Karen Laub-Novak: Writings
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Forms of Imagination
Journal of Culture and Social Issues, 1978
© Karen Laub-Novak

Imaginative vision takes many forms. In the visual arts, two activities alternate: entering into the work and distancing oneself from it. One activity is unconscious, intuitive, nonverbal, and non-conceptual. The other activity is an exercise in judgment. Each activity depends upon the other. Intuition, emotion, and self interest are guided by reflection and criticism. The rhythm of this stride has its own laws.

Imagination is vulnerable to wide swings fantasy and daydream, idealism and practicality, passivity and action, depression and ecstasy. What differentiates the imagination of the artist from the dreamer is the willingness to set limits, grab scattered moments and exercise both spontaneity and restraint. Art is effort. It is also playful, sometimes serious, sometimes humorous. Art often brings defeat and failure. It is seldom easy.

A rebirth of imaginative vision then can lead us down many paths, some destructive, some barren, and some fruitful. The path of imagination is dangerous because the two sides of the soul, call them anima and animus, within the imagination are in conflict. Imagination is filled with struggle, terror, transcendence and tranquility, ecstasy and depression, creativity and destruction.

How we approach our own family life, our spiritual life, and our aesthetic life constitutes this struggle. How we perceive and guide this struggle depends on our interpretation of the rhythms between unconscious intuition and criticism in each of these fields. Setbacks in one affect the other, but in mysterious, ironic ways. Sometimes defeats in one bring successes in another.

The structure of the seminars in San Antonio involved photographic slides of paintings in process, slides of children and their work, dirty dishes, nature studies, more paintings, dirty laundry, out of focus kitchens, more paintings and even a shot of the interior of our refrigerator in which something is always rotting.

A picture of children and their work, dirty dishes, the family burial plot, or laundry is the equivalent of a note card leading to a reflection on silence, discipline, spontaneity, stages of mystical perception, or detachment. The development of our own unique perceptions grow out of these early experiences. The arts and creative sciences mine these early experiences. In family, art or spirituality we need to rediscover these imaginative strands, pleasant or unpleasant.

The process of painting does not begin with a goal or a vision but lets the unconscious form the vision. The vision grows out of the material, media and activity. The creative arts and sciences do not follow a linear path. Painting the painting is like nurturing the child. The painter learns to allow for change, bad beginnings, tedious days, distress and joy. The child is not created in our image, nor is the painting. A child’s abilities and temperament may be far different from our own. We do not create the child or the painting. They are often independent of our best efforts. They have an inner structure, life, demands, and abilities. They both “talk back.”

But paintings do not paint themselves. Likewise, no other institution school, church, social agency, TV can teach the child to be intelligent, honest, generous and moral as effectively and as efficiently as the family. However, nostalgia as much as I enjoy “Little House on the Prairie”” will not suffice. There is no perfect formula that will create an orderly home, children, career, and marriage; no formula for an artistic style and process sure to grant fame, fortune and the love of beautiful men.

The analogy between spiritual quest and artistic process is like a ladder. The early stages involve insight, preparation, discipline, and the dark night of the soul. But the analogy can be carried too far. Mystical understanding finally transcends imagination, while the artist is rooted in imagination and dares not abandon it. Zen mysticism stresses the religio-aesthetic path to transcendence through the arts and through the most ordinary of activities. The archers eyes are closed. The archer perfects the movements of the body with stillness in the soul, letting go the rational mind. The arrow shoots itself and pierces the target, hitting the mark. But only after the archer has mastered each tiny discipline of her art, her life, and her soul. Until then, she struggles.

There is fruitful emphasis in both Christian and Zen traditions on silence, concentration, heightened perception, and a pre Freudian understanding of the unconscious and of the dangers of self deceptions in the imagination of St. Theresa of Avila describes the culmination of mystical understanding as pain and tranquility at the same time.

The place of the viewer, in art as in life, is altered, depending on where one stands. As we move ourselves in the landscape, what seems like familiar changes in the color of the light, the shadows, the objects and the events around it seem changed. We need to make those moves to deepen our perception and to circle the experience rather than to see it always from the same spot. We need to be in the spirit and outside of it.

A rebirth of imagination needs to be combined with what Percival Goodman calls “a rebirth of common sense.” For me this rebirth of the imagination begins with a familial, communal vision. In community we create boundaries which we need to exceed.

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