Incubation and Its Mysteries

KellSiena
My daughter Kellin noodling with her niece Siena 18 months ago

Joan Acocella, long standing dance and culture writer for the New Yorker, discusses how the path of a new idea comes into form in her recent article, A Nice Little Talk. She uses a set of conversations held between dancers as a good example of how furtive it can be. “Artists will sometimes talk about such matters, but in my experience they are less likely to do so in a regular interview, where an expert is asking them questions such as ‘Can you tell me about your process?’ Indeed, it’s likely that they are most forthcoming without a questioner altogether.”

That new idea, a bolt of inspiration, a “throughline” that just appears and carries us into new work—these are the ineffables most artists are looking for. Or waiting for. They are a class of experience that essentially lives outside our zone of control, and how they come to constellate in our creative lives is usually a surprise.

Here’s Acocella’s take on that peculiar path:

I think that most of us still believe that art originates in solitary inspiration, a sort of bolt to the brain, the way Jesus was beamed into the Virgin Mary in those paintings of the Annunciation. There is some empirical support here. If you talk to artists, they will often describe a feeling of openness, receptivity, that accompanied their getting a really good idea. But this is probably true of people in all fields, not just art. Also, chances are that they had had that idea for a long time, and that the feeling they are describing is actually one of release: the idea is freed from impediments, things that were dragging it down. In other words, what these people are experiencing is not the beginning of their piece but its middle, when they say to themselves that maybe it doesn’t have to be performed outdoors or nude or solo or whatever. Then, suddenly, everything that was awful before becomes O.K. In any case, it is amazing, sometimes, to hear artists tell you how many years they worked on an idea, how many times they laid it aside, how many versions they made, and tore up—or didn’t.

The incubation period of an idea—or an inchoate proclivity—is often unclear. Until it isn’t. Incubation and its mysteries are on my mind a lot these days as we await the arrival of my daughter Kellin‘s son Rhodes. After all, the birth of a child is a particular example of the release Acocella refers to.

6 Comment

  1. ursula says:

    this is ohhh such a perfect post for the beginning of spring, Deborah. Congrats on anther beautiful grandchild coming into the world!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much Ursula!

  2. Good photo! I’ve noticed preparation, looking over the many possibilities of solving a problem (I’m speaking as a photographer who has to deal with a lot of technical issues in the darkroom) along with incubation and patience is helpful; the bolt, for me, doesn’t come without this preparation. Sometimes the solution comes after instituting what I thought would work–the new solution is better. I’d agree there seems to be “no zone of control”.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thoughtful addition to the post James. Thank you.

  3. dipittsburgh says:

    always thought provoking, Deb! ” the idea is freed from impediments, things that were dragging it down.” could this elimination of barriers be a letting go?

  4. Nice. And such lovely anticipation! I’m reading Phillip Guston these days and I would say he’s one who definitely said more when asked less (re: about the ‘artistic process’).

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