RECOMBINATION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | CONTENTS


4. RECOMBINATION demystifying creativity

This chapter and the next will interrogate the myth of the creative genius which is now no longer subscribed to even by the more informed members of the fine art community. But if we examine the roots of deconstructive art in Surrealism and Dada we find that there is an element of mystification of creative process that harks back to romantic aesthetics. This mystification was confronted in the late 1960s by a new model of creativity based on understanding art as a language, and with this came the concept of the viewer as a 'reader'. There was, however, no comparable renovation of the concept of the artist.

Claims that installation art can 'activate' the viewer deserve to be closely questioned. Being able to more or less walk into the work of art might appear to offer increased involvement and interaction but this is not always the case. Unless the installation offers an interaction device as can be the case in digital art, or adds a soundscape as is possible in video and digital installation, the principal mode of reception remains the gaze; and the principal mode of interaction remains the conventional role wherein the  viewer 'reads' a work of art. The concept of the viewer as a 'reader' and art as a 'language' emerged out the rise of semiotic, structuralist and poststructuralist frames of reference in the 1970s and 1980s which had a specific impact on conceptual art of the late 1960s and 1970s. Although art since the 1990s is considerably less theorised than its precursors such frames of reference still apply, and in this and the following chapter the 'language' paradigm will be pursued by considering the narrative dimension of installation art. 

Narrative is a useful metaphor because it both describes the typical way in which readers make sense of works of art and the typical structure of installation art. What is special about the 'walk in and aroundable' work of art is that the gaze can be divided across a spatially extended distribution of objects, rather than being focused on an integral object. This mode of exhibition confronts the viewer with parts that challenge her to make sense of them. One can describe this process terms of a nonlinear narrative puzzle.

We are not speaking here of a jigsaw-like puzzle where the objective is to reconstitute an integral object. Neither is it akin to the classic narrative puzzle in which the reader looks out for clues and tries to figure out how the various threads will be tied up at the end. The artists examined in this chapter—Simon Starling, Jennifer Pastor, and Andreas Slominski—invite the reader not so much to find a solution as to engage in a creative thought process.

For Immanuel Kant the aesthetic experience consists of a phenomenological reflection upon the activity of one's perceptual processes. This is certainly an important feature of aesthetic experience, but it is entirely formal, entirely at the level of the signifier. Kant's focus on perception was to be reflected in the development  of abstraction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The argument here is that the strategy of deconstructive art that was pioneered by Dada and Surrealism complements aesthetic reflection on perceptual process with reflection on creative thought process, in particular what David Hume (who was very influential on Kant) referred to as the 'association of ideas' and what J. S. Mills referred to as the 'stream of consciousness'.

A focus on creative process (creative cognition) that can lead to the formulation of creative games is one of the defining features of deconstructive art. But the central question remains as to whether this creative process is the exclusive preserve of the artist or whether the viewer can participate. The works that will be examined in this chapter are all indebted to the legacy of deconstructive art that can be traced back to Dada and Surrealism. Seminal deconstructive aesthetic methodologies such as automatic writing, montage, allegory and nonlinear narrative can be understood as technologies designed to explore creativity by defamiliarising the everyday and breaking through habituated thought processes.

Techniques such as automatism and montage can theoretically be used by anyone. But in practice they are methodologies and not an ends in themselves: they are tools. The end is to create a work of art which, however deconstructive, is a construction. In order to achieve this goal the effects of chance or montage are inevitably submitted to acts of conscious selection and recombination on the part of the artist, all of  which becomes a time consuming process that ultimately involves years of practice. Often use of such tools becomes less an easy way to make art than an obsessive game.

At the same time, from Dada and Surrealism onward, there has been a focus on the notion that one might involve or 'activate' the viewer in the creative process. The logic informing this ambition is that art can mitigate the alienating, homogenising and regimentalising aspects of mass society. Accordingly, involving the viewer in creative process affords art a social relevance. Social relevance achieves its highest point when the artist formulates creative games for other people to play. But at present this is extremely rare in the field of fine art. The best that the audience can expect from fine art is to be offered the role of the 'reader'. But, as will be seen, even this role is threatened by an element of romantic mystification evident even in poststructuralist theory, as will be shown.

Returning to the topic of narrative, one of the significant features of Dada and Surrealism is that they were literary as well as visual art movements. Their approach to narrative was deconstructive but remains under the broad conspectus of what is being referred to here as the 'narrative continuum' with its linear and nonlinear poles. It seems useful to retain the concept of such a continuum if we are speaking of the viewer as a reader because totally nonlinear narrative can be unreadable.

In the sphere of the popular arts of cinema and literature the viewer is engaged via immersion in more or less linear narrative. There is no doubt that processes of identification and projection engage the viewer, but it can be argued that in many cases this engagement is passive. In S/Z (1974 orig. 1970) Barthes introduced a distinction between the 'writerly' and the 'readerly' text. Andrew Milner and Jeff Browitt explain that readerly texts position the reader as a 'passive consumer', whereas writerly texts 'demand that the reader actively participate as co-author of the text' (Milner & Browitt 2002: 113) [emphasis added]. Confronted with the nonlinear text the reader has to try that bit harder to make sense out of the work. But whether or not this constitutes the reader becoming a 'co-author' depends upon one's definition of creativity.

If one defines creativity in the romantic sense as arising out of an ineffable nothingness then the act of reading a work of art cannot be defined as creative if it involves analytical thinking and the formulation of a coherent narrative concerning the work of art. Strangely, this romantic way of thinking still influences artistic production. For example, contemplating viewer interactivity the contemporary artist Renée Green notes the 'political potential of . "participatory mobility," which is the process by which the viewer works to piece together the various parts of the work, rather than attempting to absorb and master it' (Green 1999: 3). In other words the viewer's role is to 'piece together the various parts of the work' without making sense of them! One is returned to the abstract formalism of Kantian aesthetics. Green's statement clearly indicates that the anti-narrative stance is an enduring, defining feature of deconstructive art evident in Dada and Surrealist montage, through radical art of the 1960s and '70s and into installationism at the turn of the millennium. But from the reader's point of view, formulating a narrative from the parts of a deconstructive work of art is an important component of the creative engagement that is 'reading' a work of art.

If one believes, like Green, that the reader ought not create a more or less coherent narrative about the work of art then one is effectively suggesting that the reader's involvement should not be intellectual. One can also point here to the ludicrous implication that if creative process is antithetical to narrative then creating a narrative is not creative: which is absurd. The process of narrative construction entails an entwining of creative and analytical cognition. And if we are to be honest, this is the case with most artistic production unless one believes that artists work entirely in a trance.

The viewer-reader's interpretation of a work of art can only be called creative if one includes intellect in one's definition of creativity. And I would argue that this is one of the defining features that separates properly thought out deconstructive aesthetics from its romantic predecessor. It is, for instance, implicit in Marcel Duchamp's criticism of 'retinal art' which indicates that art can be concerned with ideas. In other words one can think and be creative at the same time.

Confronted with a work of art that possesses a fairly straightforward narrative the reader's faculties are not especially exercised, but nonlinear texts demand more creative participation. The process of reading, or making sense of, a nonlinear work of art can be effectively described as one of narrative reconstruction or recombination which is most certainly both a creative and a critical-reflective act.

This process of 'making sense' can be considered creative, but only if we admit that creative and analytical thinking are interconnected rather being diametrically opposed. At this point, however, we encounter a fundamental problem because, historically, deconstructive aesthetics is the offspring of romantic aesthetics (Bürger 1984: 22) and this genealogy is evident in the fact that both romantic and deconstructive aesthetics are critical of reason. More accurately, deconstructive aesthetics criticises rationalism whereas romanticism rejects it out of hand (cf. expressionism). But the logical extension of the exclusion of reason from creativity is to picture creativity as a trance-like state or intoxication, and the thinness of the boundary between romanticism and deconstruction is evident in the fact that the Surrealists often subscribed to the trance model of creativity. One can also find vestiges of romantic aesthetics in aspects of French poststructuralism. Note Derrida's meditations on the creative potential of nothingness:

The pure book, the book itself, by virtue of what is most irreplaceable within it, must be the 'book about nothing' that Flaubert dreamed of  . Rousset shows us the extent to which spirits as diverse as Delacroix, Balzac, Flaubert, Valery, Proust, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and many others had a sure consciousness of this. .To these voices should be added that of Antonin Artaud, who was less roundabout: 'I made my debut in literature by writing books in order to say that I could write nothing at all. My thoughts, when I had something to say or write, were that which was furthest from me. .' It is the consciousness of nothing, upon which all consciousness of something enriches itself, takes on meaning and shape. And upon whose basis all speech can be brought forth. (2001: 7-8).

One can interpret this passage in various ways, for example taking 'nothingness' in the sense of the tabula rasa evident in Jean-Paul Sartre's notion of 'being and nothingness' or Freud's 'magic writing pad' which Derrida referred to directly. Even then, however, 'nothingness' is a little too close to the romantic concept of creativity that fuels traditional concepts concerning the preciousness (as opposed to ingenuity) of the aesthetic object and individual genius (as opposed to individual ingenuity).


Everyday Creativity: Humean Aesthetics

Since the 1980s it has been de rigueur to use French poststructuralism as the principal frame of reference for addressing deconstructive art. But although there is much that is beneficial in this framework vestiges of romanticist mystification indicate that a more empirical approach to creative process could be of advantage. In this chapter I will attempt to shift away from the orthodoxy of French theory and deploy an alternative model of creativity in the form of David Hume's foregrounding of the autonomous association of ideas.

The concept of 'the association of ideas' originated in the empirical philosophy of Thomas Hobbes  (1588-1679),[35] and was elaborated and clarified by Hume (1711-1776) via the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704). Moreover, the notion of the association of ideas had a significant impact on the evolution of the modern discipline of psychology via Hume's contemporary David Hartley (1705-1757). And with regard to deconstructive art, there is also a significant intersection between the association of ideas and the development of automatism in Surrealism. André Breton was a medical doctor prior to becoming the leader of the Surrealist movement and Sigmund Freud's 'free association' word tests appear to have played a role in inspiring  the technique of automatism. Louise Tythacott observes: 'Freud replaced hypnosis with his own technique of "free association" as the key for unlocking the unconscious and unravelling the mystery of dreams. The Surrealists, too, utilized the idea of "word association" to map in their own way the chance irruptions of the unconscious mind.' (Tythacott 2002: 52). 

What is especially useful about Hume's thinking is that he suggests that the autonomous association of ideas (an unconscious cognitive process) is intimately interconnected with our everyday reasoning processes. Which makes a great deal of sense-unless we subscribe to the trance theory of creativity.

A prime instance of everyday creativity-often referred to by philosophers-is our use of language. In the course of speaking or writing it is possible to create unique idea combinations. I will take an instance of an association of ideas that appeared in an earlier draft of chapter five in the form of the phrase: 'social locus of self'. A search on Google for this phrase obtained no hits across literally billions of web pages. Which is to say this particular phrase is (Google) unique, original and therefore creative. The phrase 'social locus of self' is also an instance of an association of ideas, which is to say the everydayness of creativity as opposed to the overdramatised and mythologised accounts evident not only in romantic aesthetics but French poststructuralism. One can also cite the way in which a narrative such as this book is assembled over time by an accumulation of idea associations. Each association is a micro-creative act but the accumulation of this micro-acts can lead to a more complex construction. We are noting here the way in which creativity involves time, conscious reflection and selection. This is an important point because it indicates a critical difference between the creative engagement of the artist and the viewer due to the fact that the latter is usually considerably shorter in duration.

In this and the following chapter it will be argued that a turn to a more practical, everyday, concept of creativity than that offered by romantic aesthetics is essential if the long-standing goals of activating the viewer and bringing art into life are to be attained. Otherwise the mystification of genius will continue to separate art from the everyday. We need to reconstruct our concept of artistic creativity by moving away from romantic aesethetics towards a framework akin to the concept of the viewer as reader.

Hume's philosophy is useful because of his foregrounding of everyday imagination as the principal mechanism of mind. The Humean association of ideas also connects with the concept of narrative because the chains of association produced by imagination ultimately coalesce into contingent narrative constructions such as those which the reader composes to makes sense out of a work of art.

But before continuing with a theoretical consideration of the importance of Hume's philosophy for deconstructive aesthetics I would like to examine an actual instance of installation art that highlights the interrelated notions of the role of the reader, creativity, the association of ideas, narrative and 'making sense'.

RECOMBINATION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | CONTENTS

Meret Oppenheimer, Breakfast in Fur, 1936. Cup and saucer covered in animal fur. Like most Surrealist objects Breakfast in Fur presents the viewer with a puzzle. The viewer does not simply enjoy the visuality of the piece but tries to work out what it might signify.

Andreas Slominski, Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998

Andreas Slominski, Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998. Photograph.

Andreas Slominski, Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998.

Andreas Slominski, Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998. A piece of the puzzle, why did Slominski cut holes into the gallery wall?

Andreas Slominski,Detail,  Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998.

Andreas Slominski, Self-Portrait with Sombrero, 1998. Another piece of the puzzle, why did Slominski cut sections out of the sombrero?