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  • Terry Channell

How do Patricia Cain’s ideas on the ‘enactive practitioner’ inform my practice?

Patricia Cain’s book, Drawing – The Enactive Evolution of the Practitioner[1], has provided me with an entry point for thinking about research led practice, a subject that is becoming increasingly relevant to my work. Equally, her approach contrasts sharply with some elements of my practice (she is, after all, answering different questions), which, in itself, informs my understanding of my work and that of other practitioners.

In the attached table I identify key passages in Cain’s book that, for me, either support or contrast with my current thinking. Although this paper and accompanying table are presented in summary form, each passage of Cain’s writing I quote, and my response, touches on profound questions about the process of creativity and the role of the artist.

I draw some general conclusions from my analysis below.

Firstly, there is significant commonality in our areas of interest in respect of creative practice. Cain characterises her practice as ‘thinking through drawing’, whilst, at the same time, invoking the role of the subconscious in this process. My practice addresses similar issues, such as the role of the subconscious in ‘the creative process’, and the relationship between this and the wider visible and hidden world (perhaps representing an extended form of Cain’s eco-system). Another common observation is the sense that the work ‘speaks’ to, and has expectations of, the artist. Taking this further, Cain notes that engaging with this way of thinking and working has repercussions for our daily life. I see parallels in my reading of Heidegger and the dialogue I have with my work (which are, for me, beginning to establish themselves as ‘beings’, with all that that entails).[2]

Whilst we have interests in common, the fundamentals of our approaches are very different. Cain talks of drawing not having an intermediate step between pencil and paper, therefore representing an unmediated expression of the artist’s intention. My current thinking is that drawing (and printing) are, for me, too literal in their expression of what I ‘intend’. As discussed in my essay, Balka and why I paint, I find that paint is a vehicle for releasing intention, driven by sub-conscious concerns that will not reveal themselves in a ‘literal’ medium, such as drawing or writing (and perhaps music is another non-literal medium).

This difference in our respective analysis of our creative processes is, perhaps, reflected in the ‘philosophical underpinning’ of our ideas. Cain’s use of Varela’s thinking on enactivism (embodied thinking) points in the right direction, in my view, in that it recognises that ‘the mind cannot be separated from the entire organism’, and, indeed, that this entire organism is situated in an external environment.

I would wish to take this argument further, as I sense here that the creative process may be locked into a dialogue between mind and body (and therefore bounded by the subject-object paradigm). I argue that both internal and externally, the creative mind (indeed the human mind) ranges much further.


This thinking is informed by my reading of Ehrenzweig, where the in our deepest oceanic being the boundaries between the inside and outside world ‘melt away’[3], and by Heidegger’s ideas on ‘being in the world’, where ‘the world’ is barely experienced directly by western man, and occasionally ‘great art’ can reveal truth.[4]


In summary, therefore, I suggest that our respective practices, and our sources of philosophical thought, result in us understanding the creative process in different ways.


With respect to research based practice, Cain’s approach has a similar duality for me. Firstly, she rightly, in my mind, seeks to address the issue of how one ensures rigour in practice based research, including quite fundamental concerns about being human and how we understand ourselves, as well as more obvious issues such as how we define and record ‘knowledge’ gained in this way. Secondly, however, I find this approach can be over-analytic for my practice, where, I believe, the deconstruction of the process in this way would miss the creative element that cannot be proven by such a, to my mind, mechanical reductionism. My thinking here clearly reflects my adoption of Heidegger’s ideas on the subject-object divide, but also reflects my own use of ‘copying’ to learn. My work on Auerbach and, more recently, Freud, revealed enough to illustrate a little of their creative approaches, and felt like an experiential process – learning by temporarily occupying someone else’s world (I contrast our respective approaches in that, if one could ‘be inside’ Auerbach’s mind, would one analyse, or would one ‘experience’, the experience).


I am conscious that Cain’s work is the product of a doctoral thesis, and is much more deeply researched and rigorously argued than the views I express above. For me, the value in addressing Cain’s book is that it clarifies how I think about both the creative process and my practice. I feel that Cain’s work, in a way, has pointed me in the direction of the more experiential based research for my post-graduate education. A direction that still has to address the tough questions that Cain tackles in her book.



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[1] Cain, P. (2010) Drawing – The Enactive Evolution of the Practitioner. Bristol, England: Intellect Limited [2] See my essay: Heidegger and the Yup’ik: Practice Based Research [3] Ehrenzweig, A (1971) The Hidden Order of Art, Berkley: University of California Press. p 119 [4] See ‘On the Orgin of the Work of Art’ in: Haynes, K. (ed)., (2002) Heidegger: Off the Beaten Path. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press

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