What is Art?

Notebook sketch for Creativity & Culture graphic / 2012

What is Art?

On the 28th of September this year I gave a talk to a local philosophical society here in Southern California. The topic was “What is Art,” and I had two hours to complete my talk, with a 20 minutes break between. As the famous Greek physician Hippocrates said, “Art is long, and life is short,” and two hours was far too short to talk about such an immense subject as the visual arts, but at the end of my talk I narrowed the whole thing down to two major components in answer to the big question, what is art? I think art is creativity and culture. It’s a sort of Yin and Yang in the original sense of the meaning, with creativity and culture being the complementary forces , both feeding and nurturing each other. When you think of all the great ancient civilizations, the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, and Romans, what do you think of first? You are most likely to think about their art. It is interesting that art is usually the last thing left of any ancient civilization, and it’s the first thing to be axed in a budget crises!

About Creativity

The topic of creativity has come up in our Skype conversations with fellow students Ala’a, Chika, Laila, Lionel, Matthew, and our course leader Jonathan Kearney. The subject of creativity has fascinated me for many years, especially the inspirational part, which is sometimes now called the “flow.” I wanted to find out how some of the most famous painters, writers, and music composers got their ideas. My research was done some time ago prior to internet, so it took me while to find these insights. Here are a few that I found…

Mozart preferred to compose his works late at night when ideas came to him, clearly and vividly…

In the quiet repose of the night, when no obstacle hindered his soul, the power of his imagination became incandescent with the most animated activity, and unfolded all the wealth of tone which nature had placed in his spirit.”

I also read that Mozart would summon a horse drawn carriage to take him on a brisk ride when he was having difficulty with creating his work. Although there is some recent doubt to the story, I think that it makes perfect sense, and the speed and rhythm of the carriage and horses would have acted as a vehicle for Mozart’s creative thinking.


Albert Einstein said that he owed his creativity to listening to certain Mozart pieces, but he had no understanding why. It has been discovered recently that certain sound frequencies called “Binaural Beats” and “Isochronic Tones” do have a positive effect.

Charles Dickens slept with his head facing North and his feet facing South, so that he would be in alignment with the earths poles. It is thought that he did this to relief his insomnia, but it is also possible that he did this for creative reasons. He most certainly got some his ideas from his many walks around London.

James Boswell kept fermenting apples in his desk draw, and would sniff them occasionally, plus stroke his cat that sat on his desk to induce a creative mood.

I think it was the writer Edgar Allan Poe who would wrap himself in bed blankets to create the right situation for creative thinking.

When I want to brainstorm, or get into a creative mind flow, I take a shower, and this works for me most of the time. Laying down on a bed with your notebook and pencil is a common choice for writers. I also find that taking the dog for a one hour walk is excellent, but don’t try this with your cat or pet ferret. If you do not have a dog, you can adopt one here http://www.battersea.org.uk/ if your in London, or if your in Southern California, try here http://www.barconline.com/animals/ . This is where I got my walking partner!

In the Clouds / 1994 / Terry Long

I remember being told when I was a child that I had my head in the clouds, and that it was a bad thing to daydream. These kind of negative statements from both parents and teachers can become problematic later in life.

Fear of Failure.

The first hurdle in the creative process is the fear of failure. Self-doubt can effect  everyone, not just writers who get “writers block.”  You could also just call it “procrastination” (take note Lionel!).  The fear and self-doubt can stem from a childhood experience, very often when taking your first step in a particular subject at school, when a damming remark comes from a fellow student or teacher. Yes, teacher!  This problem happened to me in my first poetry lesson when I was just six. I was ridiculed by the teacher in front of the whole class for my first poem, and it took me many years to realize that the teacher in question knew very little about the subject of poetry. She was a dream killer, and even now I still have little interest in poetry.

     Boxed In / 1991 / Terry Long

Self doubt will trip you up, and box you in. You need to think outside the box, further than yourself,  believing and trusting in yourself.

A Place of Creation.

It is very important to have a place that is conducive to work and study, where you can be creative at any time of the day or night, with all the tools at hand, controlled lighting, without any disturbance, plus a supply of your favourite beverage.  


 Point of Departure / 1993 / Terry Long

You never know where the steps of creativity may lead you, just follow your passion, and be ready to make a leap into the unknown.

The Creative Process.

The spark of creativity may strike you at any time, or you could seek it out. It may be dependent on whether you are  seeking a personal artistic quest, or  if you have been given  a commission to produce a piece of artwork for a specific requirement. Having a procedure to follow makes the creative process proceed towards it’s goal.

Creative Steps:     1. The Brief, Intention and Target.

                                           2. Research and Discovery.

                                                 3.Incubation and Evaluation.

                                                       4. Brainstorming and insight.

                                                             5. Concept and Pitch.

                                                                   6. Creation and Presentation.

                                                                         7. Evaluation. 

These creative steps should not be built in stone, there is room for flexibility and change. It should not turn into a formula.

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