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Manifesto for the imagination

By Frank Moorhouse - posted Thursday, 19 March 2009

Because of the Henson controversy, I decided I should sit down and look at the reasoning we use to defend the faculty of the artistic imagination: why is the artistic imagination treated as a thing of angry suspicion and distaste by some people and with awe by others; from where does the imagination claim its authority to challenge conventions and the law?

The fearful potency of art has been demonstrated by this social clash. At the same time, paradoxically, there has been an extraordinary growth in participation in arts and writing festivals and in the actual practice of the arts - especially the literary and digital arts.

Along with consciousness and “the mind”, the imagination offers no easy scientific route for investigation (apart from within the limits of neurobiology). Because of the sometimes eccentric characteristics and claims of its practitioners, it consequently tends to be classified as mysterious, or to be described in mystical or semi-spiritual language - even by secularly minded writers and scholars.


Most great thinkers have had a say, including those from the psycho-analytic disciplines - Freud, Jung, Lacan, Klein, Kristeva, Winnicott - who worked mainly with the relationship between the mind and the artist - art as symptom - rather than between the artist and society, although they have all had something to say on that. To a degree they all seem to accept what Freud said in 1928: “Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms ...”

Jacques Lacan said that, for Freud, the artist “paves the way”.

These are good expressions of the awe in which art is held by even the most tough-minded of the thinkers. Apart from those gripped by moral panic, there are thoughtful and intelligent people who have been unnerved by the Henson images. I have listened to them and this essay is, in part, addressed to them.

In illustration, David Marr in his book The Henson Case (Text, 2008) describes the troubled reaction of Richard Jinman, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald's arts page and other staff at the editorial conference after they first saw the invitation to the Henson exhibition which featured the frontal, naked photograph of a 12-year-old girl - #30 Untitled 2007-2008 - and which I suspect will become one of the iconic photographic images of Australian life alongside, say, Max Dupain's Sunbaker.

In my thinking I found it useful to retrace in a synoptic way - Imagination 101 - how the imagination became part of our existence, at least as far as I understand it and how it came to assert its authority.

We all use the imagination - the lie is its most common everyday use. We all use it in fantasy, assumption, suspicion, conjecture, hunch, intuition, rumour, imaginary friends, joking, superstition, forward-planning scenarios, predictions and conspiracy theories. In politics, we use imagination to create ideologies and utopias: we work up perfect worlds; we reinvent ourselves in the form of imagined perfection. We understand very little about night dreaming - that involuntary behaviour of the imagination. The imagination can become diseased, negative - nightmares, paranoia, psychosis and its “voices in the head”, and can be dangerously distorted into mass social prejudices and social hysterias in contradiction of known reality.


The evolution of the imagination in our species probably had to do with the making of primitive everyday scenarios of risk evaluation, which in turn created competing scenarios of action - imagining what might happen next: “what if ...” which, it is speculated, gives us our “flight or fight” decision-making - known speculatively as the limbic or mammalian mind.

The imagination at some point turned itself to what we know as art, its use for making things not functionally related to the activities of procreation, hunting, gathering, cave-making and defence - the drawings on the cave wall, the songs, dances, carvings, storytelling.

These were something which probably gave our ancestors assurance, caused them to ponder, plan and dream. In my self-designed Imagination 101 course, I came across the work of William Richard Lethaby (1857-1931), an English architect and historian who speculated about the relationship between nature, the built world and the development of symbolism. The known facts of nature, Lethaby argued, which can be seen and physically experienced - trees, mountains, the sky, the rivers and the sea - were at some point turned to mythic and metaphorical use by our ancestors. So the tree became not only firewood but “the tree of life”; some caves were not only a dwelling but the place where Pan lived; the river became the underworld River Styx - the river we cross when we die.

The development of the imagination also had to do with our need to create narratives which explain birth, existence and death, and with the evolution of these narratives into theologies and so-called sacred texts. The making of sacred texts is not over. There are now 19 major theological groups that break down into more than 10,000 religions, denominations, sects and unaffiliated churches, each with its sacred texts and variants. I do quite a bit of trekking, usually alone, off trail and ideally in wilderness country where there is no evidence of previous human presence. It does not take long out there in the dark forest with a campfire and unidentifiable noises and shapes for the mind to spring to superstition and myth-making.

The imagination also enabled the human capacity of empathy - to imagine ourselves in another's place or condition - which in turn aids the construction of safer inter-human relationships expressed in everyday expressions such as “I feel for you”. Another way of putting it is Keats' expression “negative capability” - the technique of absenting self to a degree and assuming the role of the other, the use of the creative faculty to enter into the minds of those who are radically opposite to one's own personality, which can produce the civic ethic of tolerance.

I would also accept that the imagination draws on the unconscious in the Freudian sense - including what he calls “the proscribed” inner sources: the compost of forgotten and suppressed memory upon which the individual personality is constructed. An imaginative work comes from, or is able to tap into, the unconscious and its collections, its archives, its symbolic and metaphoric rearrangement of lost memory. This is not just a personal compost: it is also a social compost. I sometimes think of the unconscious as an archive that cultivates itself, and that broods and thinks about itself in a hidden way until accessed by the artistic imagination (or through psychoanalysis). The unconscious contains social input - from strangers and the news - as well as the input of the home, early childhood and family relationships.

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This is an edited extract from Griffith REVIEW 23: Essentially Creative. The full essay is available at here (PDF 193KB).

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Frank Moorhouse is an award-winning author.

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