A Review of Psychological Theories of the Origins and Aims of Creativity

(An excerpt from my dissertation) 

We laymen have always wondered greatly – like the cardinal who put the question to Ariosto – how that strange being, the poet, comes by his material.

                            – Freud 

    More than a few theories in the past century of psychological inquiry have emerged in response to the same wondering Freud expressed. While non can claim absolute authority, the studies and clinical observations that have led to diverse and divergent theories of creativity, put together, seem to suggest that there is not just a single origin of creativity, but rather, several coexisting processes, notwithstanding the fact that each theorist has emphasized one characteristic.

    According to traditional psychoanalytic theory, creativity is not unlike other human behaviors that originate from unconscious defenses that repress or redirect instinctual drives or unintegrated early childhood sexual experiences. In this sense, the function of art is to hide (Kaufmann, 2004). “The fantasy gratification that a work of art has to offer is thought to be contained in its content either by virtue of direct representation of drive objects or by indirect representation, as, for example, through symbolism” (Bush, 1967). The creative person, without conscious awareness or intention, is able to sublimate his drive for forbidden knowledge with a creative work that has social application and acceptance. Csikszentmihalyi (1996), summarizing Freud’s view, wrote, 

    The artist’s zeal in trying to find new forms of representation and the scientist’s urge to strip away the veils of nature are really disguised attempts to understand the confusing impressions the child felt when witnessing his parents having sex, or the ambivalently erotic emotions toward one of the parents. (p. 100) 

    Kleinian object relations theorizes along similar lines with one notable exception: the underlying drive for creative work is not necessarily sexual in nature but rather emerges from the guilt from early attempts of the infant to destroy the mother or primary care giver and the consequential drive to make reparations. D. W. Winnicott conceptualized this process in terms of the child’s use of the transitional object, which, “throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work” (1953, p. 98). Kohut (1971) articulated the impetus to create in terms of narcissistic cathexes from one transitional object to another (the creative project). He wrote that, “this formerly asocial narcissistic configuration can ultimately be transformed into a significant artistic and scientific product” (p. 313). These psychoanalytic theorists understand, with only moderate variation, the origin of the creative impulse as rooted in early object relations which provides motivation for the artist throughout his life. Hanna Segal, who closely linked her work with that of Klein, more fully explored the relationship of creativity and object relations.    

    In her paper, “A Psychological Approach to Aesthetics” (1990), Segal asked what it is that constitutes good art and what differentiates it from the bad. She found “that all creation is really a re-creation of a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self” (p. 190). In classical object relations theory, this ruined internal world is manifested by new anxieties that emerge once the infant is able to see whole objects: when the child moves from a paranoid-schizoid position of splitting to a depressive position. Whereas initially he feared attacks by persecutory objects, the child now fears the loss of this whole primary object, and yet, despite himself, with uncontrollable destructive urges, he imagines himself attacking and leaving the object he loves in pieces. The child feels intense loss and guilt over this act that he himself had done and as a result, the desire to re-create the object is instilled. Segal used the work of Proust, author of, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, as the foremost example of this creativeprocess. She wrote of Proust, 

    And on realizing the destruction of a whole world that had been his, he decided to write, to sacrifice himself to the re-creation of the dying and the dead. By virtue of his art he can give his objects an eternal life in his work. And since they represent his internal world too, if he can do that, he himself will no longer be afraid of death. (p. 190)

    For Segal, mourning is a critical component of the creative process. The giving up of an object or the expression of an instinctual urge can only authentically happen through the act of mourning. If successfully mourned, an object can be then assimilated into the ego and can then be freely used by the self as a symbol. “And it is relevant in that the creation of symbols, the symbolic elaboration of a theme, is the very essence of art” (1990, p. 197). But we still have not answered Segal’s initial question of what differentiates the good artist from the bad. The good artist, she stated, has the capacity for “a highly specialized reality assessment of the nature, needs, possibilities, and limitations of his material,” while, “ the neurotic uses his material in a magic way, and so does the bad artist” (p. 197).  A second quality of the good artist is that, “he has a greater capacity for tolerating anxiety and depression” (p. 197). By doing so, he gains real self insight and makes reparations to both internal as well as external objects. 

    Segal’s understanding of how and for what purpose a good artist’s work affects the audience is of particular interest. She begins by quoting Freud who stated, “what the artist aims at is to awaken in us the same mental constellation as that which in him produced the impetus to create” (1914, in Segal, 1990, p. 198). As a parallel example, Giorgio de Chirico stated of his paintings, “they were calm: but each time I looked at them I experienced exactly what I had experienced at the moment of their conception, which is the most irrefutable proof of their profound worth” (1992, p. 185). Illustrated by classical Greek tragedies, Segal (1990) wrote of two critical elements in producing a successful work of art: “the unshrinking expression of the full horror of the depressive phantasy and the achieving of an impression of wholeness and harmony” (p. 199). In a statement by the painter, Agnes Martin, famous for her serene, Zen-like minimal paintings of horizontal lines, she seemed to articulate the depressive position: “That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through disappointments and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat. But one still wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on” (1992, p. 69. Author’s italics). In this way, the audience follows the artist, lured by the beauty of the aesthetic form and, despite one’s resistance to depressive anxieties, go “into the depths of his depression, and eventually to share his triumphs” (Segal, 1990, p. 202). 

    In an essay on the relationship between sculptural artwork and the self-structure, Rotenberg (2005) found that, “our artworks gain credible access to the vulnerable self by mirroring to some extent the unresolved sensibilities of the viewers and helping to organize cognitive and emotional schemata at unconscious levels of operation” (online). In this way, the audience unconsciously learns how to work through the depressive position. The aesthetic form and beauty of the work itself exhibits a successful working through while the content of the work fearlessly confronts the truth of our emotional and intrapsychic lives. In point of contrast, the British psychoanalyst, Marion Milner, who produced a body of influential works on the creative process, found that “there is much evidence to suggest that this function of art, as restoring lost objects, is in fact secondary; and that the primary role is the ‘creating of objects, in the psychoanalytic sense, not the recreating of them” (1957/1987, p. 227). More of this will be discussed below when we look at studies of creativity and individuation. For Segal, the greatest achievement of the artist is to fully express the contrast and unity between the death instinct and the life instinct. Her theories make a strong argument for the central role of early object relations dynamics in the development of the artist.

    While the psychoanalyst explores ever more deeply into the early object relations dynamics or sublimations of instinctual drives of the artist (e.g., Freud’s, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood), the Jungian perspective in general takes a much broader and less personal view. In fact, Jung did not find it valuable to seek for the personal cause of art as a doctor would seek the cause of a disease: “Instead of investigating its typically human determinants, he (the psychologist) will inquire first of all into its meaning” (1966, p. 71) and would only inquire into the personal determinants as far as they help one understand the meaning. Jung’s perspective on art emerged out of his own intimate experiences with images arising from his unconscious (see his recently published, The Red Book) and valued them only in so far as they gave meaning to his experience. He wrote, “personal causes have as much or as little to do with a work of art as the soil with the plant that springs from it” (p. 71). Jung identified the historical/ depressive and the transcendent theory of the origin of art and termed these two forms as psychological and visionary, respectively. The former “is a conscious product shaped and designed to have the effect intended” (p. 75). It is shaped from the artist’s, 

    crucial experiences, powerful emotions, suffering, passion, the stuff of human fate in general. All this is assimilated by the psyche of the poet, raised from the commonplace to the level of poetic experience, and expressed with a power of conviction that gives us a greater depth of human insight by making us vividly aware of those everyday happenings which we tend to evade or to overlook because we perceive them only dully or with a feeling of discomfort. (p. 89)

This form of art more closely corresponds with Segal’s conceptualization. Speaking of visionary artworks, Jung wrote, “we are dealing with an event originating in unconscious nature; with something that achieves its aim without the assistance of human consciousness, and often defies it by willfully insisting on its own form and effect” (1966, p. 75). An example of the two types of art, Jung argued, can be seen in the first and second book of Goethe’s Faust; the first half executed with a conscious and linear intention, and the second emerging from the unconscious. Visionary art is much less common than the psychological variety and is most often repudiated by the public, as, “we are reminded of nothing in everyday life, but rather of dreams, night-time fears, and the dark, uncanny recesses of the human mind” (p. 91). Yet Jung also spoke of visionary art as being relevant and meaningful to the public. This artist is able to access collective images that are particularly relevant for the epoch in which he or she lives. The artwork presents an archetypal situation in which, “we suddenly feel an extraordinary sense of release” (p. 82). Jung cites two reasons for art’s meaningful relationship to the audience. First, the visionary artist “transmutes our personal destiny into the destiny of mankind” (p. 82), thus creating a sense of perspective and meaningful relationship of self to outer world; and second, art “is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking” (p. 82). Of this, Kohut seems to be in accordance, given his conception of artistic anticipation (1977). He wrote, 

    The artist – the great artist, at any rate – is ahead of his time in focusing on the nuclear psychological problem of his era, in responding to the crucial psychological issue man is facing at a given time, in addressing himself to man’s leading psychological task . . . The artist stands, as it were, in proxy for his generation: not only for the general population but even for the scientific investigators of the sociopsychological scene. (pp. 285 - 286)

     The images needed to compensate the prevailing attitude of the times is accessed and presented to society so as to begin to find balance and integration. Of this, Rollo May stated, “in the times of the creation of symbols, the function of the artist is to create new order. In times of excessively rigid symbols, in contrast, the function of the artist is to create chaos” (1985, p. 161. Author’s italics). 

    These depth psychological understandings of the origins and function of art are not the only voice on this subject. Behaviorism, too, has proposed it’s theory of creativity, and it is briefly included here as a point of contrast to the analytical perspectives. B. F. Skinner understood creative acts to be the result of a particular combination of environmental antecedents and genetic and personal histories and is heir Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his essay entitled, “A Lecture on ‘Having’ a Poem” (1972), he compares a person writing a poem to a woman giving birth to a child. As the mother does not “make” the child, but simply “bears” it, the poet is a container for elements that arise from his genetic and personal history. He is not responsible for the making of the poem. Skinner argued that, “the act of composition is no more an act of creation than ‘having’ the bits and pieces composed” (Skinner, 1972, p. 270). He went on, “novelty could be explained without appeal to prior design if random changes in structure were selected by their consequences” (p. 270). Providing an explanation for the tendency for artists to attribute creativity to a transcendent source, Skinner noted that, "because the poet is not aware of the origins of his behavior, he is likely to attribute it to a creative mind, an ‘unconscious’ mind, perhaps or a mind belonging to someone else - to a muse, for example, whom he has invoked to come and write his poem for him." (p. 271)

     The value of both the person of the poet and the person of the mother lie in the fact that they “are loci in which vestiges of the past come together in certain combinations” (p. 271). In this view the poet and creative acts in general are simply inevitable consequences of bio-evolutionary processes. Nonetheless, Skinner valued creative activity, and in his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971/2002), he described a future utopian ideal where all people are more creative because the environment has been consciously shaped to produce such behaviors. 

    Interestingly, for both Jung and Skinner, the artist functions in a similar way: as a vessel through which collective information is collected and channeled, the difference being the origin and nature of the collective material. Although developed independently and within separate theoretical constructs, object relations and Jungian theories appear to unite in the work of Agnes Martin and many other artists who’s statements support both the working through of the depressive position while simultaneously receiving ideas and inspiration from a non-ego, transcendent source. This would suggest that these theories are not antagonistic. It may be that they focus on different stages in the life development of the artist, different stages within the evolution of an art piece, or different types of artists. The theories of the origin of creativity presented in this section, though not all-inclusive of psychological thought, do articulate four key perspectives that continue to influence our current thinking on creativity.