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The artist's cognitive capacities

The physicist Arthur Zajonc wrote:

I believe that artists are the harbingers of the future mentality required both by science and by the imperatives of living in our precarious times . . . we now truly stand in need, not only as scientists but as a civilization, of the artists’ cognitive capacities.

Sigmund Freud once said that no matter where his research led, a poet had already been there ahead of him. The question is: why? What is it that the poet does…that takes him or her beyond ordinary reasoning capacities?

Capacities such as the artist’s willingness to dwell in perplexity and confusion, welcoming any unlikely connection that shows up, and his or her sensitivity to nuance and qualities of beauty that others miss, provide us with important directional pointers. Unfortunately however, our culture separates off the artistic realm from normal everyday human activity. Whether artists are viewed as weird or genius does not matter, because in either case they are clearly considered different from the rest of us.

The artistic process is not valued in our culture as a deeply profound way of knowing. That is clear when school districts make budge cutting decisions…and arts programs are the first thing to go. (And this is not a surprise, when “creativity” is so often viewed and presented as fluffy and silly.) And although corporations pay lip service to the need for creativity and innovation in order to stay competitive, they are too focused on their bottom line to explore something that takes a bit of meandering to find our way within. One must be willing to traverse the unknown and honor its wisdom before the imaginal will speak to us. That takes courage and the willingness to be vulnerable. It requires the capacity to “not know” and allow surprise. It’s bigger than us.

I grew up in a hard-working Norwegian farm family in the Midwest and not surprisingly, Midwestern practicality is etched into my cells. When I walk into an art gallery I often marvel at the amount of time someone spent gluing hundreds of thousands of tiny pieces of glass into a sculpture, or creating a fine painting. Thousands of hours in many cases, with no practical benefit other than to look at and admire. We can look at and admire a tree or a mountain, why do we need art?

We tend to evaluate the success of artists by whether they can make a living from their art. This is not an easy path and for most artists I know it’s a struggle. But perhaps there are other reasons why artists labor against the odds to produce art. Perhaps underneath it all, it’s not so much about making pretty things for people to look at and buy. Perhaps what they’re really doing (consciously or not) is engaging in a process that allows them to touch something and perhaps their creative efforts help the rest of us experience this place as well. Maybe… on some subconscious level, the creative process teaches us how to be better humans. Maybe it shows us how to see.

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