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Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

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Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby bdog » Sun Dec 15, 2013 10:42 am

She is the woman who wrote "Eat, Pray, Love" and she did a TED talk in 2009 about re-defining creativity / genius.

An excerpt:

…ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio…

So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius….And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error.

… allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.


What do you think of this idea?

TED talk is here: http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 2:20 pm

bdog wrote:What do you think of this idea?
I think the thesis is ludicrous on its face given the great artists humankind has produced in the last 500 years. And I think suggesting we'd be better off if we returned to believing nonsense is both anti-intellectual and anti-progressive.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby snoqueen » Sun Dec 15, 2013 2:59 pm

I don't discuss it on the forum, but in my private time I am an artist and I have been doing art most of my life.

I don't see the thesis of this talk as being so ridiculous. Completely outside of metaphysical speculations, there's an experience you get maybe only a few times in many decades, an experience of the art taking over and sort of showing you what it wants to become.

Another way to say it is you feel taken up by a process and find your ideas flowing in a unique way, leading you beyond what you ever before conceptualized or planned to do.

Just a few experiences like that can provide the material for many months or years of further development. I've discussed this with other artists and we joke about the creative LSD experiences, but we all know they're real and don't require LSD at all.

What's required first is to thoroughly learn your craft and engage with it, as well as with the works of others in your field. This takes time and commitment, ongoing commitment.

I am not a musician, but I think musicians may know what I mean here.

I don't have to believe some mysterious spirit resides in my workspace or that muses are some kind of invisible entity afloat in the world, but ancient artists' descriptions of their own experiences in terms used in their own culture translate comfortably into modern-day language. Think in terms of inspiration, surprise, and self-transcendence in the sense of going beyond one's own expectations and even one's own previous experience.

Even audiences can feel it when a performance takes wing and lifts the whole room. It doesn't always happen, but it's one of the reasons people keep going to concerts and remember the extraordinary ones. A performer who can get into the zone fairly often or regularly earns a reputation as a sort of shaman, and I don't think you need to hold nonsensical beliefs to respect and acknowledge that kind of inspirational ability.

And the TED talk is right about another thing: when the artist or performer gets too caught up in identifying with his or her own talent, it's a step on the road to ruin. Humility is the way to keep the creativity flowing freely -- a sense of inquiry, curiosity, openness, and respect for continued hard work and practice.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 3:46 pm

snoqueen wrote:What's required first is to thoroughly learn your craft and engage with it, as well as with the works of others in your field. This takes time and commitment, ongoing commitment.
Right. So telling people that artistry has been on the decline for 500 years and that the path to regaining it is to give up the notion that human beings are capable of self-created brilliance in favor of believing that artists are merely vessels for some kind of otherworldly inspiration is a pretty shitty position to stake out.

snoqueen wrote:I don't have to believe some mysterious spirit resides in my workspace or that muses are some kind of invisible entity afloat in the world, but ancient artists' descriptions of their own experiences in terms used in their own culture translate comfortably into modern-day language.
Right again. So why suggest people abandon modern-day language to re-embrace that which belongs to a completely different culture, especially one which very clearly places human accomplishment on a much lower peg than intangible nonsense?

snoqueen wrote:A performer who can get into the zone fairly often or regularly earns a reputation as a sort of shaman, and I don't think you need to hold nonsensical beliefs to respect and acknowledge that kind of inspirational ability.
Exactly right yet again. You don't need to hold nonsensical beliefs. So why encourage them?

snoqueen wrote:Humility is the way to keep the creativity flowing freely -- a sense of inquiry, curiosity, openness, and respect for continued hard work and practice.
Right. But you don't need the nonsense to be humble.

I didn't listen to the TED talk, but what bdog quoted is a bunch of hokum (which is why I didn't listen to the TED talk.) On the other hand, Sno's post is a wonderful exploration of what creativity means to both artists and audiences. But both sides of that equation are human. And humans have a remarkable capacity for recognizing and creating beauty and wonder and, on a much simpler scale, the pleasures of entertainment. There's simply no reason or need to invoke anything "divine" or "disembodied" or "mystical". Sorry, but such words do a disservice to the amazing abilities our species possesses. Creativity lives within us, not apart from us.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby bdog » Sun Dec 15, 2013 4:05 pm

Artistry in decline for 500 years? She didn't say or even imply that.

Thanks for the comments Sno. It's interesting that Kurt Vonnegut presented something similar in "Bluebeard", in a much shorter form. One of the artist characters likened himself to a radio, just picking up whatever waves were out there. As I recall in that case it didn't take the pressure off as Gilbert surmised and the character ended up offing himself.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 4:16 pm

bdog wrote:Artistry in decline for 500 years? She didn't say or even imply that.
Then what do you think she meant by, "I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years"? Is she actually suggesting that artists are dying from the pressure of their artistry? Because the notion of the tortured artist who dies young is a cultural myth perpetuated by the confirmation bias, something else besides astounding creativity that the human mind seems to have a nearly unlimited capacity for. Regardless, the art of the last 500 years is clearly equal to the art of the preceding centuries, in just about any way you care to measure it. Given that (which I should think would be obvious), I'm entirely unclear what Gilbert is even lamenting the loss of.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby bdog » Sun Dec 15, 2013 4:24 pm

Here, I'll spoon feed you some more:

We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? And even the ones who didn’t literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know.

Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life’s work, you know. But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 4:39 pm

bdog wrote:... we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.

I guess I'm gonna need some more spoon-feeding. (If you have a link to a complete transcript I will read it, but I'm not watching a 20 min. video based on the "highlights" you've posted thus far.) Is she endorsing this view or pointing out exactly what I did, that this is merely a perception? Because like I said, the tortured artist (particularly one who dies young) is a cultural myth, perpetuated by the confirmation bias. And it's not like I'm just pulling that out of my ass. People who've actually studied this presumed phenomenon came to that conclusion scientifically. And it really ain't that hard to dig up quotes from artists who speak only of the joy they get from being creative, many of whom lived to a ripe old age. There's nothing wrong with suffering for your art, but it is most assuredly not a prerequsite to being a great artist. Great art can spring from any emotional state you care to name.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby snoqueen » Sun Dec 15, 2013 6:49 pm

I don't know if more artists are bipolar than members of the public at large, but many artists have written about the experience and consider it a two-edged knife. The highs contain the greatest creativity and the lows walk them right to the edge of death, but you can't have the one without the other, and many times the artist chooses to stay on the knife instead of medicate himself into self-described mediocrity.

So if the tortured artist stereotype is nothing but confirmation bias, that doesn't demonstrate tortured artists don't exist.

I agree good art springs from any emotional state you care to name. Plenty of stuff comes from the rational side, like music or textiles created using patterns made by DNA nucleotides.

But one of the provinces of art is poetic expression, and if you cannot accept the attempt of this speaker to use poetic language and historical references to describe the experience of creativity, you're cutting yourself off from trying to appreciate a big, big area of human expression.

I know you dislike religion and neither of us has much use for it in our own lives. Still, it is possible -- I know from experience -- to accept and appreciate some people's religious thinking without personally buying into the underlying belief system. The same is true of poetic expressions of personal experience. I don't have to believe in daimons or muses to know what it's like to find myself in a strange and enjoyable frame of mind where everything seems to make sense and ideas feel as though they are arriving in a stream through an open window.

I know perfectly well it won't last or make sense the same way next time, but that doesn't mean I can't go with it and enjoy it while it's happening.

If you can't loosen up and accept that kind of messing with reality as a gift in its own right instead of an annoyance, I think you're missing a lot. It's not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief it takes to enjoy a movie or science fiction novel. You don't have to take its view of the world with you to work the next day, but you can still briefly appreciate it on its own terms instead of trying to tear it apart with rationality.

I found the talk to be remarkably grounded. Gilbert was looking at how other societies have conceptualized creativity and especially how they have come up with devices to separate the artist from his or her works. This was their way of discouraging narcissism and the destruction to which it can lead, and encouraging healthy detachment from the artistic product once it was completed. All sound mental hygiene, in my book.

I wouldnt have excerpted the same passages bdog did as representative of the overall message. I'm more from the rational side myself and thought she was discussing her own efforts to detach from a focus on her own creative products and stay with the process, the practice, itself. The solution she came up with may not suit everybody, but I think it respects the experience.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 8:22 pm

Tortured artists aren't mythological, but neither are tortured plumbers, tortured dishwashers, or tortured particle physicists. What's mythological is the notion that the majority of great art was produced by madmen and depressives who suffered so greatly that they ultimately died young and that artists are, on average, not only unhappier than a random sampling of the general population but that their unhappiness is the very thing which allows them to create their art in the first place. Yes, some people are more unhappy after drug treatment for a mental disorder, but certainly that's not true for everyone. So perpetuating the notion that you have to be unstable to produce great art could well be preventing some people from seeking treatment which would ultimately be beneficial to them. Because another perspective for someone with a psychiatric disorder would be that they create art in spite of their problem, not because of it. Their art might be the only thing keeping them sane, as opposed to being a product of their psychosis.

snoqueen wrote:But one of the provinces of art is poetic expression, and if you cannot accept the attempt of this speaker to use poetic language and historical references to describe the experience of creativity, you're cutting yourself off from trying to appreciate a big, big area of human expression.
Two things:
1) The problem with the historical references part is that it's little more than supposition. It's literally impossible to know what the mental state of a long-dead artist was and it is often difficult to distinguish between a real mental disorder and someone who was simply Bohemian, especially given that artists have long sought to set themselves apart from non-artists in myriad ways. This is sometimes true for living artists too, of course. Do pop stars do outrageous things because they're mentally unstable or because it's exactly what's expected of them? Was that insane thing they just did because they can't help themselves, or was it a calculated move to perpetuate their carefully constructed mystique? There is no clear-cut answer that is true for all artists. Heck, they could all be true for an artist at different points in their career. Because of this, I don't think much of value can be gained from assigning mental disorders to artists from the past.
2) Is Gilbert being poetic when she says the shift from "people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius" was "a huge error"? I wouldn't think so, as that sounds pretty literal to me, but I've already completely misread her at least once (and thanks for the correction by the way, bdog.) I have no problem with poetic expression, but I read her comments as actively calling for a return to a mild form of magical thinking, something which I strongly oppose because I am an unabashed humanist. I have contempt for any idea I feel is attributing to some outside influence anything for which the human mind rightfully deserves credit. (And arguing that a simple change of semantics is somehow killing artists seems like an awfully gigantic leap to me. Doesn't it to you?)

snoqueen wrote:I know you dislike religion and neither of us has much use for it in our own lives. Still, it is possible -- I know from experience -- to accept and appreciate some people's religious thinking without personally buying into the underlying belief system.
I absolutely agree. But there's a big difference between expressing your spiritual beliefs through your art -- I loves me some kick-ass gospel music, doncha know -- and giving a lecture wherein you entreat people to reject what is true (that art is a product of the human mind) in favor of an outdated belief which is false (that art is at least partially received from a source outside our brains.) Perhaps I'm still getting Gilbert's message wrong, but that's what it sounds like she's saying (at least from bdog's selective quoting.)

snoqueen wrote:I don't have to believe in daimons or muses to know what it's like to find myself in a strange and enjoyable frame of mind where everything seems to make sense and ideas feel as though they are arriving in a stream through an open window.
I am not a stranger to this sensation, so you don't really need to sell me on it. But when the feeling has passed, I'm quite aware that it originated in my mind. There's certainly no evidence it originated anywhere else, and you seem to agree with me on that point. So why encourage people to believe it does?

snoqueen wrote:If you can't loosen up and accept that kind of messing with reality as a gift in its own right instead of an annoyance, I think you're missing a lot.
Some of my favorite art is completely disassociated from reality, so I'm unsure what you're getting at here. And I'm also unclear how any of what you've said about how art is created (which again, I think has been pretty dead-on, not to mention vastly more interesting than any of the quotes from the TED talk) is related to Gilbert's speech, which I don't see as art at all. Should I consider any kind of lecture an artistic expression? There's nothing inherently wrong with that position, I suppose, but it's not one to which I am naturally inclined to subscribe. I think there's value in delineating between artistic expression and an educational talk, and it seems to me that Gilbert's shooting for the latter here. I could be mistaken and I'm open to hearing why you might think I'm wrong, but I just don't see her presentation as being artistic. I have seen some TED talks which seem clearly intended as a sort of performance art -- Amanda Palmer's being the most obvious -- but this doesn't sound like that to me. I suppose I'm gonna have to watch the damn thing now to see for sure, since that wouldn't necessarily be conveyed by printed words alone. I'll watch it after I've made some dinner.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby DCB » Sun Dec 15, 2013 8:49 pm

bdog wrote:Here, I'll spoon feed you some more:

Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life’s work, you know. But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.


The hard-drinking Mailer lived to be 87. We should all lead such "anguished" lives.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Sun Dec 15, 2013 9:29 pm

OK, just finished watching the vid and it's very entertaining and quite interesting. (Although it cuts out right towards the end, which was a little jarring and anti-climatic.) If anyone else reacted as negatively to bdog's quoted selections as I did, I would suggest watching it as well, as those quotes took on quite a different meaning for me in context. This is most definitely an artisitic, not an educational, talk, and Gilbert is a very charismatic speaker.

Many of my criticisms evaporated when I heard the full (until it cuts out, that is) speech. I stand by everything I wrote above, but yeah, I was definitely arguing with a straw man for much of it. Heck, I even made some of the same arguments that Gilbert makes, most importantly that continuing to perpetuate the idea of the tortured artist is dangerous to current and future artists. My takeaway was that artists must develop a method to avoid the pitfalls of feeling as if they are being forced to compete with their past triumphs and find a way to continue pursuing their artistry despite the cultural tendency to expect (or rather, demand) that every new work should equal or top the last one. That's good advice (if not exactly applicable to everyone), and while I still disagree that the best way to achieve this is to assign a portion of the credit for your artistry to an outside, non-human source, it's not nearly the plea for irrationality I presumed based on the sample quotes above. Nothing in Gilbert's talk necessarily requires belief in anything supernatural; it's quite easy to hear her comments completely metaphorically. I'd still rather people owned their creativity, but I appreciate Gilbert's attempt to pass along to others the coping mechanism she's developed from talking to other artists and reflecting on her own situation as a best-selling author.

Sno, thanks for the good discussion, even if my end was based on a knee-jerk reaction to some out-of-context quotes. (Did you watch the video, by the way? I can't really tell from your responses.)
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby snoqueen » Mon Dec 16, 2013 11:23 am

Yes I did.

I have learned from experience on this forum that it's unwise to try and discuss something when you haven't at least tried to look at the links.

I hate watching videos, but TED talks are usually pretty brief and interesting so I gave that one a click.

And just for the record -- I believe sometimes the creative experience or creative flow originates, or perhaps resides, beyond our everyday concept of our own selves. I'm not comfortable with the reductionist position that we're nothing but a collection of chemicals and firing synapses. That's science, and science has its place and I respect it. I just believe there's an aspect of human experience that is either not yet accessible to science, or can never be accessed by science. I don't know which.

I'm not trying to have a discussion on this topic -- I just don't want my silence to be construed as agreement with your position.
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby Prof. Wagstaff » Mon Dec 16, 2013 12:24 pm

snoqueen wrote:I have learned from experience on this forum that it's unwise to try and discuss something when you haven't at least tried to look at the links.
This is always good advice, and had bdog not posted such huge quotes, I likely would have done so from the get-go as I agree, TED talks are better than the average "hey, watch this vid!" links which I see a lot of on Facebook. This is hardly the first time I've put my foot in my mouth because of a too quick reaction before I had all the facts (and unfortunately, I'm sure it won't be the last) so I'm glad your and bdog's challenges goaded me into doing what I should have done in the first place.

snoqueen wrote:I'm not trying to have a discussion on this topic -- I just don't want my silence to be construed as agreement with your position.
Noted. Not sure what kind of discussion is even possible, frankly, given that your position is based on nothing more than a gut feeling (and I don't mean that as a dismissal since ultimately, my position comes down to that as well. It's not like I'm out there doing brain research, after all.) There's nothing inherently impossible with your position, but since there's no known mechanism which would make such an inhuman source of inspiration possible, it just strikes me as sort of a dead-end (which, in a stronger form, is exactly my problem with religion in general and God in particular. Inquiry ends when it's declared that an answer is unknowable.) For me, it raises the question of why human beings appear to be the only recipients of this special gift -- why can't dogs and horses and fruit flies tap into whatever is delivering poetry and art to us? And if such an outside source of inspiration exists, why is it inaccessible to so many, even those who devote their lives to their art yet never achieve anything like brilliance? But mostly, I simply dislike the notion because of my humanism. I have nothing but the most profound respect for great artists (heck, even for mediocre ones) and I find the idea that they're merely vessels for some nonhuman something-or-other kinda depressing. That, to me, undercuts what an amazing organ the human brain evolved to be. I don't find the idea that "we're nothing but a collection of chemicals and firing synapses" the least bit unnerving. Quite the opposite -- I think it makes human accomplishments that much more impressive. What's more fantastic than a bunch of chemicals and synapses evolving to the point where they can contemplate their own existence?
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Re: Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk

Postby cloudy » Mon Dec 16, 2013 2:26 pm

snoqueen wrote:And just for the record -- I believe sometimes the creative experience or creative flow originates, or perhaps resides, beyond our everyday concept of our own selves.

I agree with this point but don't agree that this requires a belief in what Prof Wagstaff calls "an inhuman source of inspiration." Breaking our "everyday concept of our own selves" may be the key to creative expression, but this going beyond concepts isn't dependent on the divine, or any external source of of inspiration.
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