by Anna Stewart, first published: Creative Dundee, 2019
“Even when our senses react to real phenomena, sights, and sounds, they are somehow translated from the realm of reality into that of the mind.” – Carl G Jung
Carl Jung believed that all humans have a personal and a collective unconscious, and that the collective unconscious is something that is inborn. At birth we experience the ‘real phenomena’ of our individual senses, but we’re also part of something collective because we’re born into a world of archetypes. Jung believed that humans are part of a shared unconscious world of symbols and that the relationship between our archetypes, their symbols and our everyday experience is a source of creativity. Through art we explore the collective images from our unconscious, as well as personal memory and an artist travels a border to communicate the space between the ‘realm of reality’ and that of our mind.
The short story writer Mavis Gallant said, “I felt that the only thing I was on earth to do was to write” and “I have lived in writing, like a spoonful of water in a river.”
Gallant describes her relationship with writing using prose that connects the physical world to the inner world. She uses the archetype of water to express a feeling. A small amount of water in a flowing river: her life is writing, yet writing is all of life. An image of a spoon helps us to understand that writing brings stillness in movement, writing can hold time. The artist knows that our recognition of the symbols will allow us to feel some of what she wants us to, because we will view the symbols through the lens of our own lives and bring our own feelings and experience into play. In this way, the artist communicates.
Artists bridge the gap between the mind and the universe by opening themselves up to the childlike state of flow, similar to the idea of Zen. In Goleman and Kaufman’s The Art of Creativity, Buddhist scholar Kenneth Kraft explains, “In Zen the word ‘mind’ is also a symbol for the consciousness of the universe itself. In fact, the mind of the individual and the mind of the universe are regarded ultimately as one. So by emptying oneself of one’s smaller, individual mind, and by losing the intense self-consciousness, we are able to tap into this larger, more creative mind.”
In play, a child accesses creativity easily through a natural state of flow. A child builds the world for their play and the characters that live within it. They believe in the reality of their imagination and are at one with their unconscious and the universe. The artist seeks to experience and share this kind of truth in imagination, to relive the familiar childhood process of creative thinking. Seamus Heaney said of Wordsworth, “He had grown up visited by sensations of immensity, communing with a reality he apprehended beyond the world of the senses, and he was therefore naturally inclined to accept the universe as a mansion of spirit rather than a congeries of matter.”
This description of the poet who was visited as a child by ‘sensations of immensity’ is perhaps something that everyone can relate to – wondering what our individual senses mean in a world full of symbols with collective meaning, asking ourselves, where do I fit? Heaney’s description of the poet is not only spiritual, it’s physical and expresses an artist’s struggle to connect the outside with what is inside. Through play, a child learns how to navigate the world around them with all the surprise of their new existence; the artist maintains a commitment to ‘a world beyond the senses’ into adulthood, continuing to explore human existence in relation to the world around them. But as The Art of Creativity explains, accessing the unconscious is not enough – the poet must not only invite creative thinking, they must communicate from the realm of their own reality and mind, to that of others, “The thought alone is still not a creative act. The final stage is translation, when you take your insight and transform it into action; it becomes useful to you and others.”
Through the artist’s struggle to connect what is outside with what is inside, we acknowledge the human struggle for connection and find comfort in the artist’s resolution: their poem. The in-between space of translation is where the artist works to find that resolution. In his wonderful book, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos the artist and writer John Berger said, “Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless”
By exploring memory, emotion, symbol, time and sensation in connection with the world around us, the artist communicates another realm and allows others to reach through and touch the shared space that sits between the universe and the mind. Grinding the lens is the work of processing reality through creative thinking to produce something physical, an artwork: both perfectly real, and imagined.