Psychological Aspects of Conceptual vs Experimental Art

David Galenson’s brilliant insight that artists and other innovators tend to work using one of two distinct creative processes — on the one hand an inductive, experimental, uncertain, and searching approach, or on the other hand a deductive, conceptual, certain, and decisive approach — is, like everything, both utterly true and simultaneously incomplete. He admits as much throughout his treatise Old Masters and Young Geniuses, often pointing out corners of his theory that require further elaboration and/or further evidence. I do not recall seeing his mention that some of that further evidence might include the subjective, lived experience, in real time and longitudinally, of creative people who fall into each camp, but such data would unquestionably be useful.

I remember wondering upon first reading his book several years ago whether the inherent and learned aspects of an artist’s personality coupled with the field of their endeavors might work together to determine the creative process under which they most easily work. For example, depending on their personality might an experimental painter be a conceptual writer? Might a conceptual sculptor likewise be an experimental poet? Might a conceptual fiction writer need to take an experimental approach to writing non-fiction? Such a question applies across fields, as well. Galenson’s theory is just as readily applicable to scientific creativity, though my personal focus is on art, and thus I am only speaking to art here.

In the meantime, unsurprisingly, I have been quite unable, even as a thought experiment, to come to anything approaching a satisfactory conclusion about how personality and domain of work might interact to determine one’s creative process. What I failed to take into account was a developmental perspective, or if I did, I considered it only in terms of wondering about any given artist’s active level of cognitive or ego development, not in terms of the very existence of cognitive and ego development itself, or of how different a personality can look at different stages of development.

The process of cognitive, moral, and ego development is a laborious and time consuming process of mentally and emotionally resolving paradoxes about our place in the world, though this process is typically not conscious. The attendant pain, confusion, and frustration is definitely apparent, but its cause is often not. To be somewhat more concrete, the process of development, which often goes by the name of personal growth or self actualization, is largely concerned with recognizing and accepting, that is, integrating, aspects of our personality that live in our so-called “shadow”, those traits which we define as something that “I am not”, that which is ego-dystonic. It might even be more accurate to say that it is those traits which we tell ourselves “I could never be”, which in its very formulation indicates nothing less than a fear of and longing to be exactly that.

Such shadow traits are polar opposites of the traits which we believe to be truly who “I am”, and as such, they seem incommensurate, irreconcilable, even loathsome. For example, one might consider oneself to be a logical, thinking person and thus consider their very real feelings as something “other”, and “not me”. They might then heap disdain upon feelings within themself and within anyone who actually believes themself to be primarily a feeling person, and who possibly has an equal and opposite disdain for their own very real thinking traits. Our shadow aspects feel unreal, unattainable, untrustworthy, and at the same time extremely, albeit shamefully, alluring.

Our shadow is nothing more than the opposite, split-off end of a polarity which includes and completes, at the other end, our conscious self. Both sides together form a unity, or at least they can: coming to recognize and be able to “see” that unity is nothing more than what cognitive, ego, and moral development is all about. It’s also harder than hell to do in practice, because there is no roadmap, no guaranteed recipe to follow. It’s a less esoteric reading of the concept of transcendence in Eastern religions, on which subject Ken Wilber says, “Transcendence only happens by accident, but meditation makes you more accident-prone”. Not that Eastern religions have a monopoly on the phenomenon of transcendence, or quite simply growth, but they certainly speak of it far more extensively than we do in the West.

Now, I contend that experimental artists are chasing desperately after their shadow, that which they cannot see, whereas conceptual artists don’t feel the need to do so, even if perhaps only in relation to the specific effort in question. Consider a sculptor who since childhood has been fascinated by and adept at manipulating objects in the real world, who feels at home in the physical world and trusts their abilities. If they have an alluring vision of a new sculpture they might create, it is entirely conceivable that a lifetime of experience developing manual dexterity might give them all the confidence they need in order to bring the work to completion exactly as they have envisioned it. This would be a conceptual artist. On the other hand, someone who has spent their childhood reading stories of fantasy and adventure, who lives more in their head than in the real world, such a person might envision the exact same sculpture, but their great skill is dreaming, not manipulating objects in the real world. It is highly likely that they will not be able to “see” and thus not be able to trust their hands or their materials to do what their intuition wants. As such, they would probably need to undertake an extremely time consuming and frustrating experimental approach.

Now consider the opposite: the conceptual sculptor envisions a story they would like to write, but might not trust the abstract, ethereal, dreamy side of their nature, possibly then requiring an experimental approach to novel-writing. The experimental sculptor who spent their childhood in their own head might, on the other hand, be able to trust their ability to see the abstract layout of the characters and plot and then readily work as a conceptual novelist. Each of the hypothetical artists in this example is adept at the other artist’s shadow, but cannot see their own, cannot reconcile it, and must search for clues about how to proceed. Neither approach precludes nor guarantees excellence in any given domain. It is simply a different path with differently prioritized goals and means.

What if, however, each of those artists in their experimental field were to undertake the torturous path of “growth”, “self-actualization”, “transcendence”, whatever you want to call it, and then come to recognize, own, and even love their shadow? Even to trust it? The frustrating and laborious search in each case where they worked as an experimental artist might then become something different, because they will have found that hidden, ineffable thing that drove their search, that thing just beyond their vision but not beyond their Sehnsucht, beckoning them onward with no means of knowing where they were going, and yet feeling so deeply that something was there.

Everyone requires certainty of some sort. If it’s possible through conscious, rational, decisive means to achieve that certainty, that is most likely what a person will choose. But if one has no ready means of making such a clear decision, if the call of Sehnsucht, of one’s shadow, is the loudest voice in one’s head, then chasing after it is itself a kind of certainty, and that chase is the very hallmark of an experimental approach to art. It is a search to find a new perspective from which to be able to make clear decisions of the type already available to the conceptual artist. It is a process of growth beset by frustration and crushing uncertainty. Sometimes, though, that very search can be the source of powerful and meaningful works, discovered along the way. Sometimes, as well, and perhaps in some cases for the remainder of a lifetime, each of us discovers and integrates some yearned for aspect of our shadow, and then the search can end, at least temporarily. Each reintegration gives us the ability to discern some new aspect of our work, pushing us ever closer to the possibility of a conceptual, measurable, deductive approach.

Certainly all of this is nothing more than conjecture, at best another incomplete theory whatever its merits otherwise, and the kind of long term empirical study necessary even to show whether it has any validity at all is something far beyond what I am willing or able to undertake. Graduate degrees in art history and developmental and social psychology, along with a tenured professorship, almost definitely stand between me and such a study, and I can already declare with absolute certainty that I will not be going that route.

On the other hand, I can offer some anecdotal evidence, from my own experience. I am that kid who grew up living in his head. I have never trusted the physical world or my ability to make any difference within it. My parents sometimes tell the story of my having said as a child that “the real world is an okay place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”. And yet I have been obsessed with the beauty and sensuality of music and visual art since a very young age. Most of my life I have just listened to other people’s music and lied to myself that I had no artistic aspirations, because that desire to create beauty in the physical world has always been buried deep in my shadow.

Fortuitously, there was a more proximate shadow, my profound emotionality and sensitivity. That was not buried quite as deep, and yet deep enough to be a tremendous struggle to identify and own. Once I had done it, though, writing, oddly enough, became something I could do on a relatively conceptual level. When I argued that I was not an author, I think that a great deal of what I was actually saying was that I could write with something nearer to a conceptual approach, which made no sense to me and seemed somewhat unreal, because everything, absolutely everything, that I had ever tried to do artistically in my life had involved the immeasurable uncertainty and frustration of an experimental approach.

It’s not up to me to say whether my own writing is any good or not, but I can say how I feel about it, and what I feel is confidence. Not confidence that it’s good, because I am surprisingly unconcerned about that, but confidence that it adequately reflects what I want to say, because I more or less know what I want to say, even if only after I’ve said it, and if you’ll pardon the circularity. I don’t feel the need to go back and rewrite and edit and futz with my words. Sometimes I do semi-extensive editing, but not self-consciously, not because my original words feel wrong or because I feel uncertain about them, but because I just thought of a construction that I like somewhat better. And I could never, ever have done this before I recognized, owned, and came to love my sensitive, emotional shadow. I had already tried my hand at writing a couple times in the more distant past, but I always gave up immediately because my output was awful and I had no idea even where to begin to understand why it was awful or how I might improve.

But I was never driven to improve my writing, because the more elusive and yet more tantalizing goal for me has always been visual art. Even since I started writing seriously two years ago and have felt confident about it, even still there has been no change in my experimental approach to visual art. Two years of still being completely unsure of how even to proceed, while continuing to be driven forward nonetheless. The call has been so amazingly powerful, so unrelenting. I think I can look back across the years and say that I have often hated it, that Sehnsucht, and even hated myself sometimes for having it, or more likely for not being able to find it, that thing just outside my vision that I could nevertheless feel, and feel as more real than anything in the physical world. It turns out, of course, that this aspect of my shadow, it was in reality nothing more than the physical world, or the acceptance that I live in it. And I just recently discovered, among other things, that I do in fact live in the physical world. I have always thought that was a curse, but it’s not, it is the most profound gift I could ever receive. For a child and even an adult whose head had always been in the clouds, standing now as a man with my feet on the ground, my god, it feels amazing, and I suspect it feels amazing in a way that would be incomprehensible to anyone who has already known and cherished their physical being for their entire life, just as I could never understand such a person’s joy to discover that the clouds are their home as well. And in fact, I think that might be a significant source of the power of art: when an artist discovers the magic hidden in their shadow, which might be mundane to someone else, and yet still that feeling of magic can be conveyed, can be felt by others, and it can change the world. Like Prometheus’ fire, an artist’s responsibility might be little more than to show the world their personal experience of pure magic and wonder to have discovered something that was always hidden in plain sight.

So does this mean I can now become a conceptual visual artist? No, I don’t think that will be possible just yet, but maybe one day it will be, or at least maybe I can move in that direction. I still have so much to learn, skills of sensory perception and evaluation, of composition, and so much more that previously I was always unwilling to learn because I could never believe that I was capable of it, and thus disdained it, thinking instead that I could solve everything by dreaming or by intuiting something into existence. I couldn’t see a way towards trusting that a pleasing sensory perception might be a valid means of judging the worth of something. I honestly thought, my entire life, that everything of value must be shot through with deep intuitive meaning and cosmic grandeur. Head in the clouds, to be sure. But now, well, maybe I can develop some confidence and do some work that’s both more and less and quite simply different from searching and yearning.

Addendum

Of course all of the above is entirely provisional and open to major revision if not outright being discarded, though I do think there is some merit to it. One of those revisions, though, already presented itself once I had stepped away for a few minutes. I feel relatively confident that I will not soon become a conceptual visual artist, because that’s still quite a bit more advanced than where I am currently at. What I can, do, however, is use my newfound trust in the value of sensory experience as a yardstick for determining whether the software I write to make my visual art is moving in the correct direction. How could I have forgotten to consider that?

My visual art is nearly synonymous in my mind with the software that I’m writing to produce it, but it is quite fair to say that because I have not had a clear, measurable goal in my mind for what the output should be, thus I have also taken an entirely experimental approach to writing software, which feels really weird because I’ve been programming professionally for 20 years and have in the past written some rather complex if imperfect systems. But in those cases I always had a means of determining the correctness of my work, or at least how to approach making it more correct, because I always had either a template, a specification, or a request from a customer or superior to guide me. This has not been the case in my own work with its elusive, undefined goal. Now, though, I have a means of measuring, even if that means is nothing more than “does it feel nice, even sensual, to use this software?”, but just as a struggle for a new perspective is the hallmark of an experimental approach to art making, so is measurability, even if subjective, the hallmark of conceptual art making. As such, I think I can probably move towards a more conceptual approach to writing my software, and I have some very small hints that I might already be starting down that path, which feels really quite nice, I must say.