The creative art of forgetting and other irrationality

“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

So last post was an attempt at using rational arguments to debunk the idea that rationality is always the best way to persuade people. Maybe that’s a sure sign of my schizophrenia. Or confusion. Or art…. I seem to be an intuitive artist with an unnatural fetish for reasons, and I seem to be a thinker obsessed by non-rational behavior. And if it comes out making any sense, then it is sometimes still a mystery to me……

Fortunately I’m not the only one on this mad quest to reason with art and to better understand irrationality. One item that ran through my inbox yesterday helped put this in better perspective. Yale Science professor Ainissa Ramirez had this to say:

“There are two schools of thought on defining creativity: divergent thinking, which is the formation of a creative idea resulting from generating lots of ideas, and a Janusian approach, which is the act of making links between two remote ideas. The latter takes its name from the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, Janus, who was associated with doorways and the idea of looking forward and backward at the same time. Janusian creativity hinges on the belief that the best ideas come from linking things that previously did not seem linkable. Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician, put it this way: ‘To create consists of making new combinations. … The most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.’”

Another post that I first saw several months ago talked about creativity in similar terms. Here’s what Phil Beadle had to say in his awesome sounding book “Dancing About Architecture“:

“We create the new not generally through some mad moment of inspiration… but by putting things together that do not normally go together; from taking disciplines (or curriculum areas) and seeing what happens when they are forced into unanticipated collision.


The mind, at its best, is a pattern-making machine, engaged in a perpetual attempt to impose order on to chaos; making links between disparate entities or ideas in order to better understand either or both. It is the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things that don’t ordinarily go together that marks out the person (or teacher) who is truly creative.”

In a sense, what the artist applying Janusian dot connecting is doing is asking new questions. Old questions are the ones whose answers are fully circumscribed: If the answers are not already known then we at least know what kinds of things will answer them. What makes this Janusian way of proceeding different is that it can’t simply depend on established reasons. Old questions fit within a framework of rationality. With new questions we are often all at sea. In a sense it has to go off the deep end. In a sense, what it does is come up with new problems….

Here’s the irrepressible painter Chuck Close to shed some insight:

“I think while appropriation has produced some interesting work … for me, the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself because no one else’s answers are applicable.


See, I think our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation’ … You know, ask yourself an interesting enough question and your attempt to find a tailor-made solution to that question will push you to a place where, pretty soon, you’ll find yourself all by your lonesome — which I think is a more interesting place to be.”

Problem solving asks us to remember. Its a recognized, culturally sanctioned question asking activity. It urges us to apply this or that technique, and it essentially sets out the rules. In a sense, knowing the question is normative. Its why trial lawyers are taught to ask only the questions they already know the answer to. Problem solving is often a measure of our control. Its how children are graded in school. Signing ourselves up for problem solving imposes on us all the strengths but also the limitations inherent in the questions being asked. We are boxed in by only having the standard set of questions….

Problem creation, on the other hand, is that uncharted territory where the questions are so new (or old and forgotten) that the answers don’t yet exist (or have already been lost). Sometimes we find ourselves at a dead end, and realize that the questions we ask are only leading in the wrong direction (mainstream traditional Arts advocacy, anyone?). Having the right questions is often more important than having good answers to poor questions. But to shed these paradigmatic ways of looking at things often requires a shake up. Often it requires the cultural blasphemy to set aside the sanctioned way of doing things and to forget what convention tells us.

In a personal sense, problem creation is a form of amnesia. Its a blindness to the way things are supposed to fit. Its a hiccup in rationality. Its a kind of forgetting of what you knew, what you thought you knew, where it came from, and where its headed. Problem creation is an adventure off the reservation. Its the work behind eventual paradigm shifts. It teaches us to see in new and unconventional ways. The point being that there are creative possibilities in a convetionally untethered, logically unimpeded, rationally unmoored state of mind. There are creative benefits to the poetics of irrationality. There are advantages to the humility of ignorance and forgetting….

So…. I just spotted an article by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, that deals with the creative features of forgetting that fits this topic quite nicely. Here is some of what he had to say:

“I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.”


Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

So much for rationality……


That’s all for now….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The creative art of forgetting and other irrationality

  1. LInda Starr says:

    I resemble those forgettings. Ha.

  2. A great post from Sam McNerney over at his BigThink blog:

    “Most people should relate to the albatross. An unfortunate feature of the mind is its tendency to be good at understanding something in one domain but quite bad at applying it to another. The term for this is domain dependence, and it describes an inability to extend what you’ve learned beyond the context in which you learned it.”


    “The opposite of domain dependency is someone who can take what they’ve learned in one domain and apply it to any other. Here the animal equivalent is the chameleon, because unlike an albatross a chameleon naturally adapts to any circumstance (and looks good doing so). An incongruity of the mind is that we are chameleons socially but albatrosses epistemically.

    Here’s the important part. If creativity is the ability to connect two unrelated ideas to produce a novel idea with use then we should strive to be what I term “epistemic chameleons.” An epistemic chameleon is an academic version of the most interesting man in the world (the one from the Dos Equis commercials). He shifts from one domain to another seamlessly and is good at applying what he learned in a textbook to the real world and vice versa despite the subject matter. “

  3. Pingback: “Get it? Got it. Good!” – Adventures through the Looking Glass…. | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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