When you’re creating art (or music, or whatever), what are you actually doing? Aaron was confronted by this question as he attempted to craft his admission essay for The Juilliard School—possibly the nation’s most prestigious and selective college of music. Aaron was one of my roommates during my senior year of high school at a boarding school for the fine arts. Due to some unusual circumstances, we, along with two others, were crammed into a dorm room meant for two occupants. Hijinks ensued, but our extreme proximity caused us to grow very close over the course of the year—a little too close, to be frank. As we were all seniors, we bonded over the trials and tribulations of the college application process. We suffered through it together while supporting each other along the way.
Aaron and my other roommates were all trombone players who already had their hearts set on careers as professional musicians in elite orchestras. As such, they all applied only to conservatories and colleges of music. I was still on the fence and split my attention between musical and non-musical options. I noticed that the music schools, for which an audition is the main admission criterion, either didn’t require an essay or only requested a brief personal statement. On the other hand, every academic school required at least one personal, creative essay, and frequently two or three. Schools were also becoming fond of the ‘quirky’ essay prompt theme (47 words on why you want to go to Lawrence, anybody?). My (unsuccessful) University of Chicago essay asked me to discuss a foreign word or concept that is untranslatable into English.
So, when, along with a battery of auditions, Aaron was also assigned a ‘quirky’ essay prompt for his Juilliard application, he did not quite know where to begin. Why was this school, known exclusively for musical training, asking for a demonstration of writing prowess? What sort of response were they even looking for? To paraphrase the prompt: “Does an artist create something out of their independent consciousness that has hitherto not existed, or do they serve as a conduit for something that has its origin elsewhere? Explain.” In other words, during the artistic process, is the artist actively creating something novel or merely acting as a receptive channel for some source of inspiration? He consulted his roommates and an interesting discussion followed.
It appears to be a distinction without a difference—after all, regardless of the ultimate source, the art gets created, and the artist’s effort is the necessary means. How could we ever know where the art really ‘comes from,’ and, furthermore, why would it matter? This was Aaron’s initial complaint—he was frustrated Juilliard seemed to be asking him to tackle the sort of question that philosophers could quibble over for centuries and never settle. We were all stumped initially. What if it was a trick question, one that you were not supposed to take seriously? What if picking either side was just a trap? We decided that one way forward would be to explore the implications if either option were exclusively ‘true.’
If the latter option (artist as a conduit) were true, that would imply that, to create art, an artist is not actually needed—at least, not a rational, self-conscious and creative human artist. In this view, a zombie ninja robot could have painted the Sistine Chapel, if only it were receptive to the same source of ‘inspiration’ as Michelangelo. Furthermore, every action of nature could be seen to be ‘inspired artwork.’ Trees, beaches and mountains are certainly beautiful, and if art is considered to be something that appeals to our aesthetic senses, you could envision every wave or rustling of leaves as one of an infinity of artistic statements sent from some transcendent source through the medium of unconscious matter. This would lead to a view of the universe as a supreme work of art.
This is essentially a religious point of view—one that many would see as scientifically unfounded and leaving no room for the role of the self-conscious, creative individual. Who could compete with an artist who is more or less identical to God? If, however, our former option were true, art would be an epiphenomenon of mankind’s self-consciousness. The universe would have been devoid of artistic content until some Cro-Magnon decided that they really liked the look of the zigzag lines etched into their stone hand-axe.
It is undeniable that artists put conscious effort into their work. They study techniques, put many hours into practicing and refining their skills, build upon the work of other artists and a framework of long-standing traditions and usually incorporate their own personality and life experiences into their creations. The end result is something new that is personally meaningful to them, and, hopefully, to others as well. All this is clear, so why must we invoke some external source to explain art?
To the best of my knowledge, most novel creations of mankind—artistic or otherwise—have a ‘received’ component at some step of the process. For example, the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule was discovered by the German chemist August Kekulé after he dreamed of a group of snakes devouring their tails. Theoretical Physicist Albert Einstein credited some of his most influential theories to vivid daydreams he had while absentmindedly working at a patent office. The list of similar examples is very, very long. We can all admit that sometimes, great (or terrible) ideas pop into our heads without the slightest intention on our part. Some of those ideas can be like seeds that naturally grow into art.
We went back and forth on this dilemma for a while. As expected, everybody stuck to their guns and we didn’t reach any conclusion that Aaron found satisfactory. I do not remember what exact angle he decided to take with his essay, but apparently he did something right; he was accepted to Juilliard and will be graduating later this year! The essence of his ‘quirky’ prompt has stuck with me more than any I have had to slog through. Years later, my response would simply be ‘yes.’
I am fond of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious,” or a field of humanity’s accumulated ideas, memories and behavioral patterns that is common to all of us and is ever lurking in the depths of our own personal unconscious. My view is that the artist calls upon both their conscious and unconscious faculties during the creative process to create something that is both novel and authentic to them as well as reflective of humanity’s shared hopes, fears and dreams. The art is both a product of their own consciousness and an expression of a creative principle that is universal and constantly active in all of nature. Regardless of whether my view is ‘true,’ maybe the joy that making music with a trombone brings to Aaron is an answer in itself. His audition probably told the admissions board all they needed to know.