In an ongoing effort to be radically experimental, the following post is a philosophical dialogue I have written regarding the usefulness of “seeing” what you are going to make before you make it.

Please let me know how you like it, if you dislike it or don’t quite get it… and also if you have anything to add to the discussion of the two characters, as their subject interests me.

And now, with no further ado,

untitled dialogue #1.

Dramatis Personae:
a college student named Nat Tabris
and a friend.

“Intellectual vision makes for excellent production.

What do you mean by this, Nat?

That “vision”, not the vision of the eyes, but of the mind, is a pre-requisite for creating something and creating it well. That seeing a thing, or perhaps the image of a thing, in “your mind’s eye,” as it will exist in the medium, is a pre-requisite for any and all good art. Or rather, it is a pre-requisite for any art of any kind (in the general sense, e.g. “artifice”)… In other words, how good your pre-art mental map is determines how good the thing will be.

I see.

That’s what I think, but don’t let me get off easily. Let’s examine it.

How shall we examine it?

By answering this question: Is there any contradictory thesis that makes this a bit challenging, and thereby interesting, to maintain?

Divine inspiration is another source of excellent production.

Yes, but does inspiration come in any other form than intellectual vision?

Let’s see, in the case of Dante, it does not. The inspiration is a form of intellection.

Who else?

Chaucer, Plato, Wordsworth, Whitman… Eliot.

Take Chaucer. He produced an excellent book, right? Did he “see” this excellent book, before producing it?

I do not know enough about Chaucer.

I think that’s the thesis, right?

Yeah, but I do not know much about these others… Perhaps one of our other friends could help us. I definitely think Plato would affirm that inspiration from God is a kind of intellection.

Even without examining these artists, I see one exception to this.

Which is?

Improv.

What do you mean?

Jazz improvisation artists begin, not with the final goal in mind, but, with a prescience of the parts of the final goal, and they let a spontaneous, spur of the moment assembly take place.

Are we missing anything major in this inquiry? Who has thought about this the best, and to whom can I look for initial starting thoughts?

Is now the best time to decide that, my friend?

No, we were in the middle of a thought. So I’ll come back to that question at the end of this train.

OK.

So, you were saying that improvisation is an exception to your own thesis. Fancy how you contradict yourself! How then we explain improv, of the jazz sort, the rhetorical sort, the humorous sort?

It seems to be an employment of methods, already known, to create an arrangement that is new.

This “new arrangement” is unforeseen?

Yes.

But it is possible that it be good?

Yes… and often is.

Does this disprove your thesis, then?

Yes, unless I qualify.

Which I’m sure you will.

Yes, I will. You can tell me after if I seem to be weaseling out of the argument. I will qualify in the following way: If the parts are foreseen, and if a vague idea of the skeleton upon which these parts will be hung, is foreseen, then some idea, or “vision,” of the final product is in fact foreseeable. Let me put it this way: if you know the compononents you will be building with, it is sure what kinds of products will not be produced. By choosing your tools (the parts, or means) and the form (the skeleton, or frame) of the final product, you exclude certain final products, and in that way choose the final product.

I agree, and do not think that is weasely.

We’ve reached a sort of an end to that part of the argument, would you like to ask your first question?

Yes. It was: are we missing anything major in this inquiry? Who has thought about this the best, and to whom can we look for initial starting thoughts?

Well, I’m sure Plato had something to say about creation, and about imaging things. The Timaeus, for instance, has the maker looking at a model, some eidos, by which he creates the world.

OK.

The thesis is, “intellectual vision makes for excellent production.” This seems true, as far is it goes. David Allen affirms as much in Getting Things Done. He says “imagine yourself beyond the completion date.” “Imagine success. What did that look like?” Here he is leading his fans to build a vision of what they want, that they might attain it. With that said, however, we have much to research to see what other, more capable men, have thought about the same subject. Until then, let us conclude, tentatively, that you cannot create well without first seeing the whole, or at least the parts.

It is concluded, for now.”

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

12 Comments

  1. I disagree! Plenty of good work comes about accidentally, without the foreknowledge of the artist.

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  3. Keith said: Let me put it this way: if you know the compononents you will be building with, it is sure what kinds of products will not be produced. By choosing your tools (the parts, or means) and the form (the skeleton, or frame) of the final product, you exclude certain final products, and in that way choose the final product.

    This new definition is a far cry from what seems to be contained in the original thesis. It seems this new thesis only allows for a negative vision, a knowledge of what it is not. The difference between a negative and positive vision seems to be great; for the latter allows one to know something about the artifact itself, while the former requires one to have knowledge of a host of other things (what it is not), while never leaving a concrete impression of what it is (unless, of course, your negative knowledge was so extensive that a sort of impression or relief could be seen after everything else had been negated away).

    Further, in what sense can this negative vision be called vision at all? Is not vision precisely to see something? Perhaps even to actively see it? I think an analogy to physical vision will be helpful. When I look at a bust of Caligula I am having a vision of something very concrete. You could perhaps say I was also having a vision of not-Nero, not-Venus, and not-Bucephalus although I think this really stretches the meaning of vision. Indeed, I am only having these negative visions in so far as I actively bring positive visions of them to my mind and compare them with the cold marble in front of me.

    I think the counter-example of improv is a good one for making Nat refine the thesis. However, for the reason above, I think he refined it in the wrong way. I want to ask how much prior to the creation of the art must one have the intellectual vision? Could this vision be co-existent with the production? The example of an improv musician is a good one. One can be caught up in the making of music and be inspired with every note that is played, bending and changing as necessary to bring forth something that was, or is being, seen or felt in the midst of the music.

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  4. Regarding: Further, in what sense can this negative vision be called vision at all? Is not vision precisely to see something?

    Vision is to see something, but if artistic vision is to be vision, must it not be possible to see something which is not. For if it were, then there would be no work for the artist, for the artist makes something to become which was not. No?

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  5. In high school when I used to draw a lot, I would often imagine a great picture I was going to draw — say of a person in a particular pose — but be disappointed when my hand wasn’t able to reproduce my vision on the page well enough. Was my vision not strong enough, or was it just the limits of my physical talent which crippled my vision?

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  6. Was my vision not strong enough, or was it just the limits of my physical talent which crippled my vision?

    Jon,

    This seems easy enough: Your physical talent did not match your “mind’s eye.” Right?

    This happens all the time. Imagine a large, purple mountain. Now go make it.

    You can do the first, but you can’t the second. Why not? Because it would take a lot more empty space, bulldozers, and purple dye than you have at your disposal (I assume).

    Dorothy Sayers in Mind of the Maker makes this point with impressive clarity. She distinguishes between the three forms in which all artistic creations exist: the Idea, the Activity, and a third. The Idea is purely mental… it is what you “see.” The Activity is the spinning out of that idea in the world in whatever medium, whether words, clay, or purple dirt… The third is harder to explain and I will leave it to you to read the book yourself! But Sayers makes the point that artistic failure can and does occur at any of the three levels. You can know what you want to make but not know how to make it, (this is your case, Jon) or you can have all the materials and skills in the world but have no idea what you want to create, etc.

    Another conception of this model might be Inspiration/Translation. In other words, the Idea, or the “intellectual vision” as Nat calls it, is something you receive by way of inspiration. It comes to you from on high, fully developed, fully existant… it’s done. The task then becomes to translate what is in you into tangible and transmittable terms.

    In your case, Jon, your hand must do the translating from the language your imagination is speaking, and, in high school at least, it made an amateur’s job of it.

    Nat, what do you think of the Inspiration/Translation model?

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  7. Tex said “The difference between a negative and positive vision seems to be great.”

    I cannot speak for the characters in the dialogue, but I will say what I think, which is this: When Nat said
    “By choosing your tools… you exclude certain final products, and in that way choose the final product.”, perhaps he overstated the negativity of this vision. Perhaps, then, a better way of stating this point is that this method of production is one of limited vision, rather than negative vision.

    For example, if I gave you blank piece of paper and some glue, and three pieces of paper — one red square, one green circle, and one white triangle– and told you to make a design, I can pretty well predict what kinds of a thing you will make. Given those materials, there are only so many options, right?

    I think (I think) this was his point.

    What do you think, Tex?

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  8. Tex said, Further, in what sense can this negative vision be called vision at all? Is not vision precisely to see something?

    I think this is answered by the previous comment.

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  9. Again, Tex said “I want to ask how much prior to the creation of the art must one have the intellectual vision? Could this vision be co-existent with the production? The example of an improv musician is a good one. One can be caught up in the making of music and be inspired with every note that is played, bending and changing as necessary to bring forth something that was, or is being, seen or felt in the midst of the music.”

    If you remember, the exact thesis was “intellectual vision makes for excellent production.” The nuance there, I think, is that creation (or production) can and does happen without any foresight… it just doesn’t happen as excellently.

    My guess is that even the best improv artists cannot match an average-skill well-prepared composer. BB King improv vs. Duke Ellington composition? I think the Duke is just better.

    So, in response to Tex: how far ahead must one think? I suppose the rule of thumb is “begin with the end in mind.” If you have a complete intellectual vision in mind before starting, you’re good. If you don’t have it complete until 1 second before you begin creating, who cares? You have it.

    Inspiration, Tex, might be different, but see Nat’s response to that in the original post.

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  10. I like the inspiration/translation description.

    Re: musical improv vs. musical composition…

    These don’t seem exactly “opposite” to me since musical composition usually involves the musician playing around with notes on an instrument, hearing a combination they like, then building on that through trial and error–but the audible music still comes first.

    It seems like a better contrast to pure improv would be how someone like Mozart “composed,” with practically the whole thing conceived mentally, followed by him writing down the pre-formed piece on paper without revision, fully realized.

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  11. Hey Jon, I just got around to reading your superman posts. I like. See your blog for comments.

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  12. jonathan writes: “It seems like a better contrast to pure improv would be how someone like Mozart ‘composed,’ with practically the whole thing conceived mentally, followed by him writing down the pre-formed piece on paper without revision, fully realized.”

    Well, not exactly, as A. Peter Brown notes:

    “The Salieri of Amadeus, when confronted with Mozart’s autographs, remarked on seeing no corrections in the scores: ‘It is miraculous.’ Such an observation is also not quite correct. While Mozart, like any composer of his time, had the craft to produce works with unusual rapidity, there were a number of false starts and compositions left in progress over a period of one or two years. For some compositions sketches survive, and one must believe that these were more common than the number of extant examples indicates. Regarding the six quartets dedicated to Haydn, Mozart acknowledged in the letter that prefaced their publication: ‘They are, indeed, the fruit of a long and laborious study.’ When Shaffer’s Wolfgang tells Schikaneder that The Magic Flute is all in his ‘noodle’ and just needs to be written down, this is something less than a half-truth. Certainly, the concept and much of the composition may have already been formulated; the act of setting the notes on paper certainly engenders changes. For operas, once the rehearsals began, all sorts of revisions might occur to accommodate both the drama and the cast.”

    Here’s an article that might be of interest about the psychology of creativity. (Note that this article uncritically mentions the Mozart myth.)

    Another on creative reinvention and quotation in the context of opera.

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