Creativity and Loss: Are You Sure You Know What You Know?

Death at birth goes against everything we know, or think we know—or feel we know—of joyfulness. The joy of birth is a knowledge of creativity and a celebration of existence. Creativity and loss, then, are not the most obvious companions. Yet this exhibition aims for the reconciliation of these two profound human qualities by proposing mourning as a creative process.

The striking mission of this project is as adventurous in its methods and processes as it is in its aim. This is a research process, Pauline Keena told me in an interview, yet her means of enquiry and the kind of new knowledge she seeks are controversial in terms of scientific method. But this is not science; this is art seeking to contribute to understanding within a realm normally associated with the medical sciences. In this brief essay I want to consider something of her terms of operation and their theoretic context, and I do so in the firm belief that art may have something to offer the world of science in coming to know some aspect of the apparently unknowable – a further “co-incidence of contraries” (1) that may be of value to the wider study of human consciousness.

Pauline Keena speaks of this project as “thinking through materials” and “the embodiment of knowledge,” in her search for a distinctively feminine narrative within art. This mission is firmly located within a current of thought within which Julia Kristeva(2), Luce Irigaray(3) and Helene Cixous(4), amongst others, have been and remain prominent figures.

In what is an essentially collaborative exhibition, she declines to assume sole authorship and claims to step out of the narrative of the work presented. The author’s voice is not hers alone, but that of her and her collaborators combined, or as she puts it even more self deprecatorily, “the voice of the narrative of the body.” This voice is essentially maternal, she having worked as a professional midwife as well as an artist, and her collaborators all being mothers who have lost their children before or at birth, and on whom Keena vests the status of co-artists. Her strategy of art as research gives rise to interesting and important questions concerning the place of knowledge in art and concerning the relationship of art to art therapy. For this writer, it gives rise too to a questioning of the concept of narrative as an adequate way of describing what the maternal body comes to know and what the bereaved person knows all too well.

The idea of knowledge is popularly assumed to be cerebral, and with meaning expressed innocent of its medium, a point of view often associated with science. However, in art, content and form have long been understood to be interdependent and this embodiment of meaning in material form has potential beyond the world of art. The embodiment of knowledge, however, has a broader and even further reaching significance when the part the body has in knowing and moving from knowledge to understanding is considered. We often speak figuratively of knowing in our bones and in less figurative terms of knowing in non-cerebral and bodily ways: in our heart or in our gut, and in contra-distinction from knowing in our head. This tripartite distinction of embodied understanding has an extensive provenance, owing much initially to Gurdjieff (5) in his idea of three centres of intelligence and in later years to the epistemology of knowledge and to neurology.

This idea of embodied understanding is relevant to the distinction of “knowing how” and “knowing that” stresses the importance of the body to the mind advanced by Gilbert Ryle(6) in his influential refutation of the body-mind dualism that he describes as “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.” It is relevant too to the subsequent tripartite distinction of propositional knowledge, operational knowledge and knowledge of the object of Paul H Hirst(7) and to the additional distinction of tacit knowledge advanced by Michael Polanyi(8). Louis Arnaud Reid’s(9) differentiations of multiple ways of knowing and of understanding in and through art are also relevant. Further, this tripartite distinction has been put forward in neurology by Paul D MacLean(10) as the hypothesis of the “triune brain:” in which the brain stem and cerebellum control behaviour such as breathing and heartbeat; the limbic system acts as the source of emotions and the behaviour of fighting, fleeing and sexual behaviour; and the neo-cortex controls reason, speech and sapience. These distinctions, and the relationships between them, have become important in the development of art research and its concerns with the cognitive dimension of feeling and intuition by providing substance for alternative and more complex modes of creative intelligence than the modernist idea of scientific method allows (11).

The place of knowledge in our understanding of art remains problematic and Keena’s engagement with Marcel Merleau-Ponty’s (12) writings on the embodiment of knowledge explores what has become one of the definitive ideas in art of the late 20th and early 21st century. What do we know when we understand a work of art? Do we really know what we know?

Whatever the benefits of Keena’s project might or might not be to those of us fascinated by the contributions to understanding that emerge from the women’s movement, it is clear from their written evaluative reports that participation in the project has also been deeply beneficial to the four women who worked with Pauline Keena: Valerie Dunne; Kate Horgan; Kay Kearns; and Linda Wilson Long. Consistently, these reports refer to how participation in the project has helped in reconciliation with the death of an infant and the ensuing feeling of failure in the creative project that is motherhood. This reads very much like successful therapy. However, the comparison with therapy remains incomplete since art therapy is normally a private process, restricted to the artist and the therapist in clinical conditions, and without an audience or expectation of exhibition. In this exhibition the personal process is made public—as is the case with much modern and contemporary art following the feminist idea of the personal being political—and Keena’s collaborators knew from the start they would be considered artists and their work would be considered art intended for exhibition. Keena is firm in her resolve that the women are artists, “even if they don’t see that.” One point of comparison here is the work of Leo Navratil(13), the former leading psychiatrist at the mental hospital at Gugging, Vienna, where patients were designated artists on admission, a point of view subsequently endorsed by the many art museums that have collected the work of these “outsider” artists such as Oswald Tschirtner and Oswald Walla. One difference is that for Navratil the works became artistically significant only at the most acute stage of the artist’s mental illness. For Keena, however, it is knowing participation in the artistic process that bestows the status of art, not the aesthetic qualities of objects and images produced, judged retrospectively, and then exhibited. Keena’s exhibition is not a showcase of works of art coming out of a process, she argues, but the process itself is the locus of the art and it is this that makes the exhibition. “The therapeutic transformation is real, but it is incidental,” Keena told me. What matters is that, “the narrative in the mother’s body would otherwise be unarticulated, and it needs to be heard and seen.” It is in this that her contribution to the embodiment of knowledge holds its potential.

Support for Keena’s position can be found in the principle of relational aesthetics and its antecedents, such as the work of John Latham(14) who famously coined the expression, “the context is half the work,” and Joseph Beuys’(15) concept of “social sculpture.” I do not think it easy to understand Keena’s interests and achievement without understanding their context of motherhood, creativity and death: the personal made political in a realm yet little explored. This relational thinking, recently re-articulated by Nicholas Bourriaud (16), enables Keena to cross the boundary between studio art and clinical therapy in ways earlier thought impossible. She makes it possible to think of the clinic as a studio and the studio as a clinic, with profound implications. Art and therapy take on a new dynamic relationship within this frame, as they do in the intensely personal autobiographic work of several contemporary artists whose work is personally and contextually defined, of whom Tracey Emin (17) and Sophie Calle (18) are probably the best known.

If what Keena refers to as “the narrative in the work” is centred on the knowing viscera, in which the logic is hardly that of the linear thinking associated with the head, nor that of matrixial structures associated with the heart, but is formed instantly and without rational structure in the gut, then it is appropriate to ask whether the term narrative is adequate for the process of which Keena speaks. Perhaps narrative may be adequate, or will be once we have come to understand visceral knowing better. Intuition—and I think this is Keena’s real subject—may seem mysterious, but is this not so only because we do not yet understand it well? When we do come to understand intuition—and a specifically maternal take on it seems apposite since we are talking about creativity—we may come to see how this human magic is understandable; and to find it more wonderful for being understood rather than less. Just as understanding the biology of a birth does not detract from the love of the born one, and just as the physics of a sunset or a rainstorm does not detract from their effects on our consciousness, so understanding intuition cannot detract from what we gain from art.

The ambition of the artists in this exhibition is heroic and the potential rewards reach far beyond the personal understanding of the participants. Pauline Keena has identified the beginnings of a fascinating and intrinsically worthwhile journey of enquiry—an important one—and it is a journey that could not be undertaken in any other way. This example of an artist working with others in a relational context is not a side track from this artist’s practice, but is part of the practice itself, transforming the experience of all its participants – artists and viewers. Keena’s dynamic creates particular challenges to any viewer who would like to judge what is before them as much as to understand it, in the manner of a connoisseur. In relational art the transformative effect of the work comes through engagement and understanding of its process rather than on supposedly autonomous formal values of its products. Relational art demands its own aesthetic and risks the epithet of bad art without much of a care. This is the challenge of the deskilled art that follows the initiatives of Philip Guston and others in the mid twentieth century. In this way the viewer is a participant in the process and a willingness to engage with suspended aesthetic judgement is assumed. The achievement of this exhibition can only be understood by such engagement directly through the gut as well as the heart as well as the head – that is to say through what I have come to consider visceral intelligence in relation to mental and emotional intelligence. It is in the relations of the three form of intelligence that knowledge in art may be found. This act of immersive engagement by the viewer is necessary for the narrative of the body to come through: for words such as these of this essay can take us only so far into understanding what we see in art, and no further. We may return to aesthetic judgement and to discursive language after the fact, but first there must be the fact, in this case the fact of what can emerge from mourning.


* This paper was first published as a chapter in Keena, Pauline, Ed. (2008) The Green Room Project, Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Ireland, published to accompany her exhibition of the same title. The title of this paper is adapted from a sculpture by Pauline Keena, Are You Sure You Had a Baby? The several quotations from Pauline Keena come from conversations with this author in Ireland, July 2008. Some minor modifications to the text were made in 2009.

1 Cusanus, Nicholas (1440), Of Learned Ignorance, Kues, Germany.

2 McAfee, Noelle (2003), Routledge Critical Thinkers : Julia Kristeva: Essential Guides for Literary Studies, Routledge.

3 Irigaray, Luce (Ed) (2004), Luce Irigaray: Key Writings (Athlone Contemporary European Thinkers), Continuum.

4 Cixous, Helene (1994), The Helene Cixous Reader (Paperback), Routledge.

5 Ouspensky P.D. (1947, 2001), In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, Harvest Books, and, Ouspensky P. D. (1957, 2000), The Fourth Way: Teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, Random House USA Inc.

6 Ryle, Gilbert (1949, 2000), The Concept of Mind, Penguin, republished with an introduction by Daniel C Dennett.

7 Hirst Paul H. (1974), Knowledge and the Curriculum, Routledge.

8 Polanyi Michael (1958, 1998), Personal Knowledge. Towards a Post Critical Philosophy. London: Routledge.

9 Reid, Louis Arnaud (1986), Ways of Understanding and Education, Institute of Education, London.

10 MacLean, Paul D. (1973), A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behavior, University of Ontario; and, MacLean, Paul D. (1990), The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions, Kluwer Academic / Plenum.

11 For a relevant critique of scientific method see, Medawar, P B. (1969), The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and Originality in Science, Pelican.

12 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1945, Trans: Colin Smith 2005), Phenomenology of Perception, Routledge.

13 Navratil, Leo (1999), Manisch-depressiv: Zur Psychodynamik des Kunstlers, Verlag C. Brandstatter; 1. Aufl edition.

14 Walker, John (1994), John Latham: The Incidental Person – His Art and Ideas Middlesex University Press.

15 Tisdall, Caroline (1979), Joseph Beuys, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

16 Bourriaud, Nicholas (1998), Relational Aesthetics, Les Presse Du Reel.

17 Freeman, Carl and Luard, Honey (2006), Tracey Emin, Rizzoli.

18 Marcel, Christine, Bois, Yve-Alain, Rolin, Olivier (2003), Sophie Calle: M’as Tu Vue? – Did You See Me? Prestel.