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The Art of Deception
Art Creativity and the Sacred
An anthology in Religion and Art
Ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona
Crossroad 19
© Karen Laub-Novak

Fired by creative inspiration, the artist evokes a noble and innocent self-image. But the imagination is susceptible to self-deception, dishonesty and illusion.

Every intellectual work begins by a moment of ecstasy; only in the second place does the talent of arrangement, the technique of transitions, connections of idea, construction, come into play.
Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life

THERE ARE SIMILAR stages of insight, preparation, discipline, dark night of the soul, and unity in both the spiritual quest and artistic activity. The artist is rooted in imagination, while the mystic seeks to transcend imagination. For the artists this rootedness affords special temptations. First, the imagination is especially embattled between the divine and the demonic. This warfare can be either fruitful or destructive to the artist and her creative work. But, second, there are many myths about creativity that the artist must sort through. One myth, that creativity is always spontaneous, inspired, prophetic, divine, and rebellious against tradition, applied both to the artist and the saint.

This essay will attempt, from an artist's point of view, to sift through several types of self-deception in the imagination and in the creative process.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was widely regarded as a free spirit who worked in a fever of spontaneity. His wife fed this myth - as he often had - in her introduction to his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Were they self-deceived?

In 1913, the Armory Show introduced European avant-garde art to bewildered audiences in New York, Chicago, and Boston. The show was angrily denounced by critics and artists alike, but in the end a generation of painters and their followers drew inspiration from these works.

Some critics consider Kandinsky to be the originator of abstract art and point to his Improvisations as the first abstract painting. The Armory Show included his Improvisation 27, filled with vibrant colors, almost waterlike washes, a few sketchy lines, no discernible images. He spoke of this work as "spontaneous," reflecting moods, tension, sounds, the spiritual in art. However, recent studies reveal that in Kandinsky's fury of brush strokes and color are encoded horses, riders, snakes, boats, cannons, cities, warriors, and lovers: clear ideas, although veiled images.1

From 1886 to 1896, Kandinsky had been a lawyer and an economist. At the age of thirty-one he decided to concentrate on painting, and at forty-three he became interested in theosophy. Theosophy's blending of Eastern and Western mysticism led him to a style that was considered purely abstract. Yet in 1953 Gabriele Munter, Kandinsky's companion from 1902 to 1916, gave the Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich over one hundred of Kandinsky's painting and drawing from that period, many of which had been preliminary drawings from the Improvisation. These sketches reveal a variety of images later disguised in the paintings. Furthermore, these preliminary sketches and watercolors were often simply enlarged and transposed to the final paintings. Recent studies show that much of Kandinsky's imagery was biblical; his favorite passages come from Genesis and Revelation. Furthermore, technical studies using infrared, ultraviolet, and macrophotography now reveal layers of pencil sketching underneath the paint.2 Kandinsky's work is not, as we previously thought, purely abstract and spontaneous.

Classical Christian mysticism encourages beginners to use the visual, literal imagination in the early stages of prayer; but later to reject these levels of the imagination as impediments to spiritual growth. Kandinsky, of course, did not abandon imagination but he did reject the literal imagination. By encoding his imagery, he forces the viewer to enter into the process of the work, to pay attention to medium of the work, and to look below the surface. This seems to be the rationale behind Kandinsky's expression "the paint is sound." It is also an excellent reason to call these paintings "Improvisations" rather than "Genesis" or "Revelation." The former pleased the avant-garde as the latter could not have.

Arthur Koestler said that the artist is on a tightrope between the practical world and the world of imagination; in that tension comes the creative impulse. Kandinsky, too, had a foot in each world. A curious contradiction are Kandinsky's demands of the Apocalypse, who march forth in joyful cadence. Kandinsky's color is vibrant; alizarin crimson, turquoise, ultramarine blue, gold, yellow. The paintings are full of life and excitement, a lyrical dance. However, the dominant mood of the Apocalypse is that of impending doom, death, violence, destruction. Despair comes in the fifth destruction, as the locusts sting but do not kill, and man seeks death but cannot find it. People cower, stars fall, cities crumble, the woman flees to the desert on eagle wings, the harlot's body is a cage of wild things, and the beast lies in wait to devour the child. The inner pulse of the passages is not that of a lyrical dance; it pounds with beating wings, and fiery armies march from the four corners of the worlds. These are the images Kandinsky chooses to veil. With his lyrical brush strokes, he evokes the New Jerusalem while covering the horsemen, floods, sea battles, and falling cities with layers of paint. His colors are visual analogies of joyful songs lightly covering wails of despair and darkness.

A small black spot in Improvisation 31, intended, according to Kandinsky, to represent the dark side of spiritual life, is not adequate to the darkness of the apocalyptic motif. Somehow Kandinsky's personal version of mysticism eliminated the dark side of the soul, perhaps weakened his interpretive skills, and led to a spirituality of too few notes.

Do these revelations diminish Kandinsky's reputation? Does it disappoint the viewer that the spontaneities of his imagination were harnessed by analytical intelligence? Because his work is not purely abstract, is it any less inventive and exciting? Kandinsky sought to challenge the viewer's imagination. His work still succeeds, but not perhaps according to his original intent. Abstract art no longer shocks the eye. The new shock lies in our detection of his imagery. Kandinsky's work forces us to exercise imagination and to bring a critical eye, both technical and interpretative, to what he has done on canvas. It forces us to believe not what he said but what he did.

Speaking for myself, the questions, which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work? The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: What kind of guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?
W. H. Auden

Koestler's artist walks a tightrope and lives in tension, conflict, and risk. Mircea Eliade, writing of early religious beliefs, chose a similar metaphor to describe the spiritual quest: in the last part of the journey of the soul the soul must go over a bridge. This bridge is "as thin as a thread and sharp as a sword." The goal ahead is divide presence. Below this bridge are the demons of the underworld.

This image can be used in another way: The artist often feels suspended between what she wants to renewal and what she wants to conceal in her paintings. Furthermore, the subjective struggles and technical problems of the work, which seem to be above and below this inner bridge, constantly change as the artist crosses. In the beginning the thin line seems stretched between clichés on the one side and obscure subjectivity on the other. As the artist develops her balancing act the scenery changes. Now she seems suspended between the choices of realistic rendering and abstract symbolism. Later on, the challenge becomes more complex. The artist may become more concerned with the exercise of either classic technique or experimental novelty. Again, themes and ideas may seem to dominate on one side sheer images on the other.

All too often these decisions, temptations, and tensions become clear only in retrospect. As the artist does a balancing act other factors enter. Little furies buzz, poking and enticing. Their names are ambition, laziness, lack of direction, false imitation, dark humor, slick cleverness, pride, simplicity, writer's and artist's block, compulsive action, withdrawn passivity, overconfidence, loss of spirit. These furies are at least a nuisance and often the cause of melancholy. Yeats called them his frustrations, always interfering with his poetry. More deceptions.

The man without imagination … is cut off from the deeper reality of life and from his own soul.
Mircea Eliade

Imagination is the power of the inventor, scientist, artist, poet, philosopher, and saint. With imaginal power, we can live in other places, place ourselves in situations we've never experienced. Moreover, imagination contains several faculties.
Coleridge describes imagination as having two parts. The primary but finite imagination participates in the "eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am." The secondary imagination "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create." It struggles to "idealize and to unity." By contrast, fantasy is "no more than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space."

"For most writers and philosophers, fantasy seems to be a poor cousin of the imagination. Fantasy seems more accidental, without that ability to unify and order which we attribute to the imagination. It refers more to dreams, delusions, and playful perceptions. Jung wrote of fantasy as the "play of the imagination," and he considered it essential for creative work.

Thomas Aquinas divided the imagination into the reproductive and the creative. The reproductive imagination enables us to recall an event, to live it again, to bring back to the "screen of our consciousness pictures of things once but no longer present to our senses." He would also say that memory and imagination walk hand in hand, and that an original experience makes an impression on the "wax" of our memory. If the wax is too soft the impression is lost. If the wax is too hard the impression does not take.

Creative imagination has powers beyond the reproductive. It can invent images of things never perceived by the senses. The creative imagination has the ability to recall perceptions and then to recombine them. The creative imagination gathers all types of impressions and sees the similarities even between dissimilar things. It is the creative imagination that plays with veiling and unveiling, creates illusions, shocks the eye. Creative imagination simplifies, eliminations details or adds them, gives emphasis or distorts. In Kandinsky's case, it encoded the horses of the Apocalypse and shrouded the biblical images, so that the painting seems totally unattached to any imagery, past or present.

Imagination is fundamental to spiritual and aesthetic growth. It is the center of intuition, invention, and ration order. It is through the imagination that we appreciate beauty and experience awe. Why, then, does the mystic seek to transcend imagination? Why does the mystic see imagination as only one, and a very early, step on the mystical ladder - a ladder that artist and mystic climb again and again? Each new stage of understanding brings a repetition of the process of insight, critical reflection, and action. So, too, the artist will repeat with each new development in her work similar stages of understanding and action. What is present in these rooms of imagination that the mystic warns against? The artist is inspired by the idea that the imagination is ecstatic, awesome, divine, almost holy and prophetic, yet the mystic warns of its dangers.

In Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain writes, "Art resides in the soul and is a certain perfection of the soul. It is … an inner quality … that raises the human subject … to a higher degree of vital formation and energy." In modern art he sees three steps. The first step transforms nature in order to disclose a reality closer to our dreams, anger, anguish, melancholy. The second step liberates us from conventional natural language. The third step is a rejection of reason and logic, an obscuring of plain meanings. Maritain sees in these three steps both advantages and a "diligent effort towards self-deception, narcissism, and surrealism." Lional Abel published an autobiographical account of his friendship with the surrealists Breton, Matta, and Gorky. He noted the problems that arose from their philosophical espousal of sadism and the eventual havoc wreaked upon their personal lives. 3 In creation and destruction we call upon the same energies, the same inner demons. E.M. Cioran says, "to destroy is to act, to create backwards."

Without habits of hand and discipline of mind and memory, the imagination easily becomes self-pitying, sarcastic, helpless, passive; prefers fantasy; likes to wrap itself in its illusions. At other times, it is content to fill up work after work with images and ideas created by others. The imagination can be sloppy, careless, imprecise. It willfully rearranges thoughts and images. Imagination likes to fling its clothes to the floor assuming that reason and discipline will come along later and pick up the pieces. Imagination is a willful child, and at times a dangerous trickster.

We often hear praise for the delightful side of imagination. We think of the imagination as angelic, holistic, and divine. We avoid the other side that is obscure and vulnerable to self-deception.

Everything that deceives may be said to enchant.

The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.

There is struggle within the imagination. The temptations of illusion affect the artist and the work. The artist has two struggles with deception, one in herself and another with the surfaces of the work. Whatever the intentions of the artist, the construction of the work tells the final story, for the work is judged on its merits and not on the complicated personality of the artist.
The artist may see her won work as creating enigmas, not as revealing them. The artist may want not to be literal and univocal, but to create several levels of meaning, both to reveal and to hide. By hiding the literal meaning, the artist wants to reveal another level of our unconscious and conscious enigmas.

This whole business of veiling may fail. A tromp I'oeil may reveal deeper truths. On the other hand, despite all the pretensions - or even profound intentions - of the artist, the painting may still be a cliché. Depth of feeling is no guarantee of a fine product. A good technician may lack passion. A passionate person may lack technique. Both may lack originality, judgment, or proportion. There are infinite ways to fail.

The artist is enchanted by illusion, magic, visual deception, satire, wit, and humor. Viewers are often entranced by the deceptions the artist creates, enticed, for example, into many paintings by the device of perspective Imaginary lines recede to a vanishing point with buildings, people, and trees following those lines and creating a three-dimensional effect.

In Geneva there is a very small painting with a very large frame, The Tower of Babel, by a sixteenth-century Flemish master. The canvas measures approximately twelve by fourteen inches. This small painting of a fantastic tower draws the viewer's eye into a small space and creates an illusion of vast space. One feels as if one is standing within the painting, becoming a part of this landscape with its towering citadel and struggling people. Evan photographs of this painting re-create this strange experience of immense space, since those who see it assume that it represents a large painting rather than a small one. Part of the illusion is the skill of the draftsman and his control of perspective. Another part of the illusion is the fine detail of rocks, stones, ladders, and bodies. Yet another part is an uncanny use of color to suggest and emphasize the illusion of space.
Color both reveals and conceals the literal image. Certain colors seem to express moods: red for anger, violence, action; green for hope, nature, comfort, quiet; blue for melancholy, withdrawal, cold; black for despair and death. Cioran says that "the amount of chiaroscuro an idea harbors is the only index of its profundity, as the despairing accent of employs chiaroscuro to conceal and reveal, to reveal and conceal.

Rembrandt, for example, cast his figures in soft shadows, at some points obscuring and at some points highlighting the painting. The proofs of his etching of a crucifixion show how he began with a clear rendering of the three crucified figures, the guards, and the attendants. Then, with cross-hatching, soft ground, and deep etching, he gradually made some figures merge into the dark background, while the crucified figures are focused in light. Each step from clarity to obscurity made the later print more powerful than the earlier.

Maritain notes that the purity of the artist is not moral purity … {but} a special purity of vision open to sophistication.

Technique can be used in many ways, by accident or by intention, with insight and skill or without. The artist who is a master technician is blessed, but also has to be wary of being captured and deceived by her skill. There is more to being an artist then being a master of the crafts of illusion.

When an artist creates illusions in her work, she my loose the boundaries of her own experience of time, space, color, passion, mind. The illusions of the work may create illusions in the mind. Avoiding clear meaning, using veils, the artist may end up avoiding self-knowledge, consciously or unconsciously. She may become entangled in her won elaborate concoctions.
The inner rooms of illusion are a delight to the artist, but a bane of the mystic. What the artist seeks to experience the mystic seeks to transcend. For it is in these rooms that a person is at once most creative and also most destructive. In one sense, the person is freed from rational restraints but in another is vulnerable to self-deception and the worship of false idols.

The overarching metaphor for both the life of the spirit and the life of art is "the quest." We speak of the journey of the soul, the way, the pilgrimage. The power of this image is that it aptly describes the life of the spirit as a process, not static, but changing, developing. The spirit is energetic, not stagnant. It explores, questions, and moves directory or indirectly, toward a goal. In The Trial, Kafka used the image of long corridors, with doors and rooms going nowhere, attended by persons who could tell the accused nothing of his charges. Keats said, "I compare human life to a large mansion of many apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me." The quest is not always happy.

The quest can also be taking as a metaphor for self-deception. Three wise men have a vision. They set out upon a journey. A star is to be their guide. Traveling through strange lands, they seek the guidance of jealous King Herod. Unthinking, focused on their goal, they asked foolish questions that have political and moral consequences. An enraged and threatened king orders the "slaughter of innocents" and kills all male children under the age of tow. The quest has consequences unforeseen.

The quest may also be intoxicating. One may love the process more than the goal. One may center more on the questioning self than on transcending the self. It is easy for an artist to become enamored with the act of painting, the pursuit of fleeting images, the feeling and emotions that surround the moments of inspiration - and fail to complete the work. The quest becomes the goal.

A second dangerous metaphor that bewitches the artist is that of being prophetic. We have endowed the artist with the gift of prophecy, saying she sees the future with a clear eye. Every street corner has its resident prophet, Cioran writes. And Paul Valery in his introduction to The Method of Leonardo da Vinci says, "The folly of mistaking a paradox for a proof, a torrent of verbiage for a spring of capital truths, and oneself for an oracle, is born in us." The central problem is to complete the work. Such prophetic roles take care of themselves, if they are genuine. They seldom are.

Lying, the wellspring of all tears! Such is the imposture of genius and the secret of art. Trifles swollen to the heavens: the improbable, generator of a universe! In every genius coexists a braggart and a god.
E.E. Cioran

Psychologists and philosophers often try to describe the attributes of an artist. Studying a range of individuals in various fields they usually come up with a list of traits that these individuals seem to share. In his book Creativity, Silvano Arieti lists "aloneness, inactivity, daydreaming, free thinking, state of readiness to catch similarities, gullibility, remembrances and inner replay of past traumatic experiences, conflict, alertness, and discipline." All f these become isolation. Free thinking can lead to anarchy. Inactivity can tend to a withdrawn and passive state. Remembrance can lead to psychic disorder. Conflict to violence. Discipline to tyranny. Each attribute opens a side door to self-deception.

Self-deception is more than being perplexed, different from inner conflict, tension or turmoil. It is not the same as being indecisive. It is an inability (or unwillingness) to see through our own fakeries. It is a form of lying to the self. Yet not all lying is self-deception. An intentional lie is quite clear to the individual who tells it. Even such a lie may conceal other self-deceptions. All the attributes of the creative person are vulnerable to self-deception. Two common ones are worth note: daydreaming and creative innocence.

Daydreaming is fundamental to creative work. But it is filled with dangers. Free floating fantasy is more pleasant than pulling oneself off the couch to make the painting or write the novel. Fantasy is more pleasant and immediate than taking up the pen, struggling with the words, and ordering the ideas. Inactive daydreaming is more pleasant than receiving the rejections slip from the publisher. Marcel Proust took to his bed with his asthma, neurosis, and memories of his doting mother. But he did manage to take his pen and paper to bed with him.

C.S. Lewis spent hours daydreaming as a child. But he warned later that had he not combined his daydreaming with invention and writing, the daydreaming alone would have led to a passive delight in fantasy. He also saw that without daydreams his adult work would have lacked a sense of awe.

Creative innocence is another trait attributed to both the artist and the saint. We need to be born again as a child to enter into the Kingdom of God. The danger of this metaphor is to equate purity with naivete. Many take this path, hoping for spiritual union or artistic inspiration. "Unfortunately, this rare purity of the mind is rare: when it does exist it is often allied with empty headedness," said Sertillanges.

Maritain notes, in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, that the purity of the artists is not moral purity. It is a special purity of vision open to sophistication. At the age of nine, Dante sees Beatrice and falls in love with her. This ideal, which envelopes Dante for the rest of his life, could have become maudlin. Neither naïve nor blind, Dante was able to penetrate difference and make distinctions in human qualities, actions, and virtues. And with this ability he created The Devine Comedy to honor his ideal.

Willa Cather has written, "Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."

Those artists who have created the best work have been able to overcome for a short time many of their self-deceptions. They have developed the ability to make distinctions. Some are able to make these distinctions not only between their good work and their bad work (independently from what others say), not only between illusions leading to truth and illusions leading to deception, but also between their own honest voices and their many poses, their own self and its many disguises.

The journeys of the artists and the saint have similarities and differences. Artists and saints speak with quite individual voices about the struggles with their angels and their demons. For both, imagination is a source of inspiration and deception. Those who find the spiritual quest difficult and think that the artistic quest will be easier are mistaken.

Those who work with money, thinks, mundane affairs may be, however crafty, simple and direct. Those who work with the imagination, however noble in self-image, may be corrupted and dishonest, them most self-deceived. Their material is themselves, vague, obscure, and full of illusions. By itself, not reliable stuff.

To paraphrase Maritain: It is hard to be an artist. It is even harder to be a developed moral person (a saint). To be both is not twice as hard, but twice squared.

1 Rose-Carol Washton Long and E.A. Carmean in a unpublished manuscript referred to in the brochure Kandinsky: The Improvisations, published for the Kandinsky exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.. April 26 to August 2, 1981. See also Washton Long's Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (New York: Oxford, 1980), an expanded and revised version of her influential 1968 thesis. This work presents an extensive discussion of Kandinsky's abstraction and use of religious motifs in the Improvisations and other works.

2 E.A. Carmean and Hoenigswald in unpublished research done in connection with Kandinsky exhibit at the National Gallery mentioned in the previous note.

3 Lionel Abel. "The Surrealists in New York." Commentary 72. no. 4 (October 1981). Pp. 44-54.

Karen Laub-Novak is a painter, printmaker, sculptor and commercial illustrator. Her works have been exhibited in the United States and in Europe. She has taught at several colleges and is a popular guest lecturer in art and mysticism at colleges and universities. This essay appears in Art, Creativity and the Sacred: An Anthology in Religion and Art, ed., Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (Crossroad).

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