Space for the imagination

This is an edited version of an opening of year talk given in 1994 to students on the MA Language, the Arts and Education programme at the University of Sussex , England

It is sometimes objected to pornography that it 'leaves no room for the imagination', by which we probably understand that the space in which imagination might operate has been invaded and occupied by fantasy. We need time to think, but reckon that the imagination needs space.

Given space, what kinds of thing can the imagination do with it?

Well, to begin with, imagination can fill out, complete or concretise something which is only given in outline or merely suggested in a text or image or whatever. Characterisation in a novel is never so complete as to leave no space for filling out, if only of the colour of a character's hair. And a novelist who closes a scene on the shutting of the bedroom door is leaving it up to us to continue the narrative in our own heads, in our imagination. Contemporary literary theories, in their reader-response concerns, have greatly added to our understanding of such imaginative concretisation, though this term is owing to work done half a century ago by Roman Ingarden, a Polish philosopher working in the tradition of Husserl's phenomenology.

In another tradition, and more recently, the late Peter Fuller - in books such as Art and Psychoanalysis - addressed the question of why a broken statue of antiquity, such as the Venus de Milo, can arouse more interest than an undamaged one. He answers in terms of the pleasure which we derive in seeking to restore in imagination the figure which is only partly given in reality. Such completion may be a conscious activity, as in art historical reconstructions of the statue (of which there are legion), or it may be unconscious. In either case, Fuller links the pleasure of restoration to a psychoanalytic concept of reparation, taken from the work of Melanie Klein, for whom reparation means making good in reality an object (specifically a child's mother) which has been damaged in infant fantasy.

There is more to the imagination, it hardly needs saying, than the ability to fill in blanks, to concretise or reconstruct, and I come at some of the more through the idea of the open-ended Edward de Bono-type game, 'How many uses can you think of for a whatever-it-is?' At this point in the talk from which this paper derives, I held up an air brick, saying that if we were in school, I would be asking my audience to get out their pens and write down at least a hundred uses in five minutes. But I let them off that task, and proceeded to tell them that finding myself with an air brick left over from building work on my house, I turned it into a pencil holder. This involved rotating the brick through ninety degrees from its normal contextual position, so that the holes face upwards rather than sideways. More is involved, and if one is prepared to take what is involved as an exercise of imagination, at least three aspects of what is going on are worth singling out:

First, one thing is being seen as (potentially) another thing: an air brick is being seen as a potential pencil holder.

Second, for this to happen, it has to be possible to rotate, or more generally, manipulate the object in space, whether real space or imagined (mental) space. More generally still, what is involved is changing a point of view on an object.

Third, the context in which the air brick is located gets changed: it goes from a building context to a secretarial one.

I wish to consider in more detail these three aspects of what is going on.

Our abilities to see one thing as another are central concerns of both Gestalt psychology and Wittgenstein's philosophy, the latter making use of the trick drawings which the Gestalt psychologists used to argue their case against associationist psychology: the drawing which can be seen either as a duck-drawing or a rabbit-drawing; a drawing of a vase or of two faces; and so on. The gestalt switch in our perception, by which we go all at once from seeing the drawing as a drawing of a duck to seeing it as a drawing of a rabbit provides, for both psychologist and philosopher, a hand proof that the mind is able to operate holistically as well as ( or, more strongly, rather than) compositionally.

Artists have also sought to make the point, or - less pointedly - have seen in our ability to see one thing as another something they should both encourage and make us aware of. Within Dadaism, Marcel Duchamp invites us to see a porcelain urinal as having a sculptural form. Within Conceptual Art, Carl André asks us to do the same thing with a pile of bricks. These are overworked examples. What may be less obvious is that all use of symbolism in art is an invitation to see one thing as another: to see A as a symbol of B - or, to formulate it differently - to see, non-literally, A as B. And you need imagination to see it.

As for manipulation of objects, there is a very interesting book in the Gestalt tradition, Max Wertheimer'sProductive Thinking, which looks at the development of children's mathematical abilities as involving being able (for example) to re-orient geometrical forms in the context of problem-solving. But once again, there are also movements in art which have given prominence to the possibility and interest of object manipulation - most obviously, Cubism. Cubism offers us the possibility of seeing all sides of an object at once. It sponsors a sort of intellectual love of the object. Less grandly, trick photography is about making us see objects from odd angles or distances, posing us the problem of object recognition when the perspective is unfamiliar. We find painters playing the same game on occasion, at least as far back as Holbein's The Ambassadors, with its deformed skull challenging our ingenuity.

In literature, point of view just is perspective, and it too can be played with, manipulated, and foregrounded as of interest in its own right. So, to take just one example, in Henry James's What Maisie Knew we are, as the title says, limited in our perspective to that of a child, observing the comings and goings of the adult world. But simultaneously, as adult readers, we are also able to imagine what is going on from an adult perspective, so that James has accomplished the feat of providing just one point of view himself, but enabling another point of view to be imagined.

If the Russian critic, Mikhail Bakhtin is right, we should read an author like Dostoyevsky as offering us multiple points of view, none of which is to be taken as authorial or authoritative: the polyphony of voices adds up to a multiplicity of perspectives, not to a right answer.

Third, I said that the exercise of imagination may involve changing contexts. We can then see something differently. Now in movements as diverse as Wordsworthian Romanticism and Russian Formalism, we find expressed the idea that central to art making is the task of making the familiar strange - to adopt the formulation one finds in the Russian critic, Viktor Shklovsky. If one believes that familiarity breeds contempt, and yet believes in the importance of the familiar or recognises the depth of attachment to the familiar, then rescuing the familiar - repairing the damage that daily wear and tear does to it - is achieved by putting it in a new context where its beauty, its charm, or simply its truth can be newly appreciated.

Picasso's incorporation of ready-mades into his sculptures, making a gorilla's head out of a toy car or bull's horns out of bicycle handlebars, changes an object's context and allows a fresh appreciation of it. At another extreme, I would see a great deal of still life painting and botanical illustration of familiar fruits and vegetables as the expression of a desire to show the beauty of that which is so familiar that often enough we pass it by without a second look. But the exercise of the imagination is all about taking a second look; it is about looking and seeing.

Here then are three aspects - central aspects, I believe - of the exercise of the imagination: seeing A as B ; changing point of view; changing context. But we do not always have the imagination we want, and imagination sometimes fails us. How and why? I think the two questions are interlinked, and before setting out a typology of failures, I offer an outline of a theory of at least some imaginative failures.

Imagination often enough fails us when the space which we are given in which to exercise it, whether as actors or audience, creates a sense of anxiety rather than a sense of opportunity. We become paralysed, cannot use the opportunities offered us, and look round for something certain to hang on to. Often enough, we become anxious when confronted with a work of art about which we feel that we 'don't know what to make of it' - though knowing that it is our job to make something of it. We are afraid of getting it wrong. A paradigm for the imaginative seizure induced by fear of getting it wrong is provided by the theatre audience afraid to laugh.

The roots of such anxiety-induced failure of imaginative nerve could lie in infancy. A leading idea in this talk is that imagination operates in space. Now, in the developmental psychoanalysis of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott, the infant's early explorations of the outside world in looking, crawling and toddling are very much spatial explorations. These are enabled by a primary caregiver, usually the mother, who provides the stable home base to which the infant can, at any given moment, return. Without a feeling of security about the primary caregiver, and the possibility of returning to her, exploration of the world becomes fraught with anxiety, and sometimes literally impossible. As time goes by the child who is confident of the secure home base will explore farther afield and for longer periods of time. The child is then able not only to take a look, but to take a second look - to see the world. It also becomes able to play. Much that has been written on this subject has been inspired by Winnicott's discussions in his Playing and Reality.

Some educational practices seek to create, however unwittingly, analogues of the safe havens and potential spaces of early childhood. This is notably the case in educational drama work where the creation of a secure environment, through use of trust exercises and so on, has been seen as a precondition of successful imaginative exploration in the drama medium. Other Arts specialists could usefully study this dimension of educational drama work, though it is - of course - not unknown for teachers in all the Arts to make use of relaxation exercises and related means of freeing up not only the hand, eye and body, but the imagination too. For present purposes, the relevance of such practices is that they are attempts to create - through building emotional security - a good-enough environment for the imagination . So it is wrong to think of the 'intellectual' exercise of the imagination as something without connection with one's rooted being in a world of other people and relations to them. Whereas Melanie Klein is inclined to trace the roots of creative imagination to infant reparation, Donald Winnicott would stress the emotional security provided by the good-enough mother and the good-enough holding environment. Both would agree that successful development involves being able to obtain release from domination by fantasy, whether the fantasy of omnipotent control or the fantasy of mutual destructiveness. And fantasy, I would want to add, gives way to imagination. But what is the difference between imagination and fantasy?

I will come at this question by comparing what we are supposed to do with Gestalt psychology's trick drawings with what we are supposed to do with Rorschach's ink blots. In the former case, we can see the drawing as either an A drawing or a B drawing: either a rabbit drawing or a duck drawing, for example. We do not help the research psychologist or ourselves by seeing it as a C drawing - say, a Mercedes-Benz drawing. Either we are being too clever by half, or the drawing was badly executed and the psychologist had better get another one made. In contrast, on the ink blot test, everything is permitted: we are free to project into the blot whatever we do project, provided only that we are not dishonest in the report that we give. But what we project is not an imaginative construction; it is our fantasy. That is the point of the test.

Projection is a technical term of psychoanalysis. Its developmental origins are in the first year of life, and specifically in what Melanie Klein calls the paranoid-schizoid phase. Unable to manage its own hostile feelings towards its caregiver, the infant projects these onto that person or other objects in its world, thus creating for itself the fear of annihilation by those around it. Thus, projection of feelings, fantasy of an external threat and anxiety about safety go together in the infant's inner world . To move beyond this state the infant must, in some sense, become able to recognise that it is the same person in the objective world who gives it care but is also a source of frustration. It has to accept that it has loving and hostile feelings about the same person, and manage those feelings. Put differently, the task that the infant has to accomplish is to distinguish clearly between what is inside itself and what is outside. The boundary between the two is confused in projective fantasy. In contrast, one might say of the imagination that it is a condition of its operation that the boundary is recognised and felt.

I can give two examples in relation to the making and appreciating of art where boundary issues appear to arise. On the side of making, I once read - I forget where, but as a criticism of her children's books, that Enid Blyton 'abandons herself in her characters'. By this, I understood that her characters functioned as vehicles for expression of her fantasy, and that they therefore lacked the solidity, the roundedness (to use an old-fashioned critical term) of good fictional characters. It is the sense of emerging solidity which leads writers to say of their characters that, once started on their way, they take on a life of their own. A writer may well feel obliged to have them do or say things which had not been prescripted. I take this as good evidence that such characters are products of imagination. If they had remained under omnipotent control, they would be mere puppets of fantasy.

A second example is that of the boundary between an audience and the stage or screen. We have all read dubious stories of primitive or uneducated people diving for cover as the shots ring out on the screen or leaping onto the stage to rescue Desdemona (it's usually Desdemona). We laugh because we know that such people have failed to see a boundary. But, sophisticated as we may be, we may also fall victim too, caught by works designed to lure us across the boundary from imagination into fantasy, to confuse what is in us with what is in the world. Such works, when we can stand back, strike us as manipulative or invasive. The maker of them seems to be seeking omnipotent control of the audience. But it is an often-stated condition of the possibility of imaginative understanding that a work leave its audience free.

Fantasy is both a substantive failure of imagination, on my account, but may also be seen as a generic term to cover a range of characteristic and characterological failures of imagination. Consider, for example, how we might be led to characterise the music of Michael Nyman and the films of Peter Greenaway as obsessive and mean that as a criticism. For the music and films sometimes fail, despite their enormous interest, because of an obsessiveness which - to put it in the most banal way possible - never allows the listener or spectator a breather. The unremitting intensity of, say, the film Prospero's Books is also an indifference to an audience's occasional need for a change of pace or point of view. This need is not just a need for time out, which might be satisfied by an advertising break, but the need for change in order to appreciate (aesthetically, artistically) what is being presented. Without any contrast, one loses sense of the richness of imagery and language in Prospero's Books . And to have created that as a likely outcome just is the result of a failure of imagination - specifically, of a failure to have any sense of audience. One might say that absence of sense of audience just is obsessionality. Greenaway is doing on a grand scale what the seminar speaker is doing who asks for 'just one more minute' for ' just one more point', a dozen times over. One yawns, and forgets.

But no one would accuse Greenaway of literal mindedness, which is another characteristic failure of the imagination, in which the use of metaphor is unavailable, or available in only the most stiff, awkward way. In a dreadful film, Sirens , a banal presentation of Bohemian artistic life is interspersed with cut aways to shots of slithering snakes. One can read the invisible supertitle, 'This is a Symbol of Sex', and can only reply 'Yes, we know. Couldn't you manage something a bit less obvious?'.

Literal-mindedness afflicts, notably, those artists wanting to transmit 'by artistic means' a literally formulated Message, for example, a religious or political one. Often enough, the 'artistic means' employed amount to little more than the mechanical insertion of Symbols at regular intervals. To use the language of Roland Barthes' semiology, such Symbols serve to connote the status of the work as a work of Art; they say to the audience, 'This is Art'. In so doing, they are not functioning holistically or organically as part of a work conceived in artistic terms. They just seek to disguise the fact that the 'artist' is really only the transmitter of a Message conceived and expressible prosaically.

There is a further characteristic failure of imagination about which little need be said. This is perfectionism. But perfectionists do not produce works of art. The risk of damage to a narcissistic self-love is too great for the perfectionist to actually embody their imagination in a concrete work.But the imagination is something which requires embodiment; it is not just mental. This is something I shall come at again, from adifferent angle, in the chapter. 'What do Artists Do?'

It would be wrong to think that art works are first of all made in the head, in imagination, and then copied in a medium. This is the characteristic error of idealism in aesthetics, as represented notably by Croce and Collingwood. The imagination is centrally exercised in the encounter with its materials and its medium, where these themselves suggest paths for the imagination to follow. The space of the imagination lies between artist, materials and medium and connects them.This is rather obviously the case in sculpture. In parallel, on the side of the audience, the space of the imagination lies between it and the finished work. In some cases, there is also the space between the work and the performer. So, in music, the performance is an attempt to make audible what went on between the composer and the material and medium of music, the trace of which encounter is the composer's score.

I have in this talk not addressed explicitly the question of the relation between imagination as something we can try to describe, and the use of the words ' imagination' and 'imaginative' to evaluate things we do. But I will end on that topic.

The exercise of the imagination is a disciplined mental activity, not at all like day-dreaming or fantasy. It is responsive to our inner past but also to an external world of traditions. On occasion, what imagination does may appear, in retrospect, the obvious thing to have done. If we are mean spirited we may then grumble, 'Anyone could have done that' . The standard retort to this is entirely to the purpose: But anyone didn't do that.This one particular person did it, and doing just that may represent a considerable imaginative achievement, such that the correct as well as generous response is 'Brilliant!' or 'Just right!'

In a game of chess, the range of permissible moves is prescribed in advance, so that we can look at any move a player makes and truly but trivially say, 'Anyone could have done that' . But what makes the play that of a chess master is the fact that not anyone would have done what the master has done. In contrast to chess, it is the case that in art, as in life, not all the permissible moves are prescribed in advance. This is why art and life have pitfalls. A move which is not close enough to previous ways of doing things runs the risk of being gratuitous, and to that extent, meaningless. No one is going to say of an acte gratuite 'Anyone could have done that'. But, equally, they will not exclaim 'Brilliant!'. There will be puzzlement, that is all, because what has been done does not lend itself to recognition - the kind of recognition we have, say, of an amazing feat in gymnastics, where knowing little of the rules, we may nonetheless recognise and applaud exceptional human grace when we see it.

In other words, I want to say that real imaginative achievements - the things which are brilliant, just right and deserve our applause are closer to what we might call the banal than to what we might call the fantastic. As a hand proof of this claim, I would cite all the hummable melodies of the repertoire of classical music.

In this move from the description of imagination to the evaluation of its exercise, an interesting contrast emerges. For the working of the imagination involves us in a kind of openness - a freedom and willingness to explore potential spaces. But the successful use of the imagination involves a kind of closure, a decisive choice which allows us to exclaim that something has been done just as it should have been done. There is perhaps more than an analogy here between the world of art and the world of morality, for in the latter we are more convinced that free will is something we possess the more we unnerringly use it to do the thing which, in the circumstances, was just the right thing to do.

Another version published in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol 31, No 1, Spring 1997, pages 1 - 8 (Copyright Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois)