One of my favorite cartoonists, Jules Feiffer, has turned 85 and recently published his first graphic novel, Kill My Mother. Because the book departs from his usual satirical expression and ventures into tragicomedy, an interviewer asked how the cartoonist arrived at his plot. Feiffer seemed baffled by the question. Inspiration comes, he replied, as “a matter of stumbling along until the story does what it wants to. I’m simply the stenographer” (“Going Along,” by Michael Mechanic, Mother Jones, July/August, 2014, pg. 58.) Next he was asked why the characters in his new book were mostly women. Again his answer might as well have been a shrug:
The only thing conscious about it was that the person I originally had in mind to do the illustrations was a women who had worked as my assistant, and I thought it would be more interesting for her if the central characters were mostly women. (Ibid pg. 58)
As it happens Feiffer, and not the women he had in mind, did the illustrations for his book, but his answers in the interview show that the creative process involves more than the artist’s intention. Happenstance or the unconscious seems to be at work, also.
Feiffer’s admission would come as no surprise to W. K. Wimsitt and Monroe C. Beardsley. In their classic essay called, “The Intentional Fallacy,” they argued against attempting to discover the artist’s mind as a way of understanding his or her work. The object alone, whether it be music, painting or a novel should be judged upon its merits, not upon whether or not its creator had a domineering mother. Artists, they would argue, are unaware of the unconscious forces that direct them.
The theory that Wimsitt and Monroe espoused is called “the new criticism,” though it has been around for decades and still dominates discussions about art. I admit I subscribe to this school and modern brain research gives it more and more credence. Studies shows that the conscious mind occupies little space in the human brain. The rest is dedicated to mechanical tasks that keep an organism alive. (“Keep It in Mind,” by Christof Koch, Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2014 pg 26) We don’t have to remind ourselves to breath, for example. For the most part, we do it without being aware.
To be blind to the myriad observations, sensations or feelings the brain records 24/7 is a mercy. Otherwise, we’d be so distracted, creativity might be impossible. The surplus of our recordings are stored in rooms we cannot consciously enter or control but which holds information that can exert its influence on us in the form of intuition or premonition.
Until we learn more about our brains, the search for creative intention seems pointless. If the artist doesn’t know the source of his or her inspiration, why should a critic presume?