What makes great art?
I answer that question by telling stories of how art has impacted my life. My Artist Diary is a digital record of my creative life from age 18 to now.
I share art with the intention of adding to the creative energy rippling out of our galaxy. I wish that our collective creative energy dissolve behavior like pollution and war while solidifying opportunities for the emerging new generations. Awareness of art’s connection to human behavior is critical for achieving these epic goals.
At it’s highest potential, art is a catalyst for psychological change in the direction of Self-awareness. Great art grants the opportunity for an experience of growth and the emergence of something new on a personal level. As what you eat nourishes your body, so what you imagine nourishes your psyche. Jung (2012) said, “There is no difference in principle between organic and psychic growth.”
I aim to surround myself with great art and people. However, I frequently run into unexpected blocks that stop my process (check out, Why thwart my quest for dog food?). To create new things I have to cultivate a will to fail, the courage to speak my truth, the faith to show my vulnerability, and negotiate with demanding forces impossible to control.
Jung wrote that creativity is an instinct, not an optional gift granted to a lucky few. If you don’t find a way to be creative in life, that instinct becomes repressed and frustrated. You feel its loss as a deflation, the spirit leaking out of your sense of self. You feel empty, disengaged, and unfulfilled. (Moore, 2009, p. 2)
Is my art great? I can only say that art is my life and my life is great because of art. There are three core processes I use in my creative life that help me stay inspired. In the rest of this statement, I describe three depth psychology techniques and give examples of them. These methods are; Active Imagination, Dreams, and Art Practice Research.
How do we grow beyond limiting experience? To know what is possible, we must look to the humanities. In particular, we must seek out the great works of others. One example of great creative work is The Red Book by Jung (2009) that contains illustrated stories and is the creative source material for what became active imagination therapy. About this therapy, Hillman (1983) said, “radical activation of imagination was Jung’s method of Know Thyself” (p. 56).
In depth psychology, Self is a term for the all-encompassing organizing central psychic pattern. Self is more powerful than ego, the smaller part of the psyche identified as an individual personality. If a person cannot connect to Self then they are likely to feel estranged from vital life energy (Jung, 2012). Jung’s active imagination method allows the ego to connect and communicate with the Self. This is important because it is the source of vital life energy.
Close reading is one form of active imagination. In a group setting, a close reading of words illuminates how each person’s unique life experience effects their understanding of reality. Another active imagination form is stick to the image, and it means returning to one reference for ideas (Chodorow, 1997). While at Pacifica Graduate Institute, my centering image was Inanna, queen of heaven and earth.
By looking closely at the ancient story of Inanna I discovered new information about my female body-mind-soul. Most importantly, I learned that the task of the heroine is, “to heal the internal split that tells us to override the feelings, intuition, and dream images that inform us of the truth of life” (Murdock, 2013, p. 11). In Sci-Fi Heroine, I show how Murdock’s model of the heroine’s journey syncs up with the award-winning film Gravity (Cuarón, Heyman, & Cuarón, 2013). I illustrate the plot points in the heroine’s psychological process with still images from the film.
I am engaged with art that creates feelings of equity, interdependence, unity, passion and love. The lover archetype complements the heroine’s task of unification and the artist’s passion. While at first, it seems these are all positive each archetype contains the negative side too. It is suffering or trauma that sparks psychological development. “The actual process of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it” (Jung, 2012, p. 169). Experiencing new things, triggered by unwanted real or fictional events, is how potential behavior patterns become specific and manifest.
In my life, witnessing the death of a friend gave me the courage to make a challenging decision in life and attend graduate school. In my first quarter of school, still in grief and experiencing the opposing emotions of my loss and his freedom for suffering deeply, I found American Morning Paintings. They commemorate the death of George Washington, a founder of our free nation. The paintings feature a goddess crying at his grave; she represents liberty, and in her grief she embodies the imperfection of humanity (Schorsch, 1979). The grieving goddess is an alchemical symbol. Jung used the term alchemical symbol to describe images that could enable transformation, unlike the basic symbol that only points to the unknown (Rowland, 2012). Thanks to the grieving goddess, I now understand how image and behavior unite and intertwine to create meaningful transformation in an individual life.
A known expert on dream tending, Aizenstat (2012) said, “Living images, particularly those who carry the intelligence of the ancestors, are at the core of our personal maturation” (p. 55). Wanting to mature, with the wisdom of living dream images, I focus my attention on one image at a time. I need help managing my chaotic dreams, and a goddess with wings appears in active-imagination to solve this problem. She is my imaginary personal assistant, a playful fairy named Tink. She carries a skeleton key and has access to everything in the universe. She lives a big tree house with an infinity pool.
Discovering how living images amplify the power of art came about in an unexpected way. It began with a nightmare. In Red Mask, I explain how collaborating with two other women, a goddess trifecta called Mystic Sisters, gave me the permission to listen to imaginary voices. My commitment to shared goals helps me to work in spite of crippling self-doubt and defeatist apathy. I now see my artwork is alive and it compounds in value as a collaboration.
Real people I know frequently appear in my dreams, and I remember their words the most. Watkins (1998) said we must differentiate between our relationships with real people and dream images that look like them. I am careful not to project my thoughts and feelings onto other people. The skill to differentiate self and other requires a fluid definition of reality.
The Sufis explained this water-like quality by speaking of the science of imagination as also being the “science of mirrors, of all mirroring surfaces and of the forms that appear in them.” Images appear in the mirror though they are not part of the mirror itself. (Watkins, 1998, p. 135)
Thanks to dream tending I have new appreciation for art that can communicate clearly to me. Mystical experiences of alternate realities, like in dreams or art, can foster curiosity about the world and make the unknown interesting, not scary. Campbell (2002) said:
Let us accept the suggestion and recognize, then, that what is intended by art, metaphysics, magical hocus-pocus, and mystical religion, is not the knowledge of anything, not truth, not goodness, or beauty, but an evocation of a sense of the absolutely unknowable. (p. 151)
Now I am getting to my heart, an irresistible attraction to what is beyond my understanding, the magical. I believe new perspectives create new realities, or visa Vera, making the previously impossible, possible. This concept of a potential for a miracle appears in my work as a dark portal, a threshold for crossing between worlds. Until Pacifica Graduate Institute, I consciously made positive images in my art practice because I did not see any value in looking at unwanted things.
Trusting my authentic creative rhythm, embracing what seems ugly, is extremely valuable because it honors the role of the shadow in creative cycles. My art practice connects my body-soul-spirit. Jung (2009) put it another way when he said, “The way of life writhes like the serpent from right to left and from left to right, from thinking to pleasure and from pleasure to thinking. One cannot live with forethinking alone, or with pleasure alone. You need both”
I am not the only female artist who works with dreams in the creative practice. In particular, the artists interviewed in Ariadne’s (2006) book, Women Dreaming–Into–Art, are role models and inspire me to keep on creating even if I do not think I know what I am making. Their work is stunning and is so much more than technique. Ariadne said, “Acting as inner change agents, these artists both model and facilitate for others processes, which ultimately promote self-reliance and confidence” (Locations 226-228).
A third core method, art-based research, is scholarship presented creatively so that an experiential understanding is possible, because some truths, only art itself can embody. My art is primarily visual, but by organizing recognizable iconic forms in a group I create a narrative somewhat like an abstract comic, as seen with the rainbow collection in Figure 1. Many research practices use narrative to communicate the truth of social life in stories. Leavy (2008) said narratives “may be our own stories, those of others, or those that blur ‘the real’ and ‘the imaginary’ but are no less truthful in communicating human experience” (p. 39).
Figure 1. Collection of rainbow images by Mitra Cline.
I share aspects of my personal and creative life in a public blog, so I was thrilled to find a history of feminist scholars and theologians that use autobiographic information in their work. This community shares my goal of social evolution in the form of spiritual awareness or, in Jungian terms, Self-awareness. I define feminism as “the radical practice of co-humanity of women and men” (Gross, 1998, p. 3). I agree with their logic:
Our specific situations as women in patriarchal society’s affected our interests, our concerns, and the results of our scholarship… Eventually we also came to see that not only gender but also race, class, culture, sexual orientation, and the like, had their impact on scholarship. Therefore, we are likely ever again to be naive enough to believe that the scholars experience does not affect her scholarship. (Gross, 1998, p. 3)
Discerning what personal disclosure is relevant to a scholarly argument or work of art is important, and I am getting better at it. A relevant example of creative scholarship is Woodman, an author and Jungian analyst. She described the feminine as the earth itself, a soulful living energy pulsing in our material world. She shared her personal life experience to explain how connecting to feminine energy helped her overcome an addiction to anorexia, changes in her marriage, and a diagnosis of fatal cancer (Reid, 2010).
For my final art project in graduate school, I became inspired to find out what my peers thought empowered women are like today. I created a survey online with questions based on the story of Inanna. I received 56 responses. The two unanimous results were that 98.4% would sacrifice material wealth, and 82.7% value love most. I was happy because, when asked who supported them most, many wrote “Myself” in the comments. It was exactly what I had self-consciously edited out of the answer options (Cline, 2016).
I selected historical goddesses, seen in Figure 2, to learn more by looking closely at master artworks. Only a sculpture can embody the contemporary empowered woman that my peers described. Clay is magical, and making art with it is pleasurable. As the goddess form emerged from the clay in my art project, I felt as if my own body was changing. In the process, I became curious about what she was holding in her hands, and her hands changed.
Figure 2. On left is historical goddesses and, on right, my clay goddess (Cline, 2016).
The goddess made two modern signs, peace with the left hand and a salute to live long and prosper (Stieber, 2015) with the right. Looking at the finished image, I notice she is in front of a doorway like a gatekeeper, and accompanied by two sets of twin animal guardians. Her wings outstretched, she also forms a cross. Everything is soft and vulnerable in naked clay. I shared the art with my survey participants by making a short film of the process. I included these words from the survey; “Nature Supports It. Divine Support It. It is Love. Live Long and Prosper in Peace” (Cline, 2016). All who see her receive this blessing, perhaps me most of all. The video, Feminine Values, and complete survey results are publically available on my blog (https://mitracline.com/2016/08/08/what-are-empowered-women-like-now/).
I make digital art in my creative process so I can share my work with people all over the world freely. However, engaging directly with original art is vital. Selecting clay for the goddess is important because it makes her one of a kind and not reproducible. A more poetic expression of this concept of original value is, “A single rose can be my garden . . . a single friend, my world” (Buscaglia, 2001-2016, para. 1)
Benjamin (1969) says, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (p. 221). What happens when the aura of art is no longer felt? “The instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics” (Benjamin, p. 224). As a professional artist I must be able to discern between what is art and what is politics, research helps me define authenticity.
In my business, Foreverbird Studio, visual style is about more than pretty pictures; it is about listening, community engagement, conservation, and wild imagination. My clients understand how collaboration in risk-free exploratory environments fosters creativity (Farrell, 2003); they value following an authentic path and understand infinite potential. Working together, we overcome obstacles that limit adaptability so the business can keep up with the pace of evolving styles and technology. Not all business people lack interest, money, or time for contemplating the soul of art. It is possible to use art and creativity responsibly while also meeting traditional goals like increasing sales and reducing expenses.
For me, play is an infectious embodiment of priceless life energy that creates community and results in meaningful connection. In Creative Influence, I talk about playful art that I made inspired by artists from the Civil Rights Movement. Resisting exploitation, artists influence others to speak their truth. The artist authentic voice is needed, because if we allow the market value of art to “define and control our gifts, the less gifted we will become, as individuals and as a society” (Hyde, 2007, p. 205).
While at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I invented and produced a card game that will be discussed in Original Odyssey. Games are a method I use to introduce creative concepts into a traditionally logical business world. Like great art, games require creativity, collaboration, and contribution. In addition, more widely accepted qualitative science has linked playing games to improved mental health, making logical people more willing to be playful (McGonigal, 2011). Sometimes I run into people who do not agree with my values, but I am OK with failure. I learn from my mistakes, and I am inspired to work hard to achieve collective greatness, as I witness it in history and know it is achievable. One aspect of my character is that I can play a long game.
In conclusion, there are three major new methods I learned in graduate school that I now use in my art practice: active imagination, dream tending, art-based research. With scholarly and artistic knowledge I am able to cope, interpret, and navigate, the unfolding unknown in life. Creativity is a vital part of my life because it communicates essential truths between the people I love that cannot be expressed in any other way.
If you are interested in learning more about the soul-spirit connection and the role of art in psychology, please listen to my presentation: Floating, Falling, Balancing, Flying, and Landing.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | 805.455.6004 | mitracline.com
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