For the past few years, I have been collaborating with two socially engaged, visual artists, Pip Woolf and Kirsty Claxton. We call ourselves The Larks and Ravens for reasons that I can’t remember but probably don’t matter! As a life long cognitive psychologist, I am challenged, inspired and having a lot of fun.
So far, the 3 of us have created work engaging members of the public in exploring climate change, value and money.
And this is what I’m learning as we go….
Art is a different way of exploring and understanding the world….
For me it still feels like an act of faith – learning to park my busy, over-analytical brain for short periods and use my hands instead – to draw, to paint or pick up materials and make stuff and see what emerges from your hands and where that takes you. It’s wonderfully irrational – a challenge to the logic of everything making sense.
My natural inclination would be to talk, think and analyse a topic before turning to art to express that thinking, insight or concept in some visual or material form. As a trained scientist, I initially found the ‘doing’ way of working threatening, embarrassing even. Could I really just start with my hands – making marks on paper or manipulating materials without figuring out what I planned to do or why and how to set about it? It still feels uncomfortable but I have now been rewarded enough times by the novel and completely different insights which emerge when you start with physically doing.
The first ever drawing class I attended years ago taught us how important it was to learn to draw what your eyes actually see in the world rather than what your brain has already decided something looks like. The process I am going through now feels a bit like that only on another level. Having a thought or idea and then trying to express it in material form is entirely different from starting with the materials, ‘leaving the conscious brain out of it’ and seeing what your hands or body create and what new thinking and ideas that ‘tells’ the brain. What you get is much more surprising. It doesn’t always work – nothing does – but it’s an intriguing and excitingly different way of understanding a topic. It also links with the psychology of cognitive embodiment where what we do with our bodies can affect how we think.
I’ve also experienced what I call ‘material imagination’ – playfully manipulating physical materials as a means to imagine new possibilities – letting the physical objects or images themselves suggest other uses or arrangements or meanings and thereby other ways the world could be. Things can be different from how they are.
Even the fact that it feels ‘crazy’ when you are doing it might be the point – i.e. it’s breaking you free from a familiar rational framework which has been constraining your imagination only to things you know are possible. Again there is a psychological basis for this – J.J. Gibson’s theory of Affordance – where the physical appearance or feel of an object suggests possibilities for what can be done with it. ‘Material imagination’ is taking affordance one step further beyond the bounds of rational action.
And what’s difficult about this kind of art approach?
Well, it’s awkward generating a credible narrative for friends and colleagues of what the hell you have been doing today and why! They are curious and you don’t have an account which “makes sense”! But that gets easier once one accepts that much of human behaviour is irrational but we are expert at generating post hoc narratives to explain or justify our actions in ways our society recognises and doesn’t question because they ‘fit’ an accepted ‘rationale’.
Applying for grants to help fund this kind of art work is also very difficult. Grant bodies are looking for projects with clearly stated, rational aims, plans and outputs and predicted impact. This is relatively straightforward when you work as a research psychologist – even if it never actually works out the way you stated on the application form! But, if you can’t state your aims, plans and output in advance, grant bodies are nervous you will waste their money (and indeed you might!). Even trying to describe one’s method (see above) sounds far too open-ended and vague. And the Grant officials won’t be comfortable if they can’t explain to others why they are awarding the money to you rather than to a project which reassuringly states its aims, plans, outputs and impact in advance. It’s simply too risky.
It’s therefore not surprising that many artists cannot do the interesting and radical work they would like to do and which would be beneficial to society because they have to find ways to use their time on more ‘rational’ and therefore culturally acceptable ways of supporting themselves financially.
Ironically, historians now believe that Stonehenge may also have been primarily about the act of doing – “experts now believe the construction of the monument was just as important to Neolithic people as worshipping in it” . Taking this further, what if the idea of worshipping was itself an afterthought – a use and meaning which emerged from the co-location of the stones? Whatever, it’s likely that the Neolithic dreamers might have struggled to complete a Grant application form for that project!
Thank you to my 2 artist friends and collaborators for welcoming me on this journey – the delight of having no idea where it will take us.