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“Hanging Chains on Sunbeams”

Artists Most Creative When Sun Is Strongest
GERMANY, July 19th, 2004 – According to new research released by the University of Der Abgrund, Germany, this week, artists are most creative when solar magnetic activity is at its height.

Ludwig Laudigger, the scientist at the head of the military research project, discovered the controversial relationship when he uncovered an historical link between the decline in recorded sunspot activity between 1645 and 1745 (now known as “the Maunder Minimum”) and the end of the Renaissance.

“It is clear that the Maunder Minimum did more than kill off a few hedgehogs,” Laudigger told a press conference in Der Abgrund, Friday. “It is rather the exact cause of the end of the Renaissance, which began around 1485, but finally fizzled out around 1660 unable to survive the rapid decline in solar activity.”

In the report entitled, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me: The Death of the Renaissance”, Laudigger contrasts Renaissance culture with the Maunder Minimum culture that followed it:

“The Renaissance gave us the printing press, sonnets and conceits, Shakespeare, da Vinci, and Michelangelo…

“The Maunder Minimum gave us Dick Turpin, the social contract, integral and differential calculus, binary arithmetic, the Salem witch trials, the beginnings of the industrial revolution, and a return to the idea of original sin… The unifying factor throughout these rapid changes in creative output is solar magnetic activity, proving that there is a strong relationship between the amount of solar magnetic activity and creativity.”

The team carried out a range of experiments to prove Laudigger’s thesis, including moving unsuccessful artists from places with low sunshine levels, such as Scotland, to places that experience high levels of sunshine, such as Jamaica, to measure the impact it has on the quality of their work.

“In each case, the quality of the artist’s work improved significantly, often by as much as 23 per cent,” Laudigger said.

A leading figure in the relatively new scientific discipline of meteoroaesthology, Laudigger said that his findings were “absolutely conclusive, astounding” and “based on the kind of compelling empirical evidence that allows us to establish a causal relationship.”

Meteoroaesthology is proving extremely controversial as scientists differ over the existence of a dependency between weather systems and creativity.

Laudigger concludes that artists who want to improve the standard of their work should consider spending more time outdoors or at their local tanning salon.

“A sunbed won’t for sure turn you into a Holderlin or a Rilke, but it can certainly provide a strong basis for prolonged artistic success,” he said.

*

Poets beware. Psychologist Dr. James Kaufman, of California State University, San Bernardino, has recently discovered that you are likely to die younger than novelists, playwrights and other groups of writers.
Dr Kaufman studied 1,987 dead writers from several countries and found that on average, a poet had a life expectancy of 62 years, whereas playwrights’ have an average life expectancy of 63 years, novelists’ 66 years and non-fiction writers’ 68 years.
It may be because poets are tortured or self-destructive, or achieve notoriety younger, Kaufman said.
It may also be because every fiction you weave takes 3.33 minutes off your life.
Kaufman has been at this kind of thing before. In 2001, he coined the “Sylvia Plath Effect” in a paper of the same name, to wit:

female poets are more likely to suffer from mental illness than any other kind of writer and more likely than other eminent women

In 2002, Kaufman returned to the idea in a co-authored paper entitled “I Bask In Dreams of Suicide.” He explained that the “Sylvia Plath Effect” exists because poetry may attract those with a “predisposition towards illness,” because “the domain of poetry may particularly reward those who exhibit illness,” and because “unusual aspects of the domain of poetry writing may increase the likelihood of poets [male AND female] succumbing to illness.”
Dr. Kaufman kindly agreed to an e-mail interview earlier this month. Explaining the origin of the “Sylvia Plath Effect,” he wrote:

Plath was tormented by her illness and killed herself. As did Anne Sexton. Glamorizing mental illness and talking about the mystical connection between schizophrenia or manic depression and creativity seems much, much more harmful to me than making concrete, scientific correlations.

I didn’t set out to study female poets or coin any effect – I was interested in creative writers. When I began this project I entered many, many, different variables into a database to “see what I could see” – including awards, parent’s profession, having a mentor, and age at first publication.

One of the other papers that came from that project discusses how fiction writers can actually start publishing at a later age and still be quite successful and prolific. The whole point of that paper is to encourage fiction writers in particular to start writing – even if they’re older. Along the way, my analysis found that female poets had a much, much higher rate of mental illness. I didn’t expect that – it was there. So I tried to figure out why.

I kept doing studies and kept finding it. I never say that all poets are crazy. Or all poets die young. Science talks in correlations and maybes. I’ve never claimed the Sylvia Plath Effect represented any great insight into Plath herself – I use her as a symbol of a female poet who suffered from mental illness. Can anyone deny that she is the epitome in the American mind of the female poet who is mentally ill? If I’d found that male horror writers were more likely to die in the gutter, I would’ve called it the Edgar Allen Poe Effect.

Of course, Kaufman is not alone in taking this reductive approach towards understanding art and the creative process.
In 2001, ABC ran a news story with the headline “Suicide In The Words: Clues to Impending Doom in Poets’ Language,” about a research study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychology professor and University of Pennsylvania graduate student Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, used text analysis software to “examine” word usage in 156 poems written by nine poets who committed suicide and 135 poems written by nine poets who did not.
The writings of poets of various nationalities who committed suicide contain words and language patterns that give clues about their eventual fate, it was claimed.
The researchers looked at the works of John Berryman (1914-1972), Hart Crane (1899-1932), Sergei Esenin (1895-1925), Adam L. Gordon (1833-1870), Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), Sarah Teasdale (1884-1933) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974), all of whom committed suicide.
Pennebaker and Stirman then compared the suicidals’ poems with the work of poets matched as closely as possible by nationality, education, era, and gender.
The comparison group included Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-present), Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918), Denise Levertov (1923-1997), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), Adrienne Rich (1929-present) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950).
Pennebaker and Stirman found that suicidal poets “gravitated toward” words indicating detachment from other people and preoccupation with themselves. Thus, suicidal poets were found to use many more first-person singular self-references such as “I,” “me” and “my” and fewer first-person plural words than non-suicidal poets used.
We are not amused.
The attentive reader knows that Pennebaker and Stirman can claim no such findings without significant provisos, the most of important of which are related to the limited evidence – eighteen poets (all American, British or Russian) and 291 poems does not a scientific sample make.
Pennebaker highlighted previous research that had uncovered much higher suicide rates among poets than among other literary writers and the general public, and that poets are more prone to depression and bipolar disorder.
Then he seemed to change his mind.
“This is not some kind of causal relationship,” Pennebaker told ABC. “We’re not saying that if you use ‘I’ a lot, then you’ll commit suicide. It’s just simply a marker of greater risk.”
My sirens went off as I plunged deeper into the murky world of psychometrics, and not just because I happen to know a brilliant poet of the female persuasion, one Suzanne Nixon, Crone of the Woods, Word-Weaver, and leading Dervish-Geometer.
Archons! Grant-givers! Demi-Urges! Co-operatives of the Soul! Bountiful Gourds of the Pleroma!
Pay close attention to the next bit.

[The rest of you can scroll down.]

Do your duty!

[That should do it.]

Working through some of Ms. Nixon’s recent work, I grew steadily more concerned that she was about to do herself in. I could barely recall a poem in which she had not used I’s and when I discovered that I could plot a rising incidence of I-use over a period of several months, leading up to the very moment and minute of my research, I decided to act immediately.
What else was a concerned friend and fellow scribbler to do?
I intervened.
I forwarded the ABC story and waited. And waited.
And although this fear-assuaging response provided some relief, I shall be keeping an even closer eye on her work in future:

my gleeful I
un-needled by
this thread of thought

dances on

“it’s Mad Meg!” they said
as they measured my tread
laying their notched straight edge
to the lustrous curves of my wordy body

aye:
eye my I’s
profluently strewn
through my phrases
for the only view
I can truthfully proffer
is the sirenic song
sung from the depths
of my I’s

and while I sing
from the dark
lit as I am by the changeable moon

and while I sing
from the shadows
in the deep of the forest
upon my isle

here there is
no knot of despair
no impending doom
no banshee keened chorus

I sing of the glorious;
dance the unruly meritorious jig
casting rent veils
and vales of tears aside;
seeing through
by the spark of my ignited eye
all the way into wonder
nestled in the vast void thought space
between electron shells
in the infinite “its” of the All

unweighted
unfreighted
quantum leaping
unbound by unfounded conclusions
I take as the lark does
to the air
and fly.

*

Male bowerbirds are renowned for the little shrines to love that they construct.
Known as bowers, these intricate installations are many times the bird’s size, are built on incredibly complex patterns, and are often decorated with brightly colored flowers and whatever other “found objects” these resourceful postmodern artists can retrieve.
The bowerbird spends up to ten months a year working on his bower – adding more elements (some of which may have been stolen from a competitor’s bower), rearranging the elements, starting again from scratch if needs be. When the bower is looking about right, the bowerbird struts his vocal skills for the ladies in an attempt to draw attention to his work.
According to the traditional scientific account, males are chosen not on the basis of the quality of their singing, but on the quality of their bowers, with females much more likely to mate with males that build bigger, more complex, and more colorful bowers.
In his paper “Aesthetic fitness: How sexual selection shaped artistic virtuosity as a fitness indicator and aesthetic preferences as mate choice criteria,” psychologist Dr. Geoffrey F. Miller takes the example of the bowerbird to reinforce the point that “aesthetic ornamentation in other species almost always results from sexual selection through mate choice, and sexually-selected ornaments usually function as indicators of fitness – good health, good brains, and good genes.”
In other words, bowers are built to help male bowerbirds get laid as often and with as many female bowerbirds as possible, and the females just can’t help going weak at the wing-tips in the presence of a finely-constructed bower. [Goodness knows they would react if they were shown the work of Moscow’s sensational painting crows, who have already passed through all the major modernist movements and have emerged, brush in beak, with a Pollock-esque swagger.]
Miller goes on to suggest that “human art capacities evolved in the same way, with aesthetic judgement evolving in the service of mate choice” and that “aesthetic judgement evolved as a functional part of social and sexual cognition.” He makes a convincing case for his perspective, but his approach is notably characterized by contempt for art inasmuch as the “artwork” or bower, is not considered as an aesthetic object but as a sexual and evolutionary object. That is, the bower is understood tangentially in the non-aesthetic categories of evolutionary biology, rather than as a work of art – the product of a creative process.
But if the bower is not an artwork, how can the activity of building one be used as the basis of an interpretation of human artworks?
It can’t.
Miller’s approach is, in aesthetic terms, a desecration of the bower.
[There is one exception to the phenomenon of the bower – a group of bowerbirds (four catbirds of the genus Ailuroedus ) that does not build bowers. Unlike their bohemian cousins, this group of bowerbirds is monogamous; proof, not that art is made for the reward of sex, but that polygamy makes art possible.]

*

I asked Kaufman if it is the goal of the psychometrics of creativity to destroy the creative process, the artist, and art itself, through a process of reductive and destructive demystification.
Kaufman wrote:

Everything I’ve written – including the Plath Effect and Bask article – is an attempt to discuss and analyze the creative process and creative people. My goal is to understand how mental illness affected these writers and how their work interacted with their illness. I don’t equate understanding something with degrading it. Has the study of religion demystified God? Are religious scholars to be condemned as well?

I think the study of creativity isn’t just important for artists it’s absolutely essential.

Rather than spending time discussing each individual question, I will simply say that I’m continually surprised at these types of questions, for this reason: Practicality.

Artists are undervalued by society. The biggest determinant of who gets into college or grad school is SAT and GRE scores. This is true in part because for better or worse, these tests measure something (academic achievement/ability), and they do it well. When something is measured well, it’s valued. Creativity doesn’t play a part in these tests. There’s no commonly accepted creativity measure used at the undergrad or grad level. There’s no commonly accepted creativity measure used in the workforce. Simply put, if something isn’t studied or analyzed – particularly in an objective and empirical way – then it isn’t measured. If it isn’t measured, it isn’t used as a criterion for admission or acceptance or achievement or being hired. As someone who considers himself an artist (playwright), I deeply wish, for purely selfish reasons, that folks had studied this type of stuff earlier. I wish there was creativity measured on the SATs and GREs. I wish there was creativity measured on job applications. I would’ve done a lot better.

Am I saying that the Sylvia Plath Effect will help artists get into college? Obviously not. But if it continues down its natural path, we’ll learn more about artists, specifically female poets. We’ll learn about different types of poets, the things associated with successful poets. And that leads to measures of poetry. People may not like poetry and the like being measured – I’m not sure I do – but until someone can measure creativity and assign numbers to it, then artists won’t get any actual credit for it. No money. No scholarships. No awards. No jobs. No work. No government aid. That’ll all go to the folks who do things that are “useful” and can be measured.

So is the goal to destroy the artist? Hardly – if anything, the goal is to try and help the artist succeed using the mechanisms currently in place in life, school, and work.

Is this perspective, which equates quantifiability with value, a hangover from some arcane Pythagorean hypothesis? Man is the measure and the measurer.

In the musical 1776, some congressmen are afraid of debating the subject of independence. One congressman who disagrees says: “Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell, yeah! I’m for debating anything!” I guess I feel the same way. Some people feel like the creative process is so holy that it can’t be studied. Some people feel like it’s pointless to study a poet like Sylvia Plath with any purpose other than canonization. I disagree.

Miller’s bower-desecrating approach presents a different threat to art to that posed by Kaufman’s research, because it is characterized by contempt for art rather than a rather irritating desire to pore over it with a measuring device.
But if the bower can be reduced to involuntary twitching and posturing, then how long before all creative striving is reduced to the same level?
I have coined a term to commemorate this dual-attack, ‘The Miller-Kaufman Effect’, to wit:

psychometricians and evolutionary psychologists are more likely to degrade the creative process and creative people than any other group of working psychologists (particularly psychoanalytic therapists), and are more likely to suffer from tennis elbow than bishops, candlestick-makers and footballers.

*

You can’t hang chains on sunbeams.
As a striving towards a realization of the imagined – but unknown –  the creative process arises out of a tension of opposites. The goal of the creative process is to realize this tension between the imaginary end product that drives it on and the unknown (unfinished) “art work” that it produces.
Sunbeams arise in a similar way – for sunbeams to be visible to the naked eye three things besides sunlight are required: darkness (offers contrast), substance (to cast a shadow and divide the light into beams), and shadow (see darkness). Throughout this battle between light and dark, the sunbeam, the battle’s end-result, shimmers silently.
The next time you look at a sunbeam consider this dependency. Add your awareness of the dependency to the perception, so that as you experience the wonder of the sunbeam its extraordinarily symbolic dual nature becomes a feature of your experience, and the sunbeam itself can be experienced as both light and dark at simultaneously.
The creative process is also characterized by flux. In it, the imaginary and the attained, the promise and the work, tease and tantalize each other until they have fleshed out a winning combination (or, in lesser works, a compromise). The light of imagination maintains this process. Art works are the end product. As the erratic nature of the end products demonstrates, the creative process enjoys nothing more than defying the Principle of Non-Contradiction. To say a work is “finished” is just to move the flux elsewhere and begin again.
To experience the creative process, and one has to experience it to measure it, is to experience something like a sunbeam, something that is both here and there at once. You can’t measure that which is simultaneously here and there because its state is always elusive and is different each time you experience it. Even at the best of times, we don’t know whether we are dealing with forces of the imagination or forces of darkness.
Because it strives for clarity and demystification, psychometric measurements are the wrong scientific tools to use to understand the creative process. Quantification is the wrong conceptual tool. The creative process is neither holy nor unholy, but it shares this with sunbeams and other mystical presences: unquantifiability.
Any gombeenus erectus can coin a term. So, to distinguish myself amongst my peers, I have coined a second, “the Kaufman Minimum”, to wit:

the scientific and aesthetic value of any piece of psychometric research that is said to be dependent on the reduction of the creative process to quantifiable features of the least relevance, such as lifespan, hair color, and breast-size

Emmet Cole
11 August 2004


Emmet Cole is a journalist and writer from Ireland. His work has appeared in Red Herring, The Irish Times, and BookView Ireland. He co-authored a comedy play, “The Indestructible Sandwich” with Mid-Day columnist, Rohit Gupta, and is currently working on a novel. His column “Joyous Anarchy” will appear monthly on The Modern Word.

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