Saturday, November 22, 2008

Creativity Begins In . . .

Creativity begins in dissent. I heard someone say that a long time ago and believed it. But now I am not so sure.
Here is why.
I was painting with a friend the other afternoon—or rather making graded dilutions of my colors to see what water did to them. When I finished there was still time left over, so I made a copy of a print hanging on the wall.
The print was “The Bath” by Mary Cassatt. As I made my quick little copy, I saw the care with which Cassatt had composed her painting.
The four essential elements overlap one another: the woman, the little girl, the basin of water, and the pitcher. Together they form a unity that you could almost cut from cardboard and place over any background you like. Almost: Cassatt anchors the pitcher at the bottom edge of the composition, so the unity of woman and girl and bath belongs to this room and no other. Therefore Cassatt presents us with something universal, for the more particular a thing is, the more universal it is.
Look at the care with which the bodies of the woman and girl are disposed. The negative space made by the girl’s legs is mirrored by the space made by the woman’s arm and the girl. The woman’s hand and arm are mirrored in the girl’s hand and arm. The girl’s other arm is crooked to hold the woman’s knee: the woman’s arm is crooked to hold the girl. Both faces look down at the large hand and the small foot in the basin. Their postures are in fact identical. And yet they are two separate people. Their hair color is different, their skin tones, their features. (You cannot see this in my little copy. Go to the link.)
Look at the careful rendering of the essential elements: the modeling of the girl’s tanned arms and pale body, the folds of the woman’s dress, the gold line decorations on the basin and the pitcher. Then look at the careful carelessness of the brush stokes in the background. Quick. Dash.
I cannot see the creativity of this painting beginning in dissent. Even if you could find some art critic—and I am not saying you can—writing about the plight of the working class and the inequality of women washing grubby little feet while the men sit about in banks smoking cigars—even if you could find such opinions, I am not sure they have anything to do with the care and attention put into this painting.
It seems more likely that Mary Cassatt had simply found something she loved looking at and put this care and attention into this painting so someone else could see it, too.
As for dissent—lots of creativity surely begins there, as well as in anger, outrage, hatred, disillusionment, despair. As well as in playfulness, maddness, religious rapture, crankiness, and many other things you might name. But I am putting away the notion that any one of these things, and it alone, drives creativity.

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