Photo: Thomas J. Oord, Artist in Residence, Open Horizons
From an open and relational (process) point of view, the activity of creating and receiving works of art is an expression of, not an exception to, a kind of creativity that is found throughout the whole of the universe. We call it universal creativity.
Universal creativity is, among other things, a creative advance into newness or novelty, but this novelty is not always good. The creative advance is a wellspring of beauty and horror, love and cruelty, peace and violence. Human life emerges out of, and embodies this creativity. Some of what humans do is beautiful and some horrible. Nevertheless, we carry within us an indwelling lure to create positive creativity: that is, to express our creative capacities in ways that enable a flourishing not a destruction of life. This lure is the image of God within each of us: what Muslims call our innate tendency to know and follow God, fitra.
Art at its best – film, music, calligraphy, architecture, poetry, literature, pottery, photography, craft-making – is responsive to this indwelling lure and helps us discover it within ourselves. The lure to create positive creativity through art is one way that God, a cosmic exemplar of creativity, dwells within us.
God is not the only instance of creativity, but God is indeed a primordial instance of it, and what makes God “God” is that God is love. The divine lure within each human being, ever-adaptive to each new situation, is responsive to this love. It is a lure to create goodness, wisdom, and beauty, to be honest to the way the world is and can be, and to create art that empowers, ennobles, and enriches life, without hiding from its shadow side.
In all of these ways art is responsive to God who is, says Whitehead, the Poet of the world. In creating art, we engage in an act of collaborative poetry-making, collaborative poiesis. We become, in our way, collaborative co-poets. This co-creation of a more poetic world is one of the deeper meanings of what a Muslim calls vicegerency and a Christian calls stewardship.
- Farhan Shah and Jay McDaniel
Creativity, Cosmology, and Art
Universal Creativity as Pure Activity
Whitehead speaks of universal creativity as the ultimate reality. It is embodied in all actual entities of any kind, whether microscopic or macroscopic, small or large. Even God – the Mind of the universe – is an expression of, not an exception to, such creativity. For Whitehead, universal creativity is similar to what Aristotle called prime matter, which is the ‘stuff’ of which all entities are manifestations. However, for Whitehead, this ‘stuff’ is not passive matter like clay, but rather a pure activity which is actual in any and every actuality – organic or inorganic, microscopic or macroscopic, visible or invisible. If angels exist, they are invisible to the eye but nevertheless examples of this creativity. The same applies to God.
Some compare Whitehead’s notion of creativity to the philosophy of Heraclitus, who saw the ‘stuff’ of which all things are expressions as energy or, metaphorically, “fire.” Others to continuous creativity of Chinese philosophy, chi. In any case, for Whitehead all entities, including the divine and all-embracing entity. express something deep and primal, something fire-like, something continuously and universally creative.
Transition and Concrescence
What is this stuff? This universal creativity? It it two things: transition or flux or the creative advance into novelty, and concrescence of the act of decision or self-creativity in the subjective immediacy of the moment.
On the one hand, for Whitehead, universal creativity is flux itself: a creative advance into newness or novelty. This advance is the ceaseless or perpetual transition from one moment of experience, filled with immediacy, to the many moments that follow it, all influenced by the moment in some way, and filled with their own immediacy.
Whitehead speaks of a single moment of experience as an actual entity that has a life of its own. Its internal energy, its inner aliveness, is what Whitehead calls “subjective immediacy.” When an actual entity arises, it has this immediacy, such that it is a reality for itself. But when it passes away, its immediacy perishes and new actual entities take its place in the ongoing history of the universe. Transition or flux is the passage from present immediacy into the past, amid which its subjective immediacy perishes, such that something new, with immediacy of its own, emerges. In this sense creativity it the passing away of what was (perpetual perishing) and the transition into something new.
On the other hand, creativity is also the internal activity by which a single moment of experience -- a single actual entity -- creates itself out of the many influences that shape it. In Process and Reality, he says that the very essence of this activity, the self-creativity itself, is an act of decision in the root meaning of the word decision. It is an act of cutting off certain possibilities for integrating the many influences and, in that very moment, actualizing others. In this activity the moment of experience, the actual entity, becomes what it is, it becomes ‘concrete.’ Whitehead’s name for this act of self-creativity through integrating many influences is concrescence.
Thus, for Whitehead, the word “creativity” names two kinds of process – transition and concrescence, flux and the momentary immediacy of a living subject. Everywhere we look we see an expression flux and immediacy, of Whitehead calls creativity.
Creativity in Human Life
The creativity which lies in the depths and immensities of creation is also found in any and every activity human undertake or undergo: sleeping, eating, breathing, loving, fearing, hoping, suffering, enjoying.
Any human activity and the subjects who engage in or undergo it are expressing what Whitehead means by creativity or, as we put it here, universal creativity. Moreover, in Whitehead’s philosophy, the we “subjects” who engage in the activities are not different from the activities themselves. Human “subjects” are not static entities that remain unchanged amid their activities; they are the moment-by-moment creativity of undertaking and undergoing the activities. The moments of our lives, as they unfold in succession, each with its own creativity, are who we are.
As is clear from introspection or a reading of the daily news, these acts of creativity are not always “good.” They include laudable activities such as peacemaking and tenderness-giving, but also tragic acts violence and injustice. And yet, thinks Whitehead, we carry within ourselves an inwardly felt lure toward what, below, we call positive or life-enhancing creativity. This is where, for Whitehead and process thinkers, the lure of God comes in. The creativity of the cosmos includes a cosmic Mind or Self whose very ‘body,’ so to speak, is the universe, whom religiously-minded people name God. Understood in this way, God is not outside the universe as a distant monarch; God is instead a living subject, everywhere at once, who experiences many actualities of the cosmos, and also the whole of it, in a compassionate way; and who, after having experienced the happenings of a given moment for a given actuality or group of them, responds by offering fresh possibilities for positive creativity, relative to the situation at hand. Process thinkers speak of these fresh possibilities as ‘initial aims’ from God. Every moment of concrescence begins, not only with influences from the past, but also with the inwardly-felt beckoning of these aims. They are, as it were, the divine callings for the moment a hand. They are lures for positive creativity.
Positive creativity is creativity that enhances the quality and richness of experience for the actualities in the universe in that moment and in the relevant future. In human life, positive creativity includes attention, delight in beauty, forgiveness, gratitude, imagination, justice, kindness, love, honesty about the shadow side of life, wonder, appreciation of mystery, and zest for life: the entire spiritual alphabet.
All the qualities are forms of relatedness, qualities of heart and mind, forms of experience. All are vital and awake in their own way. All are ways that human beings can realize their potential as human beings. All are, in their way, divinely inspired. God is that reality inside each person by which he or she feels called to actualize or realize these qualities.
The function of art in human life is to evoke and inspire one or another of these forms of relatedness. Here “art” includes theatre, music, film-making, sculpture, crafts-making, as well as, of course, the literary arts (poetry, story-telling, essays) in written and spoken form. With its capacities to evoke positive creativity, art not only functions to help human beings realize their potential, it also functions to help them understand and appreciate the very nature of God. This is because, from a process perspective, God embodies these various qualities in infinite splendor. Peace and joy, love and wonder, hope and play, kindness and vision -- these qualities are, as it were, the very names of God.
Of course not all that goes by the name “art” evokes and communicates such qualities. “Bad” art is not art that fails to conform to standards of excellence, which are very much dependent on social context and the norms of a given society; it is art that falls far short of evoking qualities of heart and mind that help human beings become more fully human and that obstruct awareness of Life (God) in whose heart the universe unfolds.
This does not mean that “good” art is always pleasant or inspiring. One of the most important qualities of heart and mind in the spiritual alphabet of humanity is honesty about the shadow. Here the word “shadow” is a metaphor (1) for the unnecessary and unwanted suffering that humans and other living beings ago, often suppressed from consciousness or ignored; or (2) the human acts of cruelty, injustice, and callousness that contribute to this suffering. Another word for these acts of cruelty is sinfulness, understood in its literal meaning of ‘missing the mark’ of responding to God’s aims for goodness.
Art can be jolting and unpleasant insofar as it evokes and helps humans understand the shadow side of life; and in its very unpleasantness it helps humans grow in self-awareness: that is, in owning the shadow. Art need not be “pretty.” But art can and should be true, in the sense that it reveals something about human life which helps ennoble life itself. The task of the artist is to communicate a truth of one sort or another. Insofar as the artist does this, the artist is a vessel of truth and, in his or her way, a priest or minister, a vicegerent, in his or her own right.
It is important to emphasize that an artist never works in isolation. The very activity of creating art on the part of an artist is itself an instance of what Whitehead means by the principle of relativity. This is the principle that any given activity emerges, not simply out of the self-creative resources of the artist and the materials he or she is working with, but out of the past actual world, including other people and the natural world and historical circumstances. They are the matrices of artistic creativity. Artistic creativity emerges out of many, not one, even if accomplished by a single artist. Indeed, very rarely does art emerge in this way. More often than not – film-making and musical performance, for example – art is a collective endeavor.
The receiving of art is as important as the creation and production. In the relational perspective of process thought, works and performances of art do not exist as self-contained objects. Instead their meaning lies in how they are received and interpreted by recipients. This holds true for religious art no less than secular art, for biblical and Qur’anic interpretation no less than interpreting the poetry of Rumi or Mary Oliver. Debates over the adequacy of interpretation are always context-dependent.
Still it remains true that art has a holy calling. It’s calling is to reveal human potential for the fullness of life, to evoke and actualize positive creativity, and thus to respond, moment by moment, to the beckoning of a divine Artist who, although more than anyone can imagine, lies within each person has his or her own inner Muse.
The calling of this Muse is itself context-dependent. In our age of global climate change, economic disparity, the wholesale oppression of individual human rights, the violence of wars and threats of war, the sadness of people whose very dignity is denied on the basis of color and creed and culture, the calling of the Muse is for artists to create art which helps remind humans anywhere and everywhere that they are small but included in a larger planetary whole, that they can take care of themselves and strangers, that they sin by violating the rights and needs of other people, animals, and the earth. Their art can and should “speak truth to power.” This does not mean that their art needs always to be “message” art with a didactic tone; such art quickly becomes cliché-ridden and boring. It can be evocative art which addresses the signs of the times with a denunciation of what is unjust and an annunciation of what is good for humanity and other forms of life. This is, as it were, an ethical function of art.
The function can be realized in countless ways and by many forms of art. In the process tradition we often speak of the importance of ecological civilizations, the building blocks for which are communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, communitarian, humane to animals, good for the earth, and spiritually satisfying, with no one left behind. Prophetic art is especially oriented toward this end, not by preaching but by invitation and novelty. With its help we learn to see the world and listen to the world in new ways, sensitive to the voices of others, with a sense of kinship with them, in the spirit of what Muhammad Iqbal called spiritual democracy.
It must be emphasized, however, that not all art need be prophetic. It can evoke any or many of the qualitie of heart and mind in the spiritual alphabet, and insofar as it does, it is an act of co-poiesis, or collaborative creativity, human and divine.