A LIFE OF ITS OWN: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ARTIST, IDEA AND ARTWORK

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A LIFE OF ITS OWN: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ARTIST, IDEA AND ARTWORK
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   A Life of Its Own Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014  99 Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014 ISSN: 2047-0622 URL: www.freeassociations.org.uk A LIFE OF ITS OWN: THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ARTIST, IDEA AND ARTWORK Patricia Townsend Abstract: In this paper I draw on interviews with thirty professional artists to explore the states of mind experienced by artists as they make new artworks. An analysis of the interviews suggests that the artistic process may be considered in terms of stages and I have termed these ‘genesis’ (referring to the conception, gestation and birth of an idea for a new work), ‘development’ (referring to the relationship between artist and nascent artwork as the artist engages with her medium) and ‘separation’ (referring to the release of the artwork into the outside world, usually in an exhibition). In viewing the artistic process in this way, I draw a  parallel between the relationship between mother (or care-giver) and child and the relationship  between artist and artwork. In common parlance, people may speak of their creations, artistic or otherwise, as ‘my baby’ and may experience feelings of loss or relief when these projects are completed, as if the ‘baby’ has grown up and left home. In this paper, I take this idea further to suggest that the psychoanalytic literature pertaining to the mother/child relationship, especially as put forward by psychoanalysts of the British Object Relations school, can shed light on artists’  processes and the states of mind they experience. I draw on the work of D.W. Winnicott, Marion Milner, Christopher Bollas and others to explore the extent to which the mother/child metaphor offers a new way of understanding artists’ experiences. Donald Winnicott, the psychoanalyst and paediatrician, famously wrote that ‘there is no such thing as a baby … A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship’ (Winnicott, 1964:88). Perhaps one can equally say ‘There is no such thing as an artist’. Without artworks (or ideas for artworks), there is no artist and the artist is essentially part of a relationship with his or her artworks, at least while they are in the process of being created. From this viewpoint, the trajectory of the artistic process can be regarded as a movement towards separation and differentiation between artist and artwork that culminates in the production of an autonomous artwork that can exist by itself in the outside world.   A Life of Its Own Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014  100 It will already be clear that I am drawing a parallel between the relationship of artist and artwork and that of mother (or caregiver) and child. This is not a new idea. In common parlance, people may speak of their creations, artistic or otherwise, as ‘my baby’ and may experience feelings of loss or relief when these projects are completed, as if the ‘baby’ has grown up and left home. Here I want to take this idea a little further to suggest that the psychoanalytic literature pertaining to mother/child relations, especially as put forward by psychoanalysts of the British Object Relations school, can shed light on artists’ processes and the states of mind they experience. This does not mean that the relationship between the artist and developing artwork can simply be mapped onto that between mother and child with the artist in the role of mother to the artwork as offspring – the relationship is complex and may at times be the other way round. I am suggesting, however, that the mother/child metaphor opens up a potentially enlightening engagement with psychoanalytic theory. In the period leading up to the  Making Space  event (the conference upon which this special edition is based), 1  I interviewed thirty professional artists about their experience of creating new artworks 2 . An analysis of the interviews suggests that the artistic process may be considered in terms of three stages and I have termed these ‘genesis’, ‘development’ and ‘separation’. The ‘genesis’ stage includes the conception, gestation and birth of an idea for a new work (or the sense of a direction for those works in which the term idea seems too specific). The ‘development’ stage refers to the phase of the artistic process in which the artist engages with her medium and creates the work; and the ‘separation’ stage refers to the release of the artwork into the outside world, usually in an exhibition. Although these designated stages roughly follow a chronological order, both my analysis of my own artistic process and the findings of the interviews indicate that progression through the stages is not linear. Problems, both conceptual and material, may arise at any point and their solution may call for a movement back to a previous stage, or cyclical movements within a stage, so that progress may follow a spiral route rather than a linear one. Genesis I start by questioning whether there is a point at which the process of making a new work can be said to begin. To try to answer this, I turn first to the artists’ own descriptions of the   A Life of Its Own Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014  101 earliest stages of a new work. Some artists described moments when ideas sprang suddenly and unexpectedly into their minds as ‘a complete epiphany, a sort of frisson’ (Liz Rideal) or ‘a leap of inspiration’ (David Johnson). These descriptions imply a discontinuity between the conscious thoughts that were going on before this moment and the idea itself. The ‘inspired’ idea has not come through logical reasoning but by a ‘leap’ to something new. The artist Simon Faithfull describes the way in which such an idea came to him during a meeting with a curator:  As far as I can tell I came up with that in that moment which really amazes me. It must have been knocking around – I have done other things with balloons – but I’d never actually crystallised it – or it’d never come out of solution, so to speak, until that moment when I absolutely needed to have an idea… Something about what happened revealed to me something about the nature of those ideas – that they’re sort of – yeah – in solution and then at some moment drop out of solution and sort of become crystallised. They feel like there’s something I’ve been chewing on and mulling over but in a very unstructured incoherent way. In using the metaphor of crystallisation, Faithfull seems to suggest that something was waiting ‘in solution’ in the unconscious until a particular circumstance (in this case the interview) acted as a catalyst for it to assume a particular shape and irrupt into consciousness. But what was that ‘something’? In chemistry, a substance in solution has the same chemical structure as the crystals that are formed. So perhaps one could say that the new idea is already there in the unconscious before it is given conscious shape? Or, pursuing the chemical analogy, is there something that we might compare to a chemical reaction in which different elements combine in the unconscious? Faithfull gives us a clue when he says ‘I’ve done other things with balloons’. So this idea is linked with earlier works although it is different from those works. It seems that combining elements that the artist has been ‘chewing on and mulling over’ in new ways can lead his work in a new direction. The artist, Leah Lovett, describes the beginning of a new work as follows:  It’s about allowing things to jostle – allowing things that are in your mind to resonate with each other or jostle together and not worrying too much about making them stick but   A Life of Its Own Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014  102  just kind of holding them together… where you just try to balance things in your mind and sometimes they resist each other and sometimes they seem to kind of come together quite easily. This seems to suggest that the genesis of a new work involves a coming together of different elements. Sometimes these elements combine easily, at others they ‘resist each other’, perhaps seeming at first to be incompatible until a new linkage is discovered. The artist, Russell Mills, uses a different metaphor:  I have a certain set of ideas in my head – passions that I want to explore. So you’re constantly looking for things that connect – that have some correspondence to those ideas ... It’s what I call shed mentality … to be so curious about the world that you absorb all these diverse ideas and then somehow make something new out of them. That’s what I think creativity is about. Mills visualises his mind as a working space – a shed – where he collects ideas that seem to him to be relevant to his ‘passions’. His use of the word ‘passion’ suggests that the ideas to be explored have personal significance for him. What is at stake in the creation of an artwork is not only of intellectual interest (though it may also be this) but also touches on the deepest concerns, the passions, of the artist. He also suggests that the direction for the new work comes from a combination of diverse ideas. He ‘somehow’ makes something new out of them. Artist 6, a painter, is quite specific about the range of  elements that may be brought together in a new work: The starting point for a painting can come from desire to be with the material in a  particular way, either because I’m curious about it or because I want to revisit something or I want to kind of tap into something in myself I haven’t got to the bottom of or I’m still busy with, and that I can get through handling the material in a certain way… So it comes  from all sorts of different sources. And it can come from a past painting, it can come from another artwork, it can come from a conversation you’ve had … again it relates back to  your constant response to things in the world that you’re tapping into.   A Life of Its Own Free Associations: Psychoanalysis and Culture, Media, Groups, Politics Number 65, February 2014  103 Artist 6 speaks of ‘something in myself I haven’t got to the bottom of’, indicating that the new artwork must, amongst other things, provide a form for whatever this ‘something’ is. She expects to realise this form through ‘handling the material in a certain way’. Her sense of what the form will be seems to arise from a combination of different elements: her knowledge of her materials, her sense of the ‘something’ in herself that is not yet resolved, her own past work, and elements from the outside world including, perhaps, a conversation or someone else’s painting. Again, there is a synthesis of different elements leading to a new direction in the work. But how does this synthesis occur? The artists seem to be describing two rather different processes in the extracts quoted above. Sometimes the preparation for a new work involves a conscious ‘jostling’ of elements that ‘come together easily’ – there is a gradual development of an idea through research or working with a medium. At other times the elements ‘resist each other’ initially before a new work, or series of works, is heralded by the spark of an unexpected idea. In this second scenario, there is usually a time gap between the initial interest in a particular subject and the eventual emergence of the idea for a work. This ranges from a few hours to a period of years: There is a push and pull, I think, as well where we’ll talk about something and we won’t really get anywhere and then you sleep on it and you suddenly take a step forward and so it sort of comes in cycles. (Thomson and Craighead)   It’s come back. You’d visualised it maybe 10 years ago but it didn’t make sense at the time. I think the idea has been smouldering away. That little drawing… It’s become an idea by bursting into flame… it’s a little flash of inspiration but maybe not inspiration but recognition. (John Aiken)   Thomson and Craighead describe an integral aspect of their process, suggesting that their ideas for each work progress as a series of discrete steps. Aiken’s description seems to be of a more infrequent event, in this case one that has been in gestation for ten years. Aiken suggests that, prior to the flash of insight or inspiration, something has been ‘smouldering away’ at an unconscious level. In this case a visualisation of a possible work has been revivified and now can
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