Creative strategies

and the critical counter-culture of the 90’s

© Guillem Ramos-Poquí, David Rodway,  1995


Are there any principles to learn about creativity in art?. The ruling view says no. This assertion could be argued, however, has overlooked the various strategies pioneered and used (though sometimes in a rudimentary way) by the various movements in modernism e.g.:
- cubism (the combination of many viewpoints or perspectives in a single image)
- dada and surrealism (the use of association and metaphor to defamiliarize the familiar and also familiarize the unfamiliar)
- There is also the use of gestalt effects rearranging parts into wholes to create shape transformations.
We see these devices developed in advertising and mass communications (video, film, digital imaging) but they tend to be reduced to one-liners, promoting market ideology, capitalist values, instead of sustained narratives that embody social, political and cultural critique.
To understand the different kinds of sign (iconic, indexical, symbolic) that artists can employ, the field of semiotics is relevant here.
Also, to understand the workings of perception, its inherently selective, circular and reflexive nature, we need to turn to the tradition in philosophy known as (critical) hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study and theory of interpretation applied across the whole of the natural and social realm. The study of hermeneutics, with thinkers like Jüngen Habermas,  tell us that all perception is intrinsically selective and that we see all facts within a framework of values, the values which form the base of our understanding of the world.

Hermeneutics can go in two directions. One is a relativistic and logocentrist path, in which all seeing, art, ideology, and socio-cultural theory are trapped in a closed circle or "hall of mirrors".  According to this view there are no intersubjective and cross-cultural criteria based on reason and observation for evaluating different ideas or artworks. The other takes a "cognitivist" and "pragmatist" path. This, by contrast  holds, as argued by philosophers such as John Dewey (pioneer of the movement known as philosophical pragmatism) and J. Habermas (of the Frankfurt School) that theories and artworks can be critically assessed on the basis of reason, evidence and accumulative knowledge and experience - though such assessment might need changing in the light of new better explanations and evidence.

When it comes to content in relation to creativity we need to distinguish between a facile approach, with a sophisticated non-Cartesian approach.  Cartesianism is an "atomistic" way of looking at society and its issues, it is a vision which looks at issues in an isolated way without connecting them to any wider social, historical or philosophical context. As such it never questions the underlying assumptions of society and all its attendent beliefs and conceptions along their adverse effects and consequences.  In contrast, a non-Cartesian approach to content goes beyond the world of  mere appearances to delve into its hidden structures, underlying causes and effects, unforeseen connections, thus dealing with issues at a deeper and more insightful level in order to broaden our understanding.

A creative approach to the content and ideas you wish to express as an artist is also a hermeneutic process of interpreting  significance in life and the world around us. But how, one may ask, are we to distinguish between ideas and art, that are shallow or banal, and perceptive or fruitful? The problem is that, as the poet William Blake once said, "we can see a universe in a grain of sand".  In other words, we project vast significance on something that may not be really be very significant. This is the error of the rudimentary one-liner and the intentional fallacy. Through these strategies, it can be shown we can develop art as a visual language able to articulate sophisticated and complex narratives about the world. In this way, we avoid the all-too easy and simple practice of projecting (as in the parable of the Emperor's clothes) immense or grandiose thoughts onto objects on which you could equally project entirely different interpretations with no way of judging which interpretation is right, or which does anything to enlighten our understanding of the world around us.

Ecologism and the new critical counter culture:
There are three basic rival ontologies: 1) Atomistic-Individualim (bottom-up explanation - e.g. capitalism and free market); 2)  Holism (top-down explanation  - e.g. fascism, Stalinism and Fundamentalism); and  3)  Ecologism (interdependence of bottom-up and top-down, part and whole explanation  - e.g. red-green politics/ecology ).
Ecologism is the new counter-culture which exposes the shortcomings and the inadequacies of the other two dualistic, Cartesian  views.
The point of this is that any representation and art work (figurative or abstract, conceptual or installation) presupposes a basic theory about the world, about the relationship of culture and society to it.  Such basic theory  entails an "ontology"  (theory about reality and its structures etc.) , an "epistemology" (theory of perception by which we know it); and also a theory of human nature, freedom and ends (ethics). These together comprise ones system or web of beliefs (i.e. ideology) whether one is aware of it or not.
The two Cartesian views: Atomism and Holism split reason and senses, the perceptual and conceptual, means and ends, science and art. This is the case of  "formalism" and "therapy art", which  ignore subject matter and issues, and of art which deals with issues through text and concepts,  but disregards the formal perceptual and sensory skills of image-making.
Ecologism integrates these dualims of form and content etc. into a creative whole.
The case for creative strategies will not appeal to those who see art primarily as a therapy or formalistic and disinterested enterprise. But it will strike chords, resonnate, to those artists who believe that art has a function in communicating new insights and ideas about society and culture: insights and ideas which can change and enlighten people's attitudes and thereby have a transformational effect in society. In this way art is not only bearing witness to what it considers significant events in our experience. It is also showing how a visual language can be constructed in art by using principles similar to verbal language: metaphor and association, embedding one idea (like a clause) within another, interweaving the figurative and abstract, the particular and general, etc. These things are demanding and challenging, the question is: do the fashions of contemporary art meet this kind of challenge today?

Creative strategies

in relation to a chosen significant issue or theme

1.  Embedded images  to make explicit connections: The language like potential of art is developed via the application of visual equivalents for verbal tropes  used in poetry such as the various types of metaphor (including metonymy, synectoche) and oxymoron. Connections are rendered more manifest through other techniques such as the embedding of one image inside another, layering/superimposing different images and building visual echoes or structural and  funtional analogies between one shape and another.
The use of such devices is to adopt a "reflexive" approach to the encoding of images and to employ a two way model of communication. For example the use of metaphors and structual analogies, being based on resemblance, allows the viewer to make connections for themsleves without the need to rely upon extensive verbal expositons.
a) The use of metaphor  in visual representation, including the visual use of different kinds of metaphor e.g.: metonymy: an attribute stands for the thing itself. Synecdoche: a part  stands for the whole and vice-versa and simile: the comparison of one phenomena with another. In addtion, when two or more metaphors are joined together in unusual ways, in the formation of composite metaphors, a richer and more complex set of  methaphorical connections and inferences can be made.
b) Oxymoron: conjunction of opposites: the strategy of contrasting two previously unconnected or disparate ideas or phenomena  in order to convey new meanings, also making an ironic link. Note Aristotle's "method of opposites" when trying to define something through its opposite.
c) Familiarising the unfamiliar and, conversely, defamiliarizing the familiar.

2. a) Changes of Scale. b) Changes of perspective (or viewpoints) of various elements to enhance meaning and when combining figures or artefacts in the same compositon consider unexpected angles to view them,  to avoid merely linear or graphic forms of representation.

3. a) Structural and functional analogies or echoes between one shape and another  through the perception of similarities and  differences, to build connections. b) Transformation or metamorphosis of forms or their parts to represent other forms or images, building connections, at a figurative level, by echoes, analogies o associations between one shape and another.c) Movement or motion devices for transforming or enhancing the dynamics of the composition.

4. Different types of signs (semiotics). Semiotic elements: three different types of signs.: - Icon: mimetic resemblance. - Index: shows an association (causal or functional) between things e.g. through the interplay or combination of  abstract and figurative idioms  - Symbol: arbitrary (conventional) sign with no natural connection  or resemblance to its reference may include texts or verbal elements which unite a pictorial effect with a lexical message or reference.

5. Typographical elements a) Architectural qualities in letters. b) Onomatopoeic and synaesthetic association between typographical design, sounds, and the thing they mean. c) Expressive qualities of words though formal devices. c)Embedded images in letters. d)  Positive & negative  versions (as in photography) of typographical elements.

6.  Spatial effects and relationships (coherence of space-depth cues) at a structural level applying to both  figurativeand abstract art .  At a more basic level the images are constructed in a spatially coherent and scientifically optical way in considering gestalt effects and respecting the interdependent functioning of "visual grammar" of the space-depth cues. This is in contrast to an arbitrary and slap-dash use of values and helps to make interpretation intelligible.
-Develop the space-depth cues/formal elements through:a)colour-tone differences and modulations. b) Shape overlap; relative size of forms; texture, detail, ¨gradients".  This matters since a way of seing (ideology, world view) is   embodied as much in the formal dimension as in the content or subject matter of an artwork. Respecting the interdependence (ecology) of the formal elements (space-depth cues) in a painting or image signifies an ecological ("wholistic") mode of  perception, in contrast to the arbitrary, fragmented and relativistic way of seeing of the ruling Cartesian world view. c)Figure-ground gestalt effects: combining different shapes or meanings in a single image or form.d)  Positive-negative of images (as in photography) e) Mirror or inverted images.
f)  Layers or superimposition's (e.g. when working with embedded images). g) Gestalt effects in perception:  figure-ground , differentiation, coherence, and grouping of  shapes, as ways of constructing  your  images and helping to make their interpretation inteligible. h) Format or shape of canvas, and the overall  dynamics of the composition different types of compositinal devices such as grids, or patterns, diagonals, cut-off images,  or geometric overall interrelations, all acting as visual equivalents or symbols of movement. i) Development of the composition: to open up new possibilities and changes that may be suggested by the combination of both formal and narrative elements, in  order to clarify and enhance meanings in unexpected or more interesting /significant ways. Revise if necessary your conception or treatment of the original theme in order to discover new unexpected  links or directions.

© Guillem Ramos-Poquí, David Rodway 1995

Left to right:
David Rodway and Guillem Ramos-Poquí in June 1999


The following books on general theory are some of the best available, easy to read,  and will serve as useful texts for artists, critics and art lectures/teachers interested in developing their knowledge of philosophy and socio-cultural theory in the context of art practice, the media and criticism:

WARBURTON,  Nigel. 1992/95  Philosophy: the Basics. Routledge
                 Read the Introduction, the chapter on Art, and the chapter on Epistemology.

PALMER, Donald. 1991/96 Does the Centre Hold: An Introduction to Western Philosophy.
          Myfield. Read Chapter 10 on the Philosophy of Art, and Chapter 4 on Ontology.

GRAHAM, Gordon. 2000 Philosophy of the Arts. an Introduction to Aesthetics
                 Routledge London NY . Read from page 63 section on on art and Human Nature and from page 155 on Objectivism versus                  subjectivism

FAY, Brian. 1996  Contemporary Philosophy of social Science.
                 Blackwell Publishers Inc. Cambridge Massachusetts USA

              Read Chapter 1:  Do You Have to Be One to Know One?
                 Chapter 4:   Do people in different Cultures Live in Different Worlds?
                 Chapter 6 :  Most We Comprehend Others in Their Own Terms?
          Chapter 7 :  on Hermeneutics pp. 141-151
                  and  Chapter 11: What's to be Learned from Multicultural  Philosophy of Social Science?
         1991 Key Ideas in Sociology. Macmillan.
             This is an excellent introductory  book and can be used as a glossary or dictionary.
              Note  sections on The Frankfurt Sch., Habermas, Mannheim.
  STOREY, John
         1993 An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Harvester          Wheatsheaf.
        Note Ch 1 pp 1-10. Ch 4: Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, pp 69-95. 
              Ch 5: Marxism , pp 97-110, Ch 7: Postmodernism
McQUAIL, Denis
         1994 (3rd Edit.) Mass Communication Theory, an Introduction. Sage
        See sections on: Semiotics, the Frankfurt School, etc

CREATIVITY: DOs and DON'Ts          © G. Ramos-Poquí, D. Rodway, 1995

Do not put an object or artefact in the middle of your painting (e.g. a banana, a shark, a circle, an electric chair, a horse, a set of scribbles, etc.) and then claim the work has profound metaphysical meanings (e.g. about death, about the world, about the self, etc) From the point of view of composition It is too predictable, it is too obvious (we all know what these objects look like). From the point of view of content it is a "one liner" (it is the type of one-liner's which we see in advertising). An object or a scribble by itself it does not say anything, meaning is "up for grabs". Although they are connections, each art field has its own properties, e.g. panting is not just music (or should aspire to the condition of music); painting is not just literature or philosophy (although it can feed on ideas and concepts in these and other fields). Painting cannot be reduced to a "text". The physical properties of paintings (texture, size, scale, etc) make it different from other art fields. "Potentially" painting, (and the visual arts in general) has the possibility to articulate, creatively, critical complex ideas and meanings, and in this way the artist can make a contribution to our understanding of the world and culture in which we live. You could have showed: 1) part of the object, and introduce other elements or objects to articulate meaning though poetic narrative or complexity.2) you could make a metamorphosis of the object into something unexpected to articulate and develop an idea, or meaning.3) put another object "inside" (or "embedded") to make a connection 4) articulate connections by means of similarities or dissimilarities of form and structure between the object depicted through formal devises (not showing the objects in full either, but on sections of them at unexpected scales).5) Explore bringing together different metaphors in the same composition 6) Explore the conjunction of opposites (oxymoron
Avoid symmetry in your composition at all cost. Do not start your composition with an image plunked in the middle It makes the composition static and therefore abolishes the possibilities of dynamic interplay in the picture plane. Experiment with different possibilities of composition
Do not limit your colour range to greys or predictable boring colour sequences It is too easy. You are denying the possibility to develop colour in an interesting, unexpected, and challenging way Experiment with different and unexpected colour combinations - in terms of "modulations" of "colour temperature": e.g. use different temperatures of any colour: blue, red, yellow etc. (and not just their "grey" variations)
Do not place all objects and/or forms "inside the painting" (or canvas boundaries) The painting will not expand, it will be predictable, too easy, amateurish and static Make objects "intrude" or enter from the edges showing sections of them (particularly when everybody know already what they are meant to look like). This will make the composition expand beyond the boundaries of the canvas.
Do not put a collection of objects or forms in a painting (e.g. inside a room) according to their ordinary relative sizes. It is too predictable and academic Change the scales of these objects and interrelate them, so something interesting and unexpected comes up.
Do not use a "lineal" and/or "single horizon" approach to your composition This comes back to the conventions of academicism, this was superseded by the discoveries of cubism and there is no point going backwards. Use a variety of perspectives or viewpoints in the same composition, juxtaposing them, embedding the images, etc. This, of course, includes the unconventional use of different and unpredictable scales of objects
Avoid at all cost dominating the composition with lines, (or outlining the objects or forms with heavy lines, or covering the composition with expressive, or inexpressive, scribbles and "empty gestures"). This is far too easy (it does not address the problem of colour -relationships) and the painting becomes rather like a commercial "graphic", or more like a drawing Leave lines until the end, when the painting is entirely resolved in terms of colour and its elements. Use the "optical" (visual science) approach to define space though colour, which require skills and effort.
If you use typographical elements (or words) do not just do street graffiti in the middle of the canvas or use words in the picture, as in an advertisement It is too easy and does not require skill, they do not relate to other forms in the composition Words and images are part of today visual currency. You could use sections of words (rather than the whole word) e.g. coming from the edge of the painting, explore the letters using interesting colours, varying scale & shapes, or as structural elements
Unless you believe art is not about communication, do not take as a source personal, impenetrable, or inaccessible very personal mythology. This could be seen as very self indulgent, a cryptic language with a completely arbitrary juxtaposition of signs that do not make any sense, obscure and private, leading to confusing and conflicting interpretations. This does not help a communication. Choose a subject or issue that other people can relate or share, and treat it in an interesting, unexpected and creative way.
Unless you believe art is not about communication, do not just use titles such as "Untitled No. 3" or, if you have done a blue painting, call it "Blue painting".Do not use titles which are obvious, illustrative, or pedantic You are unaware that titles can provide a door into the intentions of the artist. Take time to find a title for each work, which will enhance the possible interpretation of the work. You could use e.g. a quotation for a poem, prose, or philosophy, but this should never be too long.


            Philosophy Chart: The Ecological Wholistic Paradigm in Art and Philosphy

            Preparing a Proposal for PhD in Fine Art