This post is long overdue, but I wanted to write it anyway.
In a 2009 TED Talk titled “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame spoke about the need for a way of thinking about artistic creativity that is not damaging and hurtful to artists. Gilbert is inspiring. That much should be expected from a TED Talk. What piqued my interest was the way her talk repeatedly bumps into theology while it simultaneously avoids taking theology seriously.
Gilbert begins her talk on creative genius by drawing our attention to a problem. The problem with creative genius, says Gilbert, is that we expect too much of our artists. We set them up for failure because we expect the impossible, and artists, themselves, have internalized the narrative that, if they only harness the mysterious energy within, they can produce the next best seller, the next box office hit, or the next great masterpiece.
I have little doubt that Gilbert strikes a chord with artists. Her solution to the problem is what really deserves our attention.
Gilbert suggests that what artists need is some “distance” between their sense of self and their creativity. The artist needs to be able to look at his/her creative work and say, “This is not me, and its success as a creative work does not depend entirely on me.” She often calls this distance a “psychological construct” that imagines a mysterious “other” involved in the artist’s creative work.
Gilbert points out that, in its ancient context, the word ‘genius’ (Gr. daemon) referred to a Muse-like spirit that accompanied each individual. When a poet wrote a wildly successful poem, everyone could believe that the genius inspired the poet and was the source of the poem’s success.
Along with many other features of the enchanted ancient and medieval world, the genius fell prey to more “modern” modes of thought. Intriguingly, the word “genius” lived on, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries played a significant role in philosophical aesthetics as the faculty of mind that produced truly creative work. As Gilbert describes it, the genius was internalized and so the artist found herself alone in, and wholly responsible for, her creative work.
Gilbert wants to recover a way of thinking about artistic creativity that makes room for an “other.” As tempting as it is, she finds the ancient concept of genius too silly or too quaint to take seriously.
I was surprised that Gilbert did not discuss the various “others” that may be present in our work. For example, words have a dimension of “otherness” because we cannot fully control them and determine their meaning, and we might also speak of certain people as “others” in a collaborative process. Depending on the medium in which one is working, the list of “others” could be expanded considerably.
Instead, Gilbert hones in on that element of divinity in the ancient meaning of genius, and she suggests that this sense of divinity, mysteriousness and unimaginability is what artists need to maintain in the creative process in order to avoid the emotional turmoil of the stereotypical modern artist. She is not compelled to say anything theological about this “other” (perhaps there is nothing to say?), but she is convinced that she needs it, and that all other artists need it too.
For someone interested in theology, Gilbert’s talk is a little disappointing. One wonders how long she can continue to believe in this “pyschological construct” if she does not believe that it is really there. And if this “other” is really there, then why does Gilbert not say more about it?
At the end of the day, I find Gilbert’s suggestion that artists can benefit by making room for “others” in their creative practices helpful, but if one wants to take this “otherness” all the way to God, then I find Christian thought to be a much more convincing place to start. Because the God who comes to us in Christ makes room for our creativity, we can make room in our creativity for God. God is the Creator of everything, and each of us are “sub-creators” who can creatively receive the gracious gifts of the Creator.
Jim Watkins is Featured Artist Editor of Transpositions. He has recently completed his PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and his forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.