Is the creative process active or passive?

by Jennifer Leslie Torgerson


 ISSUE: 

Is the creative process active or passive?


FACTS (background & important terminology): 

One of the earliest issues in aesthetics is the debate over whether or not the creative process is active or passive.  Another way to describe the issue may be to ask whether the creative process is an activity directed towards an end by knowledge through character, or is the creative process one of divine inspiration where the artist is a passive receptor.  Divine inspiration has been an important part of the human experience and this is of course true for the Classical Greek thinkers. 

From Edith Hamilton. Mythology.  (Boston, MA:  Little, Brown and Company, 1942.  See pages 30-31:  “Delphi”

O Phoebus, from your throne of truth,

From your dwelling-place at the heart of the world,

You speak to men.

By Zeus’s decree no lie comes there,

No shadow to darken the word of truth.

Zeus sealed by an everlasting right

Apollo’s honour, that all may trust

With unshaken faith when he speaks.

“Delphi under towering Parnassus, where Apollo’s oracle was, plays an important part in mythology.  Castalia was its sacred spring:  Cephissus its river.  It was held to be the center of the world, so many pilgrims came to it, from foreign countries as well as Greece.  No other shrine rivaled it.  The answers to the questions asked by the anxious seekers for Truth were delivered by a priestess who went into a trance before she spoke.  The trance was supposed to be caused by a vapor rising from a deep cleft in the rock over which her seat was placed, a three-legged stool, the tripod.

Apollo was called Delian from Delos, the island of his birth, and Pythian from his killing of a serpent, Pythos, which once lived in the caves of Parnassus.  It was a frightful monster and the contest was severe, but in the end the god’s unerring arrows won the victory.  Another name often given him was “the Lycian,” variously explained as meaning Wolf-god, God of Light, and God of Lycia.  In the Iliad he is called “the Sminthian,” the Mouse-god, but whether because he protected mice or destroyed them no one knows.  Often he was the Sun-god too.  His name Phoebus means “brilliant” or “shining.”  Accurately, however, the Sun-god was Helios child of the Titan Hyperion.

Apollo at Delphi was a purely beneficent power, a direct link between gods and men, guiding men to know the divine will, showing them how to make peace with the gods; the purifier, too, able to cleanse even those stained with the blood of their kindred.  Nevertheless, there are a few tales told of him which show him pitiless and cruel.  Two ideas were fighting in him as in all the gods:  a primitive, crude idea and one that was beautiful and poetic.   In him only a little of the primitive is left.  The laurel was his tree.  Many creatures were sacred to him, chief among them was the dolphin and the crow.”


PRO (for) the creative process is active: 

According to Aristotle in the Poetics, the arts imitate action (praxis).  Action in this sense means to take to completion, or a working out of a movement to its end.  Such action springs from two sources within the nature of man; thought and character.  Thought (or perception) directs the mind toward this or that choice based on circumstances, while character influences the manner of choice.  Art is an activity or movement to completion, and all arts can be said to spring from these two sources.  Yet in music or lyrical performance, the origin of their action is better described as a movement of the soul or a movement of the spirit.  Thus art is an activity in which the soul seeks to express its thoughts and character outwardly, and to completion as in a performance.  Arts imitate action in this way, and when no rational purpose may be apparent it still can be said that art seeks to take an activity to its end by a unity of action, or movement of the spirit.  This movement of spirit to express itself outward is the driving force behind painting, music or lyrical verse. 

Aristotle.  Poetics; with an introduction by Francis Fergusson.  (New York, NY:  Hill and Wang, 1991 [1961]).


CON (against) the creative process is active (or is passive):

According to Plato, the arts are a form of passive imitation of the divine.  In Classical Greek art, traditionally there strives to be a balance between the intellect and the emotions.  Classical Greek art is uniquely an intellectual form of art.  In the Ion, Socrates challenges this notion, that there is such a balance between the intellect and emotion in the arts.  Others arts, crafts (techne) or professions had a patron deity, yet this was not the case for poetry.  The poets were inspired to write not by their intellect, but through inspiration.  Thus the creative process, for the poet, is a passive process, by which the divine speaks through the artist. 

“No, when once they launch into harmony and rhythm, they are seized with the Bacchic transport, and are possessed – as the bacchants, when possessed, draw milk and honey from the rivers, but not when in their senses.  So the spirit of the lyric poet works, according to their own report.  For the poets tell us, don’t they, that the melodies they bring us are gathered from rills that run with honey, out of glens and gardens  of the Muses, and they bring them as the bees do honey, flying like the bees?  And what they say is true, for a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him.  So long as he has this [reason] in his possession, no man is able to make poetry or chant in prophecy. Therefore their making is not by art, when they utter many things and fine about the deeds of men, just as you do about Homer, but is by lot divine – therefore each is able to do well only that to which the Muse has impelled him.”  (Ion, 534 a-c) Thus the divine speaks through the poet, and the poet conveys ideas not of their own making, but by that of divinity.  This is why the works of art which move individuals the most are so loved:  they represent an imitation of divine, and poets are nothing more than the interpreters.  If one does not possess an art, then it would be impossible to know words or actions that apply to that art form. 

“But if you are not an artist, if by lot divine you are possessed by Homer, and so, knowing nothing, speak many things and fine about the poet, just as I said you did, then you do no wrong.  Choose, therefore, how you will be called by use, whether we shall take you for a man unjust, or for a man divine.”  The poet wishes to be called a man divine.  Socrates would rather not dispense with reason, and feels that “to be in our minds divine, and not an artist” is really best.  (Ion, 542 a-b)   


What do you think? 

Is the creative process active or passive?

Explain your reasoning.

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