Neurologist Oliver Sacks’s latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, tells of various cranial disorders that have led to musical sensitivity and ability. For example, hit by lightning, a man suddenly begins to compose and conduct music. This reminded me of the vacationing Augustus John, a mediocre art student at age 19, diving into the sea at Tenby, Wales, hitting his head on an underwater rock and emerging a celebrated genius. The blow did considerable damage, forced him to take the year 1897 for recovery, and created a before-and-after scenario that everyone noticed. Naturally, I’ve always wondered if this sort of effect might be artificially produced — some simple clunk to the head or laying on of hands that hot-wires candidates to creative success.
Many of us thrive on combinations of strong desire and relentless application. While relatively slow-going, this has been the traditional and sensible route toward creative evolution. Natural genius may speed things up. But you may have noticed that natural geniuses sometimes don’t go far. They too may need a lightning strike to fully manifest. An epiphany, a door suddenly closed, or perhaps some form of hysteria — self-generated or inflicted from without — might just be the catalyst.
In “Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot writes, “You are the music; while the music lasts.” One has insights, makes progress and gets results only while the music is being made. And this goes for easel time too. Eliot’s poem suggests the special state required for the creative act. Concepts like “flow” involve being one with the activity — a kind of psychic space unlike ordinary life.
The idea of bold, frenetic, compulsive or obsessive action as the great begetter of art is at the core of this sort of thinking. “Boldness has genius, power and magic,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Engage, and the mind grows heated. Begin, and the work will be completed.” Goethe was no stranger to unkindly blows, either. Funnily, or perhaps not funnily, the hindrances to bold action line up like the deadly sins — laziness, sloth, indifference, boredom, etc. Getting hit on the head may be the blessed event that invites creative being and acting. We are tasered — and our work continues to taser us. Stunned, we stay on the job. Sensitized and electrified, we make gains by simply doing it. There are worse things that can happen to people.
PS: “I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in the act of painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive, disoriented, and out of it.” (Oliver Sacks)
Esoterica: Strict instructions to wannabe artists don’t always work. Directions like “go to your room and work five hours a day and produce 30 finished works a month” can trigger the old self-sabotage response. There’s something else. Somehow the neural tissue needs to be realigned so the artist sets a new course of his own volition. In my observation, it’s a self-anointed, narcissistic ego-force that awakens the mad mentor within. Artist, zap thyself.
Post traumatic period
by Paul Kane, Bloomington, IN, USA
I don’t think a whack on the head, or whatever, has anything to do with creative genius, except that it can force an individual to take time out from life and during that time they may have to find themselves in some unique way. I think that if there is any common trait to great creative lives that may be it. In bio after bio you see it. E.g., a kid has an illness that prevents him from playing with the other kids for a year and he takes up music, and ends up a great singer — Tom Jones. A life trauma that knocks us out of the usual, can, may, knock us into the unusual. There is, of course, another way of tapping into subconscious genius, and that is with drugs of various kinds. Many otherwise “normal” artists have used alcoholic excesses and mind-bending drugs to create hallucinations or put themselves into a trance or status in which they find themselves able to create.
Musical manipulation of the psyche
by Ann Noel Krider, Lake Placid, NY, USA
For years the attempt at manipulating my psyche before approaching the act of creativity was a good run in the morning followed by a session of yoga. How could I not be creative after that? Getting rid of all that excess energy that clogged the flow of the creative process? Having music in the background was an important factor to keep me in that pattern of inspiration… it couldn’t be too passionate, however, because it could break the connection but it had to have some spirit… Paul Horn for example. I would always make sure that before leaving the studio for the day there was something undone in my art work that didn’t require too much creative thought the next day to complete so that I could “engage” myself with the work knowing that if I just “began” it would begin. My art has since moved from the Paul Horn tapestry weaving to dimensional wall sculptures and I’m finding now that I do need the passionate sounds while I create this new work — music that will stir my spirit into taking risks, putting me over the edge into another dimension… at least while the music lasts.
Migraines and art
by Nancy Pane Fortwengler, Burke, VA, USA
While my experience has not included a “clunk to the head,” I am a lifelong migraine sufferer and, over the years, have discovered that the great majority of my colleagues are too. This can’t be coincidental! So, we have wondered if there is this neurological wiring phenomenon in the brain of artists who experience migraines that is part of our creative thinking. Or perhaps, it is part of what separates us from those who do not have a driving desire to create art. Have you heard anything of the migraine/art connection?
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. It’s difficult to do surveys of this sort of thing as those who have migraines and are artistic are liable to reply. But I’m going to ask readers to reply to Nancy. Perhaps she might be willing to collect anecdotal and other evidence and pass it back to me. I have the feeling that this might be the basis of a future letter.
Greater degrees of function
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA
Children who have disabilities can also develop into savants — musically, artistically, mathematically. Being that a part of their brain may be compromised by disease, deformity, genetics, another part of their brain may well be taking up the slack for their otherwise weak area of the brain. This makes perfect sense if you consider that people who have lost their sight or hearing use their other senses to a greater degree to function, communicate, and live a full life. It is therefore understandable that an individual who suffers from loss of brain activity or development in one area of the brain that most of us use all the time, may very well have found the pathway to areas of the brain that the rest of us never tread. As artists, we walk freely through an open field of right-brained activity, an area of the brain that many people cannot understand. My husband can’t even draw a stick figure, and is very much left-brain developed, and he is amazed at what he calls my “right-brained prowess,” but it is all individual. We are all individuals and develop different areas of our brain at different rates throughout our life. We each have gifts, yet I have always believed that if we are physically and mentally able, just about anything is possible if we know what pathways to take in our brain that will open the door to a whole new world of information and ability.
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
Music — and all other art — is a form of experience. In the current world of materialism, this amounts to people’s desire to buy “products.” If art were a product, this phenomenon that you wrote about — which also is explored in an article in Scientific American (about people with Alzheimer’s responding powerfully to music) — this experiential state would not be happening. And to make it even better, each person has their own personal dialog with — that is experiences — each piece of art (whether it be music, painting, sculpture, etc.) in a different way. These millions of dialogs are all different. Remarkable, if you ask me. In fact the artist’s meaning in the work is most often not experienced by the viewer or listener. It triggers an entirely new and different experience. I am not sure that all artists are comfortable with this notion. But my customers show me this over and over again.
Whack from another artist’s work
by Anne West, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
“You are the music” really struck a chord with me. I have been stranded creatively for quite awhile and haven’t touched a canvas. I had a number of unfinished paintings beckoning to me to no avail… until my personal lightning strike. I was cruising our local Sunday art walk, and came upon a series of paintings I had never seen before. I was drawn inexplicably into the area and stood with my mouth hanging open. This fellow was painting the landscapes I love so well, but not trapping himself into attempting to capture the ‘true’ colors… his trees were orange and yellow, the sea an unreal bright blue and turquoise, the perspective a bit off. As we walked away with one of Alan Freeman’s paintings under my arm, my friend pointed out to me, “I think you just had an ‘Ah-ha’ moment.” She was right. I set his painting right next to my canvas and looked at it for days. Carefully. Then, I started painting. The joy came back. I was free. Free from the constraints of whatever place my mind had trapped me. Some day soon I will go thank Alan in person for his proverbial whack on the head and perhaps I will take him a painting as a gift.
How little we know
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Your letter brings to mind the old Zen Master’s habit of knocking the stuffing out of a slow apprentice with a cane to the head. Basho bashes another monk, “Voila!” Satori achieved. He was doing this from 1644 – 1694 in Japan. There are many things I have tried to cheat a slow learning curve but I’m still hesitant to include concussion as a training device on my students. Although we all know that Oliver Sacks‘s thesis has opportunity as plausible deniability for cattle prods on reluctant interview subjects of the C.I.A., I doubt hooking up some 110 to the temporal plates of my students is going to go over well, even if it works. Tales of Music and the Brain does bring to the fore how little we know about how inspiration works but one does have to be careful coming to conclusions based on “too small a number set.” An insufficient baseline of data leads to absurd results most of the time. One of the mantras I’m constantly repeating in drawing classes is to work from general to specific — big masses/values and then the lovely little articulations within those shapes. In drawing, just as in most all forms of mental activity, going from specific to general leads to disaster… almost always. Now I’m off to do a little “institutional behavior” or head banging while sticking my fingers in the socket and then paint as I have always hoped I could.
New way of teaching art
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA
Wild enthusiasm driving a strong work ethic is key to artistic accomplishment. So, what of the way art is typically taught to others? In our institutions of higher learning, there is a curriculum of courses that must be taken, in a particular order, and with specific instructional ground to be covered. What better formula to stifle an emerging artist’s enthusiasm? Or, in a typical art workshop, the instructor (probably an accomplished artist) will arrive with a curriculum to cover, which is mostly showing the students how he/she creates the type of art he/she is known for. What if art instruction, past the primary school years, were entirely student-directed? What if the instructor were to say to each student, “I am here as your art resource. I will work diligently to give you whatever technical help, emotional support, philosophical undergirding, or historical perspective you ask for, so tell me what you are excited about today.” And each day, that same offer would be re-extended, as the student explores and grows. Certainly that kind of process would stretch many teachers beyond their usual comfort zone, but think what it might mean for empowering the next generation of artists — and even the teachers.
Permission to sing our song
by Janet Warrick
As interesting as it is to hear that a bump on the noggin may unleash genius, might I suggest something less drastic (and less painful)? And that is simply meditation. Even just a few minutes a day can open things up and make a great difference. Meditating with a clear purpose in mind is even better — clearing out the mental clutter, as it were, and putting the objective in the forefront of the mind. While the ego may awaken the mentor within for some, simple desire, joy in doing, and clear focus can work wonders for the less egocentric. Getting the ego out of the way and just allowing ourselves to “be” and to “do” without the pressure to be a genius, but just giving ourselves permission to create can work wonders in and of itself. It’s true — we are the music, and we need to give ourselves permission to sing our own song because no one can sing our song quite like we can.
A history of concussions
by Bonnie Hughes, Rochester, New York, USA
I recommend Creativity and Disease: How illness affects literature, art and music, by Philip Sandblom. Eric Olsen suggested, before he became fully and rightfully entrenched over his father’s murder by the CIA, that I might benefit from it. Prior to my meeting him in the states, Eric was at the time working in Stockholm on the treatment of young women who suffer from eating disorders. As Eric said, “Look into a photo and it will tell you everything you need to know about that person at that time in his or her life.” His treatment was collage therapy. I have made some temporary collages myself, since I have a history of concussions — including one just three weeks ago. Part of the reason I bang my head unwillingly is that my retinas both detached in my late 20s leaving me with a light source in the left eye and only central vision in the right. I wanted to see what I looked like after such adventures. I mostly look vacant from the outside and starry-eyed from my side. I do like your essay on music and think you are my favorite two parts of the week.
Giving Reiki to art
by Astrid Lee, West Vancouver, BC, Canada
I started giving Reiki (healing energy) to my art during a Meditation series. Then I continued throughout my Buddhist Objects of Ceremony series. Before and after, you can clearly see the difference in the work. I hear what to do with the artwork in my head. I’ve asked who it is, but it seems different sources of knowledge come forward depending on the situation. It feels like having a private art teacher.
Struck by enlightenment
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
No bolt of lightning or bonk on the head, but maybe “getting it” is a god-given ability. To understand art and interpret all of life’s creation through a sensitivity or sixth sense is something, I believe, a creative individual just has. Some people are born with an ability with numbers, words, or music. Whatever the gift, the roll of environment plays into the self-discovery of one’s own talent. The play Death of a Salesman comes to mind. As in the play, there are people muddling through life never understanding or hearing their own “music.” They fear their own individuality and they impose that fear upon those around them. This in turn becomes a voice of society. “You’re a salesman because your father was a salesman and his father before him.” I’ve grown up living in logging camps, and having some of my afternoon naps on the floorboards of a D9 Cat Bulldozer that my dad ran. I was running heavy equipment before I was able to drive a car. As my father once said to me, “You can always fall back on being an equipment operator,” and for the first 15 years of my working life I did fall back on it. It helped to pay my way through the University I enrolled in for fine arts, and helped me make a living through some tough years, but it held me captive through those years, as well. I wanted to unleash my creative voice, but there was also a fear of failing, by some horrible unfathomable way, in the eyes of both my father and society in general, that kept me from leaving the road construction field completely. Yet I was always compelled to listen to my creative voice. In 1999, I took the initiative and started up Davis Arts, a mural, graphics, and art company. I have had some great personal success and some miserable failures since then. My father is proud, and society… Be dammed what society thinks. It was the influence of one art teacher in high school that encouraged me to pursue my dream. If not for him I would have taken geology or engineering in college. I would have made the best of any career choice, and I may even have been happy. But, deep within me, there would always have been my creative voice trying to sing out, “I Art Therefore I Am!” It is the slogan that adorns the back of my artist-work shirts, and it is a statement of who I am.
Enjoy the past comments below for You are the music…
oil painting on linen
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Tony Vassallo of Scotts Valley, CA, USA who wrote, “There are few things more common than an unsuccessful man/woman with talent.”
And also Chris Boardman who wrote, “Words from my Mentor, Billy Byers: ‘If you sit there long enough… it’ll get done.’ He was talking about composition/orchestration and arranging. He also said ‘Creativity is like a muscle… you have to keep exercising it.’ ”
And also Faith Puleston of Germany who wrote, “Does the disease or the cure positively influence creative genius?”
And also Linda Lopez who wrote, “Self-anointed, narcissistic, ego-force… ah well. Not exactly inspirable characteristics, but I’m sure many of us possess them without realizing it.”
And also Jo Houtz of Abingdon, MD, USA who wrote, “You almost convinced me to stick my finger into a light bulb socket. Of course, the other side of that is a backfire could cause idiocy.”
And also Mary Erickson of Marshville, NC, USA who wrote, “We are the music-makers, we are the dreamers of dreams. Oftentimes it is not the physical clunk on the head, but the emotional one. Many an artist has changed gears and been set on the long-awaited artistic road after an upheaval of the heart and soul. Major life changes, sometimes unplanned, like death, divorce, or a great love can also be a catalyst to the transformation.”
And also Jim Spies of Hampstead, MD, USA who wrote, “Another common observation is how artists get into a time warp while working. The mind is released from daily concerns and focused on the subject until all time becomes irrelevant. Have you ever ‘woken up’ after working for what seems like a few minutes to realize that two hours have passed? Creativity is not bound by time.”
And also Gregory Packard of Montrose, CO, USA who wrote, “Is it the conk on the head that brings the person closer to the intuitive side of life or is it getting a second chance in life (near death experience) that brings a richer appreciation?”
And also Gerry Carr who wrote, “I was a bodybuilding and weightlifting friend of Oliver Sacks when he was at UCLA. He used to arrive at the gym in Santa Monica dressed in black leathers and driving a huge motorcycle. His precise, cultured Brit accent and his upbeat personality made him all the more interesting.”