Alan Thornhill – Thoughts on the Aesthetic Experience and On Creativity (2008)

The most important techniques are those devised by the individual for dealing with self consciousness, dominant intentionality, insidious predisposition toward the familiar and the nameable, fear of failure, dependence on achieving acceptable results, all of which undermine and debilitate the process.

Originality consists in authenticity; is work which originates from inside the maker, an insistent prompting to express through or interplay with material. The widespread and spurious demand that art should be above all innovative tends to cerebration and galvanises the ego of the intending innovator. But are mind and ego the prime sources of creativity?

Questioning the nature of the activity itself, (e.g. sculpture) – an important part of the work process – can lose force where there is a multiplicity of materials in play. Inquiry is possibly more rigorous and productive within the constraints of a single material. The work is a reflection, shared with the viewer, of this process of inquiry – an act of faith and instinct rather than of specific intention; creating openings and advancing boldly into them free of the dominance of intellect or habit.

The so-called aesthetic experience
Art at its best acts as nourishment – the challenging reclamation and re-stimulation of our dormant faculties, the catalyst of surprise and discovery. It strengthens our sense of possibility and broadens our horizons. Warmth is its vital quality because it is involving. Without involvement there can be no affect and without affect the aesthetic experience is pallid and incomplete. The immediacy of our involuntary sensuous response provides an opening for all that follows; this must precede and overpower, indeed obliterate for the moment our shallower cerebral faculties of recognition, categorisation, analysis and self-congratulation.

At the present stage of the evolution of human consciousness neither illustration nor literal description or juxtaposing arrangement can provide us with what precisely is meant by ‘content’ in a work of art. These modes leave the observer a mere onlooker. They do not galvanise us to a fully alerted presence; they sell us short, leave us indifferent or disappointed. Content is that phenomenon of communication in which the awareness of the observer senses and picks up signals of presence and action issuing from another consciousness, that have been embedded without self-regard in a chosen material. This is what we need from art. Where content thus described is absent there can be little or no communication at a deep level, no profound effect. As it becomes habitual the resulting disappointment tends to dehumanise us, lowering our expectation and reducing our openness to experience. It is in this subtle way that ‘content’ in a work of art can promote cohesion and sensitivity amongst humans, prompting a shared openness to possibilities of communication, wonder and insight. This is the sense in which art can be affirming. It requires a work process that takes us beyond ego and leads to the discovery and supports the presence of undifferentiated formal elements. Often through their very ambiguity, these elements can key us into the circuitry of our Collective Unconscious. Receiving the twinge we pass on perplexed maybe, but somehow nourished at the root.

“Yes, but what is it?”
That very question presumes the fallacy that sculpture has to be preconceived, that it necessarily embodies purpose and subject matter from the outset. This disregard, indeed denial of the improvisatory and exploratory spirit, has as its counterpart the tyrannous indeed fatuous emphasis on ‘innovation’ — the excesses of which are now seen by many to be sterile and played out. The view that by a tradition long preceding the Renaissance, sculpture is an activity which concerns itself primarily with Mass, with its ordering in space as Form so that it communicates with the viewer in its own terms, is valid, honourable and worth sustaining. This formal ordering can become a comprehensive and singular Presence rather than a descriptive retailing of subject matter. It is by its mysteriously engaging formal quality that sculpture at its best can arrest us, alert our awareness and make a significant, possibly enduring contribution at a profound level to our experience.

Alan Thornhill, Stroud 2008