The Tao of Art Making: Part I - Feedback Loops

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I was speaking recently with an artist friend about the difficulty she was having climbing out of a creative rut. She was blocked, had not painted for weeks and couldn't get off the dime. This is a perennial problem for most artists of all types - cycles of creative fever and action followed by the sudden disappearance of passion and joy, the muse silent, the divine spark quenched. I call it an art hangover, and like an alcohol hangover it makes us feel lousy. There is no simple hair-of-the-dog cure for an art hangover, but there are tricks and techniques that, if employed with diligence and discipline, can go a long way toward mitigating the depth of the crash into the creative black hole, and smoothing the road of return. In other words, there is The Practice. And, as the term implies, it takes practice. Regular practice. Disciplined practice. Persevering practice. Faithful practice.It also takes an understanding of how the creative process works. Every one of us has to dig deep to find the individual blueprint of that process, but there are common landmarks within that sometimes mysterious, sometimes murky terrain of the inner self that can be shared. There are maps that can be consulted. There are compasses that always point to true north. There are doorways that can be opened with a skeleton key. I call it The Tao of Art Making. And yes, hitchhiking is permitted, even encouraged.The art making process can be considered on one level as a system - the artist's intent interacting with the raw materiality of the world to create a painting, a dance, a book, a symphony. An idea cannot just sit in the head, it has to emerge into materiality, and it needs a system to accomplish that, a system that is flexible and evolves. This is where feedback loops come in, a fundamental concept of Systems theory. In a feedback loop you have output, input, a comparer, and a regulator. Input is the goal, output is the result, the comparer tests the goal with the result, the regulator adjusts to meet that goal. The thermostat in your home is a particular kind of feedback loop, a negative feedback loop. The goal is the desired temperature of the room, the result is the actual temperature, the comparer is the thermometer, and the regulator is the switch that is controlled by the thermometer, turning the heat on or off. This is called a negative feedback loop because when the system is out of equilibrium (too hot or too cold) the regulator tries to bring it back to stability, reducing the difference between input and output. A positive feedback loop adds to the difference between input and output - the most obvious example being a microphone and speaker getting too close to each other, the mic picking up sound from the speaker, adding it to the speaker, which it then picks ups and adds again, and so on until a loud screeching overload is heard and everyone covers their ears, screaming "Turn off the feedback!!!!".Now, back to my artist friend. She's stuck in a negative feedback loop - the system is stable, but it's producing nothing new. Art making goes in cycles, just like most of the rest of life, and a stable system can be a good thing. It allows one to step back, take a deep breath, recuperate and evaluate with a sober eye and mind. But my friend is stuck, and the negative feedback loop has gone from stable to pathologically depressing (ok, that's a bit melodramatic - she has a touch of the blues). She wants to be in a positive feedback loop, but she doesn't want to become a screeching microphone either. It looks like the choice is between two pathologies; this is a dilemma. However, there is a third option - the morphogenic positive feedback loop. This is a positive feedback loop that PRODUCES CHANGES IN THE SYSTEM! In other words, it's a self-evolving feedback loop. As an artist, or in any walk of life I would hope, that's what the search is for.Let me give some examples. I read long ago about a writer who published a wildly successful first novel, gaining fame and wealth and a retainer from his publishing company to complete a second work. He never did. He got caught in a demonic negative feedback loop, and suffered permanent writer's block. Five years later he committed suicide in despair. At the other end of the spectrum is Vincent Van Gogh, a story we all know well. He got caught up in a pathological positive feedback loop, spinning further and further out of control (aided by a doctor who was prescribing poisons to cure him), producing great works that sadly chronicled his increasing dementia, until he ended the torture by also taking his life. Here are examples of the two extremes of pathological feedback loops. Then there is the story of Emanuel Swedenborg, a man I wrote about in a previous blog. A brilliant Age of Enlightenment scientist, Swedenborg suddenly, at the age of 56, began having conversations with angels. He spent the rest of his life until the age of 84 writing about what they had to say. Happily. Smiled alot. Was a great dinner companion, generous and gregarious. He had found a morphogenic positive feedback loop, and took the ride of his life.This all begs an important question: How does my friend get out of her rut, her slightly pathological negative feedback loop? There are many temporary fixes, but in the long run she needs...The Practice.To be continued...