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The Function of Art is to save the Artist

Conflict, creativity and the function of art in times of crisis

"While art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all. [...] Writing is survival. [...] Not to write, for many of us, is to die".

Ray Bradbudy, "Zen and the Art of Writing"

Does conflict catalyze creativity? In some way this question is so cruel, that it feels uncomfortable to even type it out. And yet, as a creative community, we must ask it. We need to understand whether suffering and self-expression are truly connected. We need to get a sense of whether disasters really mobilize creative potential. We need to find out if the most potent sources of our inspiration have to be as dark as they often seem to be. And through all of it we need to identify the role that creativity can play in the times of crisis.

The view that trauma and talent are inherently linked is so prominent in the public consciousness that it is rarely questioned. We've all read the biographies of troubled geniuses (and found some solace in not being like them, after all). Intuitively, it makes sense: there has to be a price for a beautiful mind. And yet, carefully controlled studies don't seem to reveal a strong link between creativity and mental illness or suffering in general. In other words, you don't have to be crazy or terribly traumatized in order to produce great creative work. Creativity doesn't require a dark side.

What studies do show, however, is that if you are creative, then you are likely to have a heightened awareness, an above average sensitivity to what's going on around you. Experiments have proved that more creative people tend to include a wider range and a larger quantity of stimuli in their mental processes, compared to less creative people. So it seems that the relationship between feeling bad and feeling inspired is a correlation, not a causation. Suffering and creative self-expression are two byproducts of the same underlying cause: a state of mind that is less willing to turn off the outside world to only concentrate on a narrow set of things in front of them. Creativity, in this sense, is a result of the failure to activate the blinders, the usual narrow-mindedness of the everyday.

Hikaru Takeuchi and his colleagues showed in their 2011 study that when engaging in an effortful working memory task, highly creative people had difficulty suppressing the Precuneus, an important brain region that has been linked to self-consciousness and retrieval of personal memories. How is this helpful to creativity? According to the researchers, "Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks". In other words, if you don't over-concentrate, if you remain open, if you are less aware of what you are trying to do and more aware of what's going on - you start getting unusual ideas, the kinds of ideas that others tend to miss. This can also explain why more creative people tend to "daydream" more often: their attention is less strongly attached to the immediate reality of life.

Most people ignore most of the world most of the time - and focus on the very narrow task at hand. Evolutionary speaking, it's necessary to do so for survival, because there is simply not enough mental processing power to pay attention to all the stimuli that we are receiving every second. But in highly creative people this selectivity of attention is reduced, allowing new connections to be seen and explored. By the same token - it makes them more prone to anxiety, depression etc.

This insight into the source of creativity can help us make sense of how individual creative people and the creative community as a whole react to tragedies, such as the one unfolding in Ukraine today. When on February 24th 2022 Russia's supreme leader Putin decided to attack Ukraine, his country's closest relative, he completely broke down the mental models of millions of people on both sides of the border. The world that they had known was instantly destroyed, and a new hostile, unpredictable, previously unimaginable world flooded all their senses. And even if they were lucky not to have their homes struck by missiles, they couldn't help having their minds struck by the terrible new reality that didn't match their mental models. Reality became harder to ignore. And people had to react to it in one of the following three ways:

  1. The silent majority managed to put their Precuneuses into overdrive, double down on tunnel vision, fully extend their blinders and maximize their reality distortion fields - all in a desperate (and mostly) subconscious effort to retain their identity. No matter how much the new reality was screaming at them, they firmly decided to continue ignoring it, focusing on the immediate, practical tasks of life in front of them. For the people in this group who were creative the task was particularly difficult. And as they had to shut the world out, creative activities became increasingly difficult. You can't paint with your eyes shut, or compose music with your ears plugged.
  2. The brave minority met the situation with their eyes and minds open. They saw the new reality in all its terror and sprang into action, their resourcefulness and pragmatic creativity amplified by the shared stress. They realized that words, pictures or songs could not stop bullets or shelter people. So they channeled their creativity and compassion into action: people in Ukraine started self-organizing evacuations and enlisting in territorial defense, people in Poland, Czech Republic and other countries opening their homes to millions of refugees and coordinating help efforts, people in Russia protesting despite the danger of prosecution. Traditionally defined creativity for these people took a back seat, because they managed to retain a sense of agency and resourcefulness needed to act.
  3. But beyond these two obvious responses, there was a third, less common one. It was a response of those highly sensitive individuals who, even in normal circumstances, often find the world overwhelming, because they filter out much less of it than most people do. This sensitive minority, overwhelmed by the world that crashed in their faces, had only two options: either break down completely (as many sadly did), or find a way to process this assault into art. Creativity became for them not a means of self-expression, but a means of self-preservation. Creativity as a coping mechanism. Creativity as a way of processing the onslaught of life and turning it into something beautiful. Creativity as a way to stay alive, a way to re-assert one's own individual humanity, and our shared collective humanity, in the face of such an aggressively divided and broken world.

This third response, I believe, is at the heart of the creative resurgence that tends to accompany tragedy. Whether this creative resurgence leaves a lasting impact, whether it leads to new masterpieces or not - doesn't really matter. Because, in the times of catastrophe, the first, and, possibly, the most important function of art - is to save the artist.

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