On Becoming An Artist:
Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity
Ellen J. Langer
New York: Ballantine Books ©2005
Even a brief look at the contents of On Becoming an Artist tells you this is not a how-to book. With chapter headings such as "Becoming Authentic," "The Tyranny of Evaluation," "The Mindlessness of Social Comparison," and "The Myth of Talent," you pretty much know you're not in a paint-by-numbers universe. Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard and author of the excellent best-seller Mindfulness, wants us to recognize how our typically autopilot approach to living in the world inhibits our options for finding joy-filled ways to engage ourselves in creating meaningful lives.
From the opening sentence — "All it takes to become an artist is to start doing art." — Langer encourages us to simply pay attention to how we feel, what our interests are, what's around us, and how all of that might combine to enliven our creative selves. But Langer is all too aware that "simple" does not mean "easy," and that a great many of us are inclined to allow fear to overrule whatever enthusiasm we might have for trying something new, especially something labeled "creative" or "artistic." On Becoming an Artist uses Langer's own foray into painting as the vehicle to explore these issues and their ramifications.
In her previous books (Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning), Langer compared "mindfulness with the unconscious mind" and discussed the pervasiveness of "living a life mindlessly.... In traditional notions of the unconscious, we do not see certain things because we are motivated not to — to do so would be too painful for us. Mindlessness, instead, typically comes about by default, not design. When we live our lives mindlessly, we don't see, hear, taste, or experience much of what might turn lives verging on boredom into lives that are rich and exciting. We are essentially 'not there' to notice much of the world around us."
From her own experience, Langer recognizes that "beginning an artistic activity is one way to help us move from excessive mindlessness to a more mindful life. If we fully engage this new activity, we will come to see how enlivening mindfulness is." But the old bugaboo fear is never far away: we don't want to make fools of ourselves as we stumble through the learning process. Perhaps some long-ago sixth-grade art teacher admonished us for not being able to draw a cat, person, cow, dog, or whatever in a clearly representational way, and convinced us we are not "artistic." During the intervening 30, 40, or 50+ years, much has been learned about creativity and what are now recognized as its many forms, but the tendency toward "evaluation" flies up to haunt us, and we venture no further into creative territory.
Langer contends that "if we put evaluation aside, the world almost instantly becomes more available to mindful viewing. If we stop judging ourselves, creating art becomes more possible.... [E]valuations are dependent on context, and...making both good and bad judgments can be mindless." And she recognizes that "it may also be easier to put evaluation aside once we realize that most of the paintings we see in museums were rejected in their day." Even Van Gogh, Manet, and Picasso were not well received at first.
Our generally mindless view of life appears in the typical way we confuse a word or an image for the thing itself, leading us into a form of blindness. Langer describes a situation where "a woman once visited Henri Matisse in his studio and, after examining a painting he had just finished, declared to him, 'The arm of this woman is much too long.' His reply was quick. 'But, madame, you are mistaken. This is not a woman, this is a painting.'" It's a mistake we often make. Langer discovers that what she had learned about the eating habits of horses was wrong because she had learned it "as an absolute, without any context," and she "never thought to question whether it might not always be true. This is, of course, the way in which we learn most facts, and it is why we are frequently in error but rarely in doubt."
Langer weaves her professional psychology research throughout the book. She delves into theories of social comparison, talent, and decision-making as they affect creativity, artistic expression, and imagination. Langer explores "how language can limit or enhance our ability to use information." And she encourages us to appreciate the power of uncertainty as a way to "learn what things can become and so that we can become more than we previously thought possible.... When we are mindless, our behavior is governed by rules and routines," while becoming mindful "makes us sensitive to context and perspective.... We stay sensitive to the ways our situation changes," which helps us plow through "the roadblocks to living a more creative life."
As chapter openings and topic dividers throughout the book, Langer deploys quotations from artists and creative people of all sorts to help make her points and show the range of creative activity and expression available to us if we are mindful. Examples include:
- Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
— Pablo Picasso
- You can't make an architect. But you can...open the doors and windows toward the light as you see it.
— Frank Lloyd Wright
- I am an artist... I am here to live out loud.
— Emile Zola
- Most supposed aesthetic absolutes prove relative under pressure.
— John Gardner
- I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
— Albert Einstein
- There are no rules for good photographs; there are only good photographs.
— Ansel Adams