In the first chapter of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron offers a number of “creative affirmations” that form the foundation of her approach to artistic recovery. The affirmations are unabashedly theist, stuff like:
- “Through the use of my creativity, I serve God”
- “As I listen to the creator within, I am led”
- “There is a divine plan of goodness for my work”
And so forth.
An earlier version of myself would have recoiled from such statements. And many people today would recoil from them too—atheists, notably, but also others who might not want to acknowledge a connection between creativity and the divine.
I’ll explore these objections in a moment.
But first let’s establish a context: the connection between creativity and the divine is one of the oldest, strongest, and most undisputed constants spanning thousands of years of recorded human history.
All the forms of art we enjoy today—from the visual arts, to architecture, to dance, to music, to sculpture, to literature, to theater—first established themselves as forms of divine communion and representation.
Go to a museum and see how the ancient drinking-gourds of the Inca reflect a desire to connect with animal spirits or how Egyptian tomb-carvings depict scenes of the afterlife.
Admire the dozens of different looks and postures reflected in Buddhist sculptures throughout Southeast Asia, from walking Buddha to sitting Buddha, from fat and happy Buddha to slim and serious Buddha.
Check out videos of the ritual dances that primitive tribes have passed down, one generation to the next, since the dawn of time. A rain dance for the Gods. A dance to bring visions. A healing dance.
The artists behind these works weren’t “faking it.”
They weren’t simply giving people what they thought they wanted.
Do we know exactly what crossed Ovid’s mind when he began his epic Metamorphoses with: “Of bodies changed to other forms I tell / you Gods, who have yourselves wrought every change / inspire my enterprise and lead my lay / in one continuous song from nature’s first / remote beginnings to our modern times” ? I’m generally pretty cynical, but not so cynical to suspect that Ovid was just paying lip service to the Gods with this opening. My proof is that Ovid was inspired to do exactly what he set out to do, that the Metamorphoses is indeed “such a work / as not the wrath of Jove, nor fire nor sword / nor the devouring ages can destroy.”
Sure, linking divinity to creativity may mean adopting a perspective that seems antiquated. Yet it’s a tried-and-true point of view that has helped countless artisans who came before us.
Notably, these skilled craftsmen weren’t inspired by one particular religious faith, but were responding to perennial problems with the human condition—questions of death, suffering, morality, governance. These questions are still very much with us today and no system of belief or technology, no matter how fact-based or science-driven, is close to providing answers.
“But none of that stuff is actually true,” the objection might run. “Art is about reality. It’s about the truth.”
Or: “Art is about what human beings can create. It’s all the more powerful if a human being, rather than a God, imagined it.”
Or: “I don’t want to commune with the divine. I want to commune with my fellow human beings! I want to help liberate them from their fears and hang-ups!”
These are understandable objections. And as I mentioned above, I remember the mindset that gives rise to them. It’s almost like words such as “God” and “the creator” and “divine plan” are trigger words that cause a rational brain to automatically shut down. But I don’t think it has to be that way.
My logic runs as follows:
1. There is no absolute truth. We can’t step outside the universe and explain what this experience is—me writing a blog post, you reading it, electrons smashing into our eyes. I sit down across from someone at dinner and I talk to them. I see their mouth moving and I hear a sound and know that molecules in the air are vibrating. But what are molecules? What is vibration? Scientists can explain quite well how an interaction between complex forces and mechanisms creates our experience of the universe, but they still can’t explain what the forces and mechanisms actually are or what the experience of being alive in the world ultimately signifies without using any measurements other than human perception. Perhaps one day in the future this knowledge will be available to us. But that day is very far away.
2. In lieu of absolute truth, humans seek knowledge that works for them—knowledge that’s useful. Example: since the 17th century, we’ve used Newtonian physics as a solid foundation to build ever more impressive machines and to explore the planet and the universe. Though the laws of Newtonian physics break down when dealing with gravitation for extremely massive objects that affect the curvature of spacetime (as Einstein showed), for most general tasks Newtonian physics is effective. We don’t worry the Earth’s gravity will change our sense of time when we’re driving, for example, even though Newtonian physics isn’t the “whole truth” of universal motion.
3. Keeping these two points in mind—that there’s no absolute truth, and that we look for systems of knowledge that work generally under the circumstances we are operating within—we can now consider spirituality in service of art (God, the creator, divine plans, etc.) through the lens of utility as opposed to truth. When we do that, a much different landscape resolves before our eyes. We begin to see that certain common activities (prayer, reflection, meditation, symbolism, ritual) have, throughout history, proved very important for laypeople and craftspeople alike. Certainly there have been many artists throughout the 19th and 20th centuries who claimed to be atheists. In fact, the primary project of some modernists and many postmodernists was the destruction of “grand narratives” which would include those adopted by organized religion. But I would argue that many of these artists found the bath water so foul that they tossed out the baby.
Julia Cameron isn’t asking us to run the government or solve world hunger with The Artist’s Way, nor is she advocating for monotheism or polytheism. She’s just hoping to provide a system of ritual and reflection that taps into an ancient human tradition and that engages the heart as well as the mind.
When it comes to launching a spacecraft or figuring out whether a chemical is dangerous, science provides the clear analytical framework. But when it comes to finding the personal strength to do something difficult—to change, to let go, to see the world as artists—scientific knowledge is mostly useless. We instead require a personal conviction that our work is right and good. This is the point of spiritual affirmation, this is the utility to us—the same utility that our ancestors discovered eons ago—and this is why I am quite comfortable with the spiritual foundation The Artist’s Way is built upon.