Deborah Haynes / Visual Culture

Answering Bakhtin

Because creativity is so complex, multivalent, and difficult to define, should we, like Mikhail Bakhtin, abandon attempts to theorise these processes?

Answering Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin avoided clear definitions of aesthetics, and he never produced a systematic theory about creativity or the creative process. Yet his view of creativity is based in familiar European philosophical traditions; and best understood through ideas such as answerability, outsideness, and unfinalisability, all of which were formulated when he was still a young man in his 20s. In particular, with the concept of answerability Bakhtin emphasised that we are not obligated by theoretical norms or values, what he called theoretism, but by real people in real historical situations.

In his short essay ‘Art and Answerability’, Bakhtin made an attempt to articulate the importance of answerability. Following a Kantian framework, he stressed that the three domains of human culture—science or reason, ethics or the life of action, and art or aesthetics—can be united in an individual, but that this unity can be either external and mechanical, or internal and organic. Like any person, the artist can make an external connection between the self, art, and the world, thus creating a falsely self-confident art that cannot answer for life.

Yet, to make an inner connection between art and life necessitates answerability—responsiveness to others, events, and the world. From this perspective, experience and understanding must be linked to activity in a life. Bakhtin’s goal was to point out that through a process of consistent response – or answer-ability – art and life can be unifed by and in the person. Answerability is his term for the process of mutual response, answering, that happens between two persons or between art and life. The need to answer the other responsibly implies obligation. Such obligation is never solely theoretical, but is an individual’s concrete response to actual persons in specific situations. Thus, for Bakhtin answerability is the name for individual responsibility and obligation that leads to action—for ourselves, of course, but also on behalf of others.

Dream Angel

M. C. Richards, Dream Angel

Bakhtin’s understanding of the centrality of answerability in creative processes echoes artist M. C. Richards’s assertions about the necessary dialogue of art and life. In her last book of essays, Opening Our Moral Eye (1996). M. C. Richards recounted a formative dream. Standing in her vegetable garden, she saw a Being with a strange smile and three eyes, about 50 feet away on the compost pile. The right eye was the sun, the middle eye a diamond, and the left a huge human eye. Its front teeth were crooked, and it had a large benign countenance. In her dream she struggled to find words for her questions: ‘when will I . . . when will my time . . . what is my destiny?’ She went immediately into the studio and made this figure, a literal translation of her nocturnal image. I see this act as an expression of Richards’s commitment to holding the ultimate questions in tension with aesthetic creation. Her Dream Angel calls each of us to reflect about our own destinies, about whether we are caught in fantasies of the future and replaying our mistakes of the past. Or, are we present in the world, fully awake?

As Bakhtin repeated many times in his essays and books, this sense of the interconnectedness of self and other, text and context, art and daily life forms the foundation of the creative process. I first encountered a similar idea in Richards’s writing in the late 1960s. ‘Life is an art’, she wrote in her book Centering. ‘All the arts we practice are apprenticeship. The big art is our life’. To speak of art and the creative process as radical presence, as Richards did, is another way of articulating this linkage of self and other in the world.

Where does the lack of specificity in Bakhtin’s definitions of creativity and the creative process leave us? Should we, like Bakhtin, abandon attempts to theorise these processes? The answer of M. C. Richards’s Dream Angel to her questions, which opened this post, is pertinent here. ‘I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you’, it replied. What, exactly, should we not worry about? Near the end of a film documentary about her life, The Fire Within, Richards muses about this: ‘I often wonder, not exactly what am I doing, but is it enough? Is this enough to be doing in the world when the needs are so great? You know, to be messing around with creativity?’ The Angel smiles.

Keeping in mind Bakhtin’s profound concept of answerability and the Dream Angel’s words, I believe that we should simply proceed with our inquiries about creativity and creative processes. The Angel’s three eyes look at us with affection and wisdom as we make an effort to awaken. Bakhtin’s exortations echo in my mind and imagination: A genuine life, and genuine art, can only be realised through concrete responsibility toward others.

May we exert ourselves toward this worthy goal. ■

Bakhtin ReframedDeborah Haynes is Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Bakhtin Reframed, the latest in our Contemporary Thinkers Reframed series.

Image courtesy of irenkapatrzy.


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