The Arts and the Creation of Mind

The Arts and the Creation of Mind

by Elliot W. Eisner

ISBN: 9780300105117

Publisher Yale University Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Study & Teaching

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Sample Chapter



To understand the role of the arts in transforming consciousness we must start with the biological features of the human organism, for it is these features that make it possible for us humans to establish contact with the environment in and through which we live. That environment is, in its most fundamental state, a qualitative one made up of sights and sounds, tastes and smells that can be experienced through our sensory system. Although the world of the newborn may indeed be the blooming, buzzing confusion that William James once described, it is, even in its apparently chaotic condition, an empirical environment, an environment that all humans, even newborns, can experience.

Experiencing the environment is, of course, a process that continues throughout life; it's the very stuff of life. It is a process that is shaped by culture, influenced by language, impacted by beliefs, affected by values, and moderated by the distinctive features of that part of ourselves we sometimes describe as our individuality. We humans give simultaneously both a personal and a cultural imprint to what we experience; the relation between the two is inextricable. But despite these mediating factors, factors that personalize and filter experience, our initial contact with the empirical world is dependent upon our biologically evolved sensory system. That system, an extension of our nervous system, is, as Susanne Langer says, "the organ of the mind." Listen as Susanne Langer, in her classic Philosophy in a New Key, describes the connection between the sensory system and the mind:

The nervous system is the organ of the mind; its center is the brain, its extremities the sense-organs; and any characteristic function it may possess must govern the work of all of its parts. In other words, the activity of our senses is "mental" not only when it reaches the brain, but in its very inception, whenever the alien world outside impinges on the furthest and smallest receptor. All sensitivity bears the stamp of mentality. "Seeing," for instance, is not a passive process, by which meaningless impressions are stored up for the use of an organizing mind, which constructs forms out of these amorphous data to suit its own purposes. "Seeing" is itself a process of formulation; our understanding of the visible world begins in the eyes.

The senses are our first avenues to consciousness. Without an intact sensory system we would be unaware of the qualities in the environment to which we now respond. That absence of consciousness would render us incapable of distinguishing friend from foe, of nourishing ourselves, or of communicating with others.

The ability to experience the qualitative world we inhabit is initially reflexive in character; we are biologically designed to suckle, to respond to temperature, to be sated with milk. Our biological system is designed to enable us to survive-with the help of others. But we also learn. We learn to see, to hear, to discern the qualitative complexities of what we taste and touch. We learn to differentiate and discriminate, to recognize and to recall. What first was a reflex response, a function of instinct, becomes a gradual search for stimulation, differentiation, exploration, and eventually for meaning. Our sensory system becomes a means through which we pursue our own development. But the sensory system does not work alone; it requires for its development the tools of culture: language, the arts, science, values, and the like. With the aid of culture we learn how to create ourselves.

The term culture is said to have hundreds of meanings. Two are particularly relevant to education, one anthropological, the other biological. A culture in the anthropological sense is a shared way of life. But the term culture in the biological sense refers to a medium for growing things. Schools, I believe, like the larger society of which they are a part, function as cultures in both senses of the term. They make possible a shared way of life, a sense of belonging and community, and they are a medium for growing things, in this case children's minds. How schools are organized, what is taught in them, the kind of norms they embrace, and the relationships they foster among adults and children all matter, for they all shape the experiences that students are likely to have and in the process influence who children will become. Experience is central to growth because experience is the medium of education. Education, in turn, is the process of learning to create ourselves, and it is what the arts, both as a process and as the fruits of that process, promote. Work in the arts is not only a way of creating performances and products; it is a way of creating our lives by expanding our consciousness, shaping our dispositions, satisfying our quest for meaning, establishing contact with others, and sharing a culture.

Humans, of all living species, have the distinctive, if perhaps not the unique, ability to create a culture through which those in their community can grow. Humans can leave a legacy. Even chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives, have, as far as we know, no cultural development that is transmitted in a progressive way from generation to generation. Three hundred years ago chimps lived as they do today. We are not only able to experience the qualitative world, as can chimps; we can also form concepts. Concepts are distilled images in any sensory form or combination of forms that are used to represent the particulars of experience. With concepts we can do two things that may very well be unique to our species: we can imagine possibilities we have not encountered, and we can try to create, in the public sphere, the new possibilities we have imagined in the private precincts of our consciousness. We can make the private public by sharing it with others.

Transforming the private into the public is a primary process of work in both art and science. Helping the young learn how to make that transformation is another of education's most important aims. It is a process that depends initially upon the ability to experience the qualities of the environment, qualities that feed our conceptual life and that we then use to fuel our imaginative life.

I do not want to draw too sharp a distinction between the formation of concepts and the imaginative generation of the forms needed to create, for example, twentieth-century architecture or the improvisational riffs of an Ella Fitzgerald solo; concept formation is itself an imaginative act. Yet there is a difference between recalled images and their imaginative transformation. Were we limited to the recall of the images we had once experienced, cultural development would be in trouble. Imagination gives us images of the possible that provide a platform for seeing the actual, and by seeing the actual freshly, we can do something about creating what lies beyond it. Imagination, fed by the sensory features of experience, is expressed in the arts through the image. The image, the central term of imagination, is qualitative in character. We do indeed see in our mind's eye.


The arts have an important role to play in refining our sensory system and cultivating our imaginative abilities. Indeed, the arts provide a kind of permission to pursue qualitative experience in a particularly focused way and to engage in the constructive exploration of what the imaginative process may engender. In this sense, the arts, in all their manifestations, are close in attitude to play. Constraints on the imagination are loosened. In the arts, in the West at least, permission is provided to explore, indeed to surrender, to the impulsions the work sends to the maker, as well as those sent from the maker to the work. We see this perhaps most vividly when we watch preschoolers engaged in play. It is during this period that children take special pleasure in the sheer exploration of the sensory potential of the materials they use. It is at this time that their imaginative abilities, uninhibited by the constraints of culture, make it possible for them to convert a stick of wood into a plane they can fly, a sock into a doll they can cuddle, or an array of lines drawn so they stand for daddy. For young children the sensory world is a source of satisfaction, and imagination a source of exploratory delight. And it is these inclinations toward satisfaction and exploration that enlightened educators and parents wish to sustain rather than to have dry up under the relentless impact of "serious" academic schooling. A culture populated by a people whose imagination is impoverished has a static future. In such a culture there will be little change because there will be little sense of possibility.

Imagination, that form of thinking that engenders images of the possible, also has a critically important cognitive function to perform aside from the creation of possible worlds. Imagination also enables us to try things out-again in the mind's eye-without the consequences we might encounter if we had to act upon them empirically. It provides a safety net for experiment and rehearsal.

As for sensibility, the arts invite us to attend to the qualities of sound, sight, taste, and touch so that we experience them; what we are after in the arts is the ability to perceive things, not merely to recognize them. We are given permission to slow down perception, to look hard, to savor the qualities that we try, under normal conditions, to treat so efficiently that we hardly notice they are there.

Sensibility and imagination can, of course, remain entirely private affairs: we can enjoy the rosy radiance of dusk in private, the colored brilliance of a Cizanne still life in silence, the symmetrical strength of a Baule mask in quiet awe. The contents of our imaginative life can be kept to ourselves. Appreciation, though active, can be mute. Something else is needed if the products of our imagination are to make a social contribution to our culture. That something else is representation.


Representation, like sensibility and imagination, also performs critically important cognitive functions. Consider the process through which it occurs.

Representation can be thought of, first, as aimed at transforming the contents of consciousness within the constraints and affordances of a material. Representation can and often does begin with an elusive and sometimes evanescent idea or image. I say evanescent because there is nothing quite so slippery as an idea; here now, gone a moment later. Images emerge and, like the subtle changes of the setting sun, may be altered irrevocably with a blink of the eye. Representation stabilizes the idea or image in a material and makes possible a dialogue with it. It is through "inscription" (I use the term metaphorically) that the image or idea is preserved-never, to be sure, in the exact form in which it was originally experienced, but in a durable form: a painting is made, a poem is written, a line is spoken, a musical score is composed.

It is through this very concreteness that representation makes possible a second, critically important process of editing. Although editing is usually associated with writing, it occurs in all art forms-painting and sculpture, music performance and music composition, theater, film and video, dance, and the rest. Editing is the process of working on inscriptions so they achieve the quality, the precision, and the power their creator desires. It is through the editing process that attention to the "wee bit" that Tolstoy believed defined art is conferred upon a work. It is in the process of editing that transitions are made graceful, colors harmonized, intensities modulated, and, indeed, seasoning to suit the palette adjusted. In the domain of writing, editing allows us carefully to inspect the precision of language, the aptness of metaphor, the logic of argument. In painting it consists in brightening a passage of color. In music it involves shifting to the minor mode. In dance it is changing the pace of a movement. Editing is paying attention to relationships and attending to details; it is a process of making the work, work. Unless one is a genius, editing is a crucial aspect of the creative process, a way of removing the rough edges from one's work.

Inscription and editing are directly related to a third cognitive function of representation, one we usually take for granted: communication. The transformation of consciousness into a public form, which is what representation is designed to do, is a necessary condition for communication; few of us read minds. How this transformation occurs, I believe, is taken much too much for granted. It is so natural a process that we hardly notice it. Yet we can ask, "How does speech, or an imagined image, or a melody we hear in our head get communicated? What must the maker do? And then what must the 'reader' do for it to make sense, that is, to be meaningful?"

What is clear is that culture depends upon these communications because communication patterns provide opportunities for members of a culture to grow. We develop, in part, by responding to the contributions of others, and in turn we provide others with material to which they respond. The relationship, at its best, is symbiotic. Thus the social contribution of the educational process is to make it possible for individuals to create symbiotic relationships with others through the development of their distinctive and complementary abilities and in so doing to enrich one another's lives.

Inscribing, editing, and communicating are three cognitive processes used in the act of representation. As I have described them, each appears as if the process of representation occurred from the top down, that is, from idea or image, through the hand, into the material, and then into the head of an eager reader of text or image, sound, or movement. However, the process is not so linear. The process of representation is more of a conversation than it is like speaking into a tape recorder. The ideas and images are not so much blueprints for action detailing specific directions and destinations; they are more like embarkation points. Once into the sea, the ship rides the currents of the ocean, which also help set the course. In the process of working with the material, the work itself secures its own voice and helps set the direction. The maker is guided and, in fact, at times surrenders to the demands of the emerging forms. Opportunities in the process of working are encountered that were not envisioned when the work began, but that speak so eloquently about the promise of emerging possibilities that new options are pursued.


Excerpted from "The Arts and the Creation of Mind" by Elliot W. Eisner. Copyright © 2004 by Elliot W. Eisner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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