The Laws of Nature

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Role of Intuition

As I've been elaborating on the evolution of art theory over the past few weeks, many of you have raised the idea that intuition is important, too. Admittedly, I haven't given that much consideration, until today! So, I need to understand what it is and here's what I found:

According to the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin intuitio, which is the act of contemplating. The definitions are: 1 : quick and ready insight, and 2 a : immediate apprehension or cognition b : knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c : the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.

To better understand how this word is used, I turned to Nodding and Shore, Awakening the Inner Eye: Intuition in Education (1984). If we look at the history of how the meaning developed, we'd begin with Plato who thought that intiution is not rational, but is a reliable source of knowledge because it IS reality. Aristotle extended the definition of intuition by making it an intellectual process that is based on reasoning, but requires a leap of understanding in order to grasp a larger concept that can't be reached by logical reasoning alone.

Buddha found inner truth, wisdom, and liberation in intuitive thinking rather than reason. Ch'an (China) and Zen (Japan) place emphasis on this use of intuition.

In the Hindu religion, meditation and disciplined control of the mind produce intuition about universal cosmic issues. As they put it, one aim of Yoga is the systematic development of intuition, so it's considered a stable, reliable function of higher levels of consciousness from which they can access information.

Carol Jung felt that information is received in two ways: externally through the senses and internally through intuition. The latter is perceived through memory and association and is the source of hunches, ideas, and insight into the "bigger picture."

According to Frances E. Vaughan, human intuition falls into four distinct levels of awareness which often overlap: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. On the physical level, it acts as the "flight or fight" instinct. On the emotional level, our intuition manifests itself as feelings about something or someone. On the mental level, intuition is linked with problem-solving that begins with the application of logic and reasoning followed by an intuitive "flash." Discovery and invention often result. Educated guesses also fall into this category, as well "leaps" from the rational to a conclusion. Frequently, incubation of information in the mind for a time allows it to turn chaos into order for understanding. And, finally, at the spiritual level, intuition is mystical and independent from sensations, feelings, and thoughts.

How many, if not all, of these categories do we apply to making art? And, in what proportion? I suspect the answer is different for each artist. But, I also think it's true that as we learn to create art we learn a set of skills and theories or relationships that we begin to apply to our work, even if it doesn't seem like a conscious act. If I apply mental intuition to my art, I am relying on my education , what I've learned and what I know, in this way. So, is there ever a time when we don't use intuition in painting?

Here's a good example of someone that was probably 100% intuitive in her work: Sonabai. I first learned of this woman when I attended a lecture by Stephen P. Huyler and purchased his book (photo below). Sonabai was a poor wife and mother who was confined to her home in remote rural India by her husband without the ability to recieve guests for nearly 15 years. She was a teenager when she married him. No one knows why he imprisoned her, and she had a son who was in her care. Over time and in complete isolation, Sonabai developed an entirely new form of art, just from her imagination. She had no training and no way to become informed about art. She used straw, cow dung, and mud from their farm to consruct elaborate scenes on the walls of their home, which had no electricity. She ground the pigments from seeds and other things that her husband brought home from the market.

Here are some examples of her work:

Eventually, Sonabai's husband removed the restrictions and her work was "discovered." It was so unique and unlike any preexisting art, that she was awarded the highest honor paid to any citizen in India by its President, and her work has been acquired by museums. Sadly, she is now dead, but the influence of her work spread to her son and his wife and the surrounding region where it's elevated the economic situation of the poor rural population. This small, uneducated woman created a new art form. Was it pure intuition? What else could it have been.

I opened this door in order to begin a new discussion. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy

I have often thought that the thing to do is to study beforehand, and then when in the act of drawing or painting, just respond. I am imagining that “intuition”, in varying forms and degrees, is kicking in. Sometimes it works.

I found your story about Sonabai fascinating. It makes me wonder about intuition and the urge to be “creative”. Is they hardwired in each of us? Do they vary, which results in some being intuitive and creative with music, science, math, etc? Fun to contemplate.

Unknown said...

Peggy - My process is very similar to yours. But, I use rational thought rather than intuition to critique my work when it's near the completion stage. That's the only way I can identify problems and correct them. I do believe that intuition is "hard wired" in us, as you put it. If we couldn't make the intuitive leap from the empirical we probably wouldn't have survived as a species. I think this is also what makes us creative.

-Don said...

Nice post, Kathy. You've put to words an idea I've used and believed in as an artist all of my adult life. As an Art Director I always found myself reacting with my intuition on something and I learned to trust it. Often, a design one of my artists (or me) was working on might have something that just didn't sit right with me and I'd tell them (or me) to let me dwell on it for a while and I'd get back with them (or me). My gut was telling me something wasn't right, even though to my rational mind everything seemed correct. Let's just say my gut was never wrong... Any time I've ever ignored it, I regretted it later.

I think my painting process is more like Peggy's in that I use rational thought as I design my composition and then go with my gut, or intuition, as I paint and especially as I near completion. If my gut starts telling me something's not right, then I engage rational thought to try to figure out why.

Here's something interesting: I had someone tell me once that they liked it that my work let them finish it in their mind. They put to words something that I had been doing intuitively in that my gut often has me calling a work finished before it's actually finished based on my original designs. It's not that the paintings don't feel finished, but their rawness gives the viewer the opportunity to complete them based on their own feelings. I don't think I'm doing this idea justice with words... it's more of an intuitive thing...

Too bad I didn't go with my intuition on this comment. It would have stopped me about 2 3/4 paragraphs ago...


hw (hallie) farber said...

I'll go with c: the power or faculty of attaining direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference. But wait; there's instinct--behavior that is mediated by reactions below the conscious level. Then there is genetic memory and past lives, even heredity.

I've also read that thoughts attract other thoughts. I can believe that because one sad thought leads to many others, just as one creative thought leads to more. I've also read that thought creates reality.

I've only read one Stephen King book--Lisey's Story. In it he described an actual place where ideas exist. It made perfect sense to me.

There may be many Sonabais; hardwiring could be an explanation or--this could be attributed to previous lives.

In painting I think I visit the land of ideas, instinctively put it on canvas, then rationally look at it and make changes. Sculpture was different--with a chisel & mallet intuition led me to what was there.

I read lots of far-out books during the 70's and 80's--I have many questions but few answers.

Unknown said...

Don, You raised an interesting point, and I'm glad you DIDN'T stop writing! It is a better experience for the viewer when their imagination has to do some of the work that the artist didn't do. I often feel that way about screenplays, books, etc.... I like it when the author lets me fill in a part of the story. This relates to a much earlier post of mine about the broken shape. The viewer tries to put it back together (Duschamp ... Nude Descending Stairs). Nicely stated, Don!

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - good point! There are other ways of thinking, and, certainly the workings of the mind aren't completely understood. Perhaps, in making a work of art we use a myriad of ways of thinking that we can't even identify. Makes sense to me! Thanks, HW.

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

Hi Pamo, Thanks! I'm looking forward to see how your series develops.

Myrna Wacknov said...

I think we are like icebergs, most of what we know is below the level of consciousness and shows up in what we call "intuition". If this is true, it is fortunate for me because my conscious brain is blanking out more and more lately!

Unknown said...

Great analogy, Myrna. Thanks! And, I know what you mean about "blanking out" :)

Carolyn Abrams said...

I have pretty much been an intuitive painter until i started working with you Kathy. I can now see where it is helpful to have a basic fundamental knowledge to build on. I think intuition begins where the knowledge leaves off. So depending on where you are in your creative life at some point intuition is going to show itself. With Sonabai i believe her art and her intuition saved her from lonliness and a life without connectedness. She created her own world and connections. Well, that's my two cents!

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - well stated! I think your process of creating fine art is transforming and your deliberate effort to strengthen and find balance in it will be rewarded. It's wonderful working with you. And, your comments about Sonabai are right on! She had to construct her own world, her own community. I love her story since it elevates the human spirit. Thanks so much for adding to this conversation!

Stephen Huyler said...

Kathy and the rest of you,
I am delighted to just find out about your blog and that you are focusing on Sonabai. You certainly have told her story well, Kathy, and you, Carolyn, are right about the way that Sonabai transformed her life, brought light, joy and fullness of being into it through her art. When I first visted her home in 2001, the friend that I was with commented that it was like walking into the Sistine Chapel. Not that it had anything in common with it stylistically, but that it was a complete and resonant sacred space. I was so completely changed by the experience that I have spent the past nine years of my life dedicated to portraying it to those outside of that remote region of India. I would find myself wide awake late at night just marveling at it.
And yes, Sonabai's story is not unique. It is a human phenomenon spread throughout the world. People everywhere find within themselves the sparks creative inspiration with which to light up their dark experiences and change their existence. Sonabai's story and art are just particularly evocative, but this state of pulling grace from deep within ourselves,whether it is archetypal or original genius, is a fact of life and one that I fully believe needs to be heralded — particularly at a time when we are constantly being shown how we have all damaged our world and told that there may be no solutions for our future...

Unknown said...

I am honored that you read and responded to this blog. I was very moved by your speech at the Rockland Public Library last summer and enchanted by the story of this brave and imaginative woman. It's especially heartwarming to know that your work continues in this remotest part of India and I hope that my readers will have the opportunity to follow your work and support it.
Best regards,

layers said...

I see I am quite behind in reading the blogs I follow and leave comments-- xmas stuff to do is overwhelming and I am amazed I get a blog post done once a week :-) but I do want to comment on intuition for the artist-- especially when it comes to teaching workshops like I do--after 30 years of painting, so much of what I do becomes intuition and it gets harder and harder to put into words the 'why' do I do this or that- and participants want to know every aspect of our working process-- for example, how do you know a painting is finished? - it just feels done-- hard to explain.

Meera Rao said...

I just read this blog through your latest post. Thank you for the story on Sona Bai. I am a big fan of Huyler - yet somehow I did not know of this book until now! Thanks for the write up. Human spirit is indeed resilient -isn't it?

Great post on intuition