“On Intuition and Analysis” by Matthew Ballou

The ways that the human mind manifests itself in creative activity are vast and various. People have theorized about and argued over modes of creative impetus for millennia. Artists and lovers of art are constantly attempting to plumb these depths, always looking for some elucidation of the mechanisms and maneuvers our minds utilize when we are in that universally recognized but seemingly undefined state that is creation. There have been a great many different opinions and certainly a large proliferation of words used to describe this state, this modality of thought. What follows here is a brief attempt to perceive a strategy for understanding the broadest creative modes of the mind.

These creative modes could be distilled to two mental states: intuition and analysis. I believe that creative activity really amounts to the dynamic interaction between these two forms of understanding.

Consider intuition first. When people talk about their artistic processes with statements such as, “I just surrender to the work,” “I empty myself and let it flow,” or “I turn off my mind,” they are speaking of acting from intuition. They are moved by an instinctive, largely unexamined series of unspoken conditions, assumptions, and motivations. To describe all of this as intuitive is not to suggest that it is illogical, irrational, or arbitrary. Rather, the intuitive is built from a whole range of varied interactions with reality, all of which are grounded in real experience and practical knowledge. The substance of our intuition is, as I will discuss below, partly made up of what we know about the world through overt cognitive engagement: education, reading, studying, and thinking. Yet it is also built from physically being in the world: experiences we have with our bodies, technical skills we have built over time through multiple attempts, and the ability our minds have to identify with the physical, emotional, and intellectual realities of other human beings. The content of our intuition is basically the sum total of our mental, emotional, and physical experience of the world that forms an instinctive frame of reference for us. What we know and how we experience that knowingness coalesce into an inner sense of rightness and direction.

I can witness this time and time again while creating my own paintings, drawings, or prints. As I take creative action in the world, my background frame of reference – my intuition – flows out of its own accord. Even with extremely precise and specific efforts, the weight of what I know constantly informs my conscious mind in multifaceted ways that are not the overt recitation of techniques or formulae but instead are a meta-filtered pre-cognitive sense of how I should move or not move in any given situation. I cannot escape my intuition, but I can seek to use it or to constrain it. I can work to be aware of it or find ways to ignore its presence.

The results of this synergy between more or less conscious action and embedded, unconscious or instinctive stimuli are not necessarily objective, nor are they always entirely appropriate at first blush. However, they can be honed over time into greater and greater accuracy, or at least into more applicable and necessary avenues of implementation. How I use that vast data enclosed in my intuitive frame of reference, how I add to it, how I shape it is, in large part an effect of just being in the world.

Because it is intuitive, it directly follows that I am not overtly deciphering what I am doing while I am doing it but rather am going with the flow, responding in a kinesthetic way to my environment, to the task at hand, to the formal physical or visual dynamics at play. There is a real sense in which the practical value of the intuitive is located outside of the mind (i.e. in the realm of actions) but is directly related to what the mind has previously processed through thoughts or experiences. The more I use it, the more it can shape my actions, and thus, circling back into itself, the more it is refined and referential to my own particular encounters with reality. In stepping back and considering what intuition has wrought I can gain a greater grasp on what I am doing, what I want, and how to get there. This mental state of stepping back from active making in order to take stock of what that making has done is, obviously, analysis.

The analytical property is the cognitive process of considering what has been created, known, or formulated and investigating it in the light of other available information. Though it is a different function of the creative mind, analysis is no less valid or valuable than the intuitive function. It is, perhaps, Kant’s notion of disinterested judgment at work. It amounts to a studied, learned grasp of a field. It is a rational, thoughtful application of relevant information to the question at hand. It is a knowing trajectory of thought meant to bring context and history into perspective and apply them to a specific situation. Analysis is the conscious, rigorous assessment of what the intuitive has conjured up. It brings in the weight of external meanings and conceptualizations, allowing outside history, methods, and meanings to become a foil to the internal, personal movements of intuition.

Like intuition, analysis is also accumulated and honed. Like intuition, analysis must be utilized in order to grow and become more useful and far-reaching. Like intuition, we carry analysis with us; it is in our frame of reference, and the information it calls us to consider is later absorbed into the unconscious bedrock of our intuition. This is a special point – that the analytical may be subsumed into the body of the intuitive. Any instruction in art (or any other subject) that I have received, every page of theory read, all of the critiques I have had (or have given), every passionate argument made or heard were, in their moments of happening, analytical by nature. Yet afterward the experience of dense intellectual assessment passed from my outward regard and became a part of the matrix of my deeper understanding. Each book read, every museum explored, all lectures intensely considered, every struggle to mix the perfect color… all of these things eventually add their value to the ocean of meaning and pre-cognitive understanding that is intuition. There is an infinite return at play here, as these elements become part of the underlying depths that constitute the intuitive. What was once outside of me, part of the external context, has now become part of the inflection of my innermost creative movements, and it may – in ways I can never entirely know or fully understand – be re-manifested into the world through my intuition. This is a glorious, necessary thing.

Analysis is absolutely essential to whole process of art, because it brings a multifaceted framework to bear on the singular viewpoint of an individual creative action. Analysis is the re-contextualization of information, action, and instinct that had been de-contextualized in the unconscious databank of the individual mind. It once had context, but, after being learned and practiced, it passed into the intuition where it was sublimated into dense interwoven strands of subjectivity, ready to be called forth in various ways. This calling forth in a creative action is usually automatic and un-parsed; we normally do not examine every single brushstroke or every line of a composition in the moment of its initial appearance. Therefore, in the moment of its presentation, any element may seem to be context-less (“I just did it. It’s not based on anything,” etc). We know this not to be the case, since all things were presented to us within a context, all learning occurs in some format, and all actions take place within a broader referential tableau. It is impossible to make a pure or random or context-less expression. Analysis heightens our sense of the surrounding context within which our expressions move.

Analysis could then be understood as a conscious awareness of the broader perspective within which our unconscious, instinctive actions have taken place. Intuition is built from the absorption of analytical information, and analysis of intuitive action forms the basis for understanding deeper pre-cognitive, instinctive motivation and direction. Using what we learn from this process feeds back into the process, progressively shaping the contours of our intuitive abilities and enhancing the precision of our apprehension of what we mean in our instinctive creative action. There is balance here. It is a wonderful symmetry, a tightrope dance between the poetic and the rational, between faith and logic, between the sensate and the intellectual.

Unfortunately, analysis is something that creative people often fear, denigrate, or ignore. There are many reasons for this. One of them is fear of the feeling inadequate in the face of intellectual or philosophical rigor. Some artists fear that disenchantment – and a resulting inability to create – might come from too much definition or explanation. Another fear is related to the emotional vulnerability that analysis creates. Ultimately, people fear being attacked for their expressions. This is, of course, because analysis is a deeply challenging event, in the sense that critique or scholarship forces creators to step away from their emotional association with the work in order to gain a different, broader, nuanced understanding of it. Because of their close connection to the work they make, artists necessarily feel the uncomfortable, prying, revealing force of analysis when it is brought to bear on their work.

Along these lines, there is a huge amount of distrust of analysis by creative people who are in school, particularly graduate school. Often those who reach this level have gotten there purely on intuitive making. They fake the analytical element or compartmentalize it, seeing it as irrelevant to the way they work. This is something I have encountered many times at the university level. When students are pressured to bring the analytical aspect into their work they revolt, feeling that it would demystify their process, destroy the enigma of their ideas and normalize the effect of their work, causing its scope to vastly diminish. Without fail, these fears are baseless, because the feelings of embarrassment and vulnerability brought by true analysis pay off with an infinite range of possibility being added to the work. Suddenly it has access to a real basis, an actual pedigree, a huge arena of resonance, and a claim to an artistic legacy – more than they could have possibly imagined and far more than their own closed-minded perspective could have given them.

There is a strange duality working in the tensions artists feel about deeply examining their own artworks. In many ways we are conditioned to keep our inner beliefs to ourselves, to proscribe our expression of our most fundamental convictions. Yet simultaneously there is a premium placed on self-expression in art, as if it requires no justification whatsoever. Into this realm come intuition and analysis. The intuitive – obviously informed by personal feeling and inner dialogue about what is important and valuable – is revealed by analysis. That is, the analytical approach exists as an explicatory function of critical thought, and it forces inner beliefs and convictions into the light of open discussion. This is often a confrontational, stress-filled situation for all involved, and artists sometimes learn to associate analysis with distress, confusion, misunderstanding, and emotional trauma. Instead of a growing grasp of the potentiality of the work, a more whole understanding of how it operates and how it may be received, they experience a collapse of what limited power the work initially did contain. This need not be the case. What many artists learn through the difficult process of having analysis brought into their world is that, while the intuitive is a door of access to all of human consciousness, analysis is the key that opens that door. Each needs the other; they are conjoined.

In conclusion, and in the interest of further clarity, let me express some thoughts on the symmetrical characteristics of intuition and analysis:
• Intuition moves us deeply but provides no overt justification of these moves.
• Analysis helps us see what our moves share with the history of other moves.
• Intuition tells us what to make.
• Analysis tells us how to understand what we make.
• Intuition forces us to make expressions without qualification.
• Analysis helps us discern the qualification of our expression.
• Intuition is the friend of the individual, the poetic, and the particular.
• Analysis is the friend of the viewer, the rational, the universal, and the contextual.
• Intuition is a monarchy.
• Analysis is a democracy.
• Intuition is passion and reaction.
• Analysis is thoughtfulness and reflection.
• Intuition cares about preserving individual subjectivity.
• Analysis cares about establishing contextual appropriateness.

I hope from this brief listing of contrasts and exploration of intuition and analysis that it is apparent how desperately artists need both of these modes to be active parts of the creative process. Intuition, almost involuntarily, guides the direction and flow of our working (the facture of our paint handling, the style of our prose, the legibility of our handwriting, etc). Analysis helps us shape those intuitive elements into a broader scope and a more nuanced application than our automatic action might make. Analysis helps me inform my intuition, causing my art to better serve its own ends. It helps bring balance to the process. It helps bring a light of understanding to the cloudy depths of inference and implication. In striving to keep intuition and analysis in dynamic tension, by valuing what each brings to the overall artistic situation, and by growing in our appreciation of each, we are able to maintain a perspective that gives us greater sense of what is actually going on in the mysterious process of creation.