“We are not trying to break anything. We are trying to make what does not yet exist.” —Carlos Chavez

“Exactly herein lies the achievement of genius, that in the finished work there shall nowhere be perceptible the torment of sweat of the creative process. The final result still possesses for the hearer the dewy freshness of first inspiration. Haydn, who clung to nature and all earthly things more fervently than almost any other composer, succeeded in reflecting here the youthful purity of the first day of its own creation, and so produced a work the influence of which endures unbroken through the centuries.” —Karl Geiringer

No aspect of the arts is so fascinating, and ultimately so mysterious, as the creative process. To make something out of nothing, to produce an entity where there was none before, is that ability which most closely relates the human being to the divine.

When we see a tree, a flower, a bird, an ocean, we have little hesitation in discussing the aesthetics of those created or evolved entities; we can observe them, classify them, describe them, evaluate them. But when we try to move from the what and the how to the why, we are caught up short in our own lack of comprehension. Why is it that these things exist? In due course we arrive at the simple and same-time overwhelming conclusion that they exist because they were not there before and had to be made. “And God saw that it was good;” there you have the first recorded instance of criticism. To ask of an artist why he made a thing is to inquire of him or her the very thing we are unable to glean from the story of creation itself.

Let’s look, for a moment, at words. To call the creative spirit, or “God,” if you will, “the maker of heaven and earth” has always struck me a little as if we were talking about the maker of such-and-such product, be it an automobile or brand of soap. But there is nothing intrinsically inferior about “making” things; once we are not dealing with more or less mechanical substances that must merely be reshaped into this-or-that object, like cars or soaps, an artwork is indeed “made” out of a mysterious substance. The artist utilizes for his process two things: first, a “gift” to make things (and “gift” means that he is given something, whether it is a talent or a genius); and second, “imagination,” the ability to shape an “image” either from a model, as in all forms of representation, however abstract, or from an inner conception that may have no conscious parallel in nature (until much later we may discover one, as in microphotography or aerial-mapping).

To shape an image? Shaping is perhaps a finer word than making. For as Suzanne Langer has written, the artist’s duty is not primarily to express himself, but to find for his conception a “significant form.” Interestingly, in the German language, the word for creator is not the equivalent of maker; the word macher means, unfortunately, “busybody.” The correct word is chopfer, which means shaper, but also comes from the word schopfen, which has to do with dipping one’s hands into a substance hitherto formless, whether it be water or oil or clay, and to make it useful or beautiful or both.

The universe is orderly, if on a scale beyond our feeble grasp. The artwork, too, strives for order, for logic, for completeness; even Haydn, calling the overture to The Creation “Representation of Chaos,” knew at once that he could not do so by writing chaotic music. He could be bold harmonically, he could suggest through free modulation the strangeness of the primal world, could therefore symbolize the “void” by open octaves; but he had to make a shape that is the very opposite of chaos, a convincing, rounded form that speaks more for the shaping power of the Creator than for the shapeless substance at his disposal. To represent “chaos” therefore, in musical terms, becomes for the artist a contradiction in terms, and Haydn was not ready to tell his performers to play whatever came to their minds, or even to countenance a texture arrived at by “controlled chance.”

No term is more misunderstood by the non-artist than inspiration. To inspire means to endow with breath, and thereby with life. Inspiration, physically, means breathing in; expiration means that something has ended, and to expire, quite graphically, means not only breathing out, but to breath one’s last. What is little comprehended, however, is that artistic inspiration is not always a directly received idea, an Einfall (the German term for something that “falls in” to the artist’s lap or consciousness), but also implies work. Many a musical inspiration as we now hear it, is really the result of much effort over an original shape than was rudimentary, insignificant and essentially formless or shapeless. But was this not so from the beginning? As we learn from Genesis, even the Omnipotent, the all-powerful, had to rest on the seventh day. For the first six, he had not only created, but he had worked. To labor and to bring forth a mountain is a noble thing, but to bring forth a mouse, in the history of creative evolution, is even more astonishing.

Whether the stimulus to make something comes from an inner or outer need or experience, or both, the artist is required to work on the basis of the inspiration, the gift, the concept, the vision; he or she must shape the formless into the formed, the insignificant into the significant, the vague into the specific. He or she may ascribe the original gift or concept to the divine; but from then on, the responsibility for completion rests on the individual. How that is done, we can trace. Through his remarkable sketchbook, we can follow an idea of Beethoven’s from its early stages to its final version; we are certain that even Mozart and Schubert, who worked quickly and rarely sketched, accomplished their labor in their heads and were usually able to put on paper the nearly completed object, in need only of ultimate polishing and refining. But in Schubert’s case, we know that many an “inspiration” of his owes its final shape to a last moment discovery, one that had not occurred to him until the project was virtually complete, and one that transforms the artwork from acceptability to sublimity. It is possible to follow the process: to think along with the composer as he works, to see the painter’s brush strokes, to find the sculptor’s hand and chisel marks on the statue, to compare the versions of a poem as it grew (Dylan Thomas, the most spontaneous-appearing of poets, is said to have made some two hundred versions of his “Fern Hill”). But there always comes a point where our ability to explain, to account for an artistic decision, runs up against the proverbial stone wall, and we are faced with mysteries as ultimate as those of creation itself.

Composers, painters, sculptors, poets (and of course scientists who deal with abstractions and concepts) have left us countless documents discussing their methods of work. These have been collected in books and documentaries, and possess a remarkable unanimity of approach despite all outward differences. Just as evolution proves to us a profound evaluation of what may best survive, of what changes must occur in the shape and function of organisms for long-term growth, thus the individual artwork undergoes similar development to become hardy enough for survival. Art styles in their adaptability and unity-in-variety (like the numerous species of birds) show us some similar inner wisdom, which leads some to professed religion, others to amazed humility and awe before the ultimate mysteries of creation. The work of art which we call great (a designation that should be used with care and economy) is without question, a reflection on a human level of the inconceivable power and beauty and significance of natural creation.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association