Grand Expectations : Human Aspiration And The Finite Nature of Creativity

30 Mar

By Neil K. Henderson

Creativity is a deceptively enticing phenomenon – simultaneously satisfying an inner need in the artist while exciting him with the prospect of greater achievements to come. But it has to be understood and accepted that creativity cannot be progressed indefinitely. The creative mind is bound by the limits of both its ‘talent’ and its basic human capability. Indeed, the quest for perfection – the Ultimate – in any artform is likely to be destructive rather than beneficial to the artist. However inspiring it may be in theory, he can never attain such a goal – because after a certain point in the process of experiment and refinement, in the search for the new and improved, there simply is no more. Every individual has his creative niche – a ‘fingerprint’ on the communal creative process. But while he can expand and elaborate on variations of his particular range, he is bound by the configuration of his personal whorls, loops and arches, and unlikely to break free of a pattern established at the outset of his creative career. (This, of course, is a generalisation – some prodigies have extra fingers. Michaelangelo and Verdi, for instance, are exceptions to this general rule. But even completely new strains of creativity, operating on a different level from the original creative path, are themselves bound to prove ultimately finite – always assuming the artist lives long enough to exhaust them.)

The trouble is the human mind – which is programmed to dream and speculate, to make projections or assumptions based on the present rate of expansion or growth. The creative mind tells itself that the rate of expansion from the ‘blank canvas’ stage at the beginning will continue unchecked – and that there is some ultimate perfection, as yet uninmaginable, still to be attained. The purpose of creativity, it reasons, is not simply to be creative to the best of one’s ability, but to go beyond – to break down barriers to reach this unvisualised ideal. But therein lies the misunderstanding. This supposed artistic grail cannot be imagined or visualised because it isn’t there. It is nothing more than an empty supposition.

It’s like imagining the future – as soon as we conceive some ‘futuristic’ style or attitude, the conception itself has existence from that point on. It is originated in the present, and is likely to be made manifest in the present in, say, the design of cars and furniture, or clothes and hairstyles. When the anticipated future date arrives, those original ‘futuristic’ ideas will actually belong to the past, denoting the viewpoint of that period when they were first thought up. Some of the designs of the 1960s and ’70s are probably more ‘futuristic’ – imagining 21st century ‘modernity’ – than the styles we have now in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, here in the new present (which was the future back then) the imagined refinement or elaboration of these early projected ideas has failed to take place, because the ‘new’ attitudes imagined a third of a century ago haven’t materialised – we are basically just the same as we were then.

In creative terms, we can perhaps view this more objectively by looking at the careers of artists who either died young, or ceased creating or performing at an early age for whatever reason. Shelley, Rimbaud, Aubrey Beardsley, Tony Hancock, Syd Barrett – there are plenty to chose from in all mediums. It is natural to mourn the ‘lost potential’ of their talents. But what exactly is this ‘potential’ we set such store by? Surely no more than a vague expectation based on the assumption that the achievements so far produced were simply the early stages of a progressively improving stream of output whose limits have no end. This is optimism of the most uncompromising kind – since its hopes can never be disproved. But study of artists who lived to fulfil their destiny in total usually tells us that their ‘best’  (most innovative, and hence ‘creative’)  work was done in their younger years. or, at least, the work produced by the older, more experienced and mature, artist is often of a very different nature from his juvenilia – no matter how brilliant the juvenilia may have been – and so could not have been predicted at the outset. (Verdi’s Otello being a case in point.) Hence it is useless basing speculation about ‘lost potential’ on such work as has been left by the artist who ceased early.

I mentioned  Tony Hancock, and it strikes me that he typifies, at least in recent times, the fate of the artist (in his case, performing artist) who strove to realise his own ‘lost potential’ – never seeming to have understood that he had already reached the ultimate level of his artistic achievement. Driven by this self-deluding intellectual programming to continually seek a perfection which was never there to be found, he drove himself into the spiritual and creative abyss. His story is well-known and tragic. Perhaps, had he been able to accept the finite nature of his own talents (and those of his writers) he might have been satisfied with such greatness as he  had, rather than waste it chasing the illusion of the absolute. After all, if what you do is already consummate (within the bounds of human capability), it is impossible to perfect it further.

Perhaps some of the blame lies with the generally accepted notion of ‘the masterpiece’. The creative artist is encouraged by example to strive to produce some work of outstanding excellence – (a) with regard to the rest of his own output, and (b) in terms of all human accomplishment. Both cases can really only be judged from some distance in time after the artist’s death – and the second category is particularly ephemeral. Not only is it a pretty tall order to achieve at all, but the judgement of posterity is liable to vary with successive generations. No doubt the challenge to achieve this kind of supremacy can stimulate an increase in productive effort by the individual, but whether or not such extraneous pressure is conducive to producing universally acknowledged ‘great works’ is debatable.

The great achievements of mankind usually result from the cumulative effect of a series of individual minds adding their efforts to the same problem – not one mind steadily expanding its own reasoning processes. The world-changing breakthroughs come from a new perspective, a tangential connection, applied to the blueprint of a previous body of work. Though by no means impossible, it is a lot less likely that one person, constantly ploughing the same furrow of creative endeavour, is going to suddenly make the quantum leap which galvanises the process into a new dimension. But this is not to diminish the work that has gone before. The individual creators along the way have each played their uniquely vital part, without which no startling future discoveries are possible.

Artistic success, then, would appear to involve a degree of balance. There are two kinds of success for the creative individual. There is personal success, whereby the artist (in the widest sense) achieves popular acclaim or prestige for being particularly proficient in a specific mould. Then there is ‘true’ artistic success, exhibited by the fullest realisation of the artist’s unique vision. The later category is our main consideration here, of course. And some measure of that artistic success is the point at which the artist deems his work to be finished. There has to be some acceptance of the boundaries of the artist’s abilities, beyond which his vision is more likely to be  harmed than fulfilled. The universe or the Divinity may be infinite, but the artist’s job is only to describe such things – he is not required to emulate them or pursue them into the Void. That way, for limited mortal consciousness, lies madness….

First Published in The Journal no. 5, Summer 2002

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