Why Artists Encourage Chaos?

...Chaos  – Mixed Media on Canvas – 72″ X 72″ -© Ian Summers 2011


Updated – I have spent a lot of time defining the creative process. I thought, if there was something in common with the ways we create and there was indeed some kind of process, then it would make sense to know where we are in the flow when performing an act of creation whether it is a photograph, a painting, a poem, a novel, a piece of music, new technology, a piece of fine art or even an advertisement. Perhaps, if we knew where we were in the process, we could become ‘more’ creative. To a large extent this has been proven to be true in the process of problem solving – certainly in the corporate world. Much has been written about how important it is to introduce creativity to seemingly non-creative people where creative problems come from the outside/in.

However, when we create from the inside/out the approach changes dramatically and the energy emerges in a different place. Heartstorming methodologies use this definition: Creating is causing what you love or what matters to you to come into being. While this is a truth, and I have built a career as a coach behind this theory, I recently had a recollection while in the middle of making a painting. I looked at my painting table which seemed to be cluttered with sketches, newspaper clippings, books, tools, tubs of water, brushes, spills, rags, newspapers, and what not. It appeared chaotic.

When I was a creative director, I would make account executives crazy by seeming to wait until the last minute to present an idea. In a sense, I was forcing my way into chaos. Unfortunately some people judged my behavior as disorganization or procrastination. The analytical mind rarely comprehends how chaos contributes to the creative process. I always delivered innovative work. By dipping into chaos, I was able to see more alternatives. There was more to synthesize.

In the late sixties I was a partner at an advertising Think Tank in New York known as The Farsight Group, we proposed this definition:

Creating is a process of making order out of chaos.




If that is so, then chaos must be encouraged. But what is chaos?

In Greek mythology Chaos is the primeval state of existence from which the first Gods appeared.  Chaos was the nothingness out of which the first objects of existence appeared.

Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, described Chaos as “rather a crude and indigested mass, a lifeless lump, unfashioned and unframed, of jarring seeds and justly Chaos named”, a definition that has been in use ever since.

Chaos features three main characteristics:

1. It is a bottomless gulf where anything falls endlessly: the Earth that will emerge from it to offer a stable ground radically contrasts with Chaos;

2.  It is a place without any possible orientation, where anything falls in every direction;

3.  It is a space that separates, that divides: after the Earth and the Sky parted, Chaos remains between both.

From Genesis:  In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.   And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.  And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

Does this biblical passage tell us that creation comes from the void – from chaos?

In modern times, chaos has come to mean a state of utter confusion, of either things or events, or both.

Somewhere between the ancient and modern definitions is the place you find creativity. Chaos is a useful concept in many areas. Jean Piaget saw it as the starting point of education. Scientists are using it as a new way to describe certain forms or systems in nature and business people are learning to ride the wave of chaos into exciting new patterns of commerce.

On the back cover of If it Ain’t Broke, Break It by Robert J. Kniegel and Louis Patler, it says, “Today, in the nineties, conventional wisdom can’t help you keep pace with these rapidly changing times… Today business people have to turn the old rules inside out, upside down, and backwards not only to succeed, but to survive.” Using chaos in these fast moving times breeds the creativity necessary to thrive.

Chaos is one of the forces of creativity because it forces you to think in new ways. Because the human mind wants to find patterns in objects or happenings, it will take disparate items and find a pattern in them. By introducing random elements into a situation, new patterns, new ways of looking at a problem emerge.

Most of the writing I have found around chaos applies it to creative problem solving. This is the theory that creating is a synthesizing process and the more we have to synthesize, the greater our chances are to come up with an innovation. This demands that we approach chaos with a pre-determined problem. Some of you have played some of my creative games, which force fit seemingly unrelated ideas together. This is not so scary because we can trust that we will emerge from the primordial pit with something useful.

Imagine jumping into the pit with nothing concrete on your mind. Imagine sitting in the void where all things can move in all directions at the same time. Imagine stepping into the place from which all things have emerged.

I often do this when I begin a painting. Approaching a blank canvas, requires no problem statement other than I want to make a painting. From the place of chaos, I begin to make marks. The marks evolve into something unrecognizable. Then in some unpredictable place I see something emerging. This is the thrill of painting for me. The painting begins to tell me what it is becoming. Somewhere else the shape becomes an eye or a hand or… It is like connecting the dots for me. In what ways is this related to that? This is pattern recognition. And that is how I bring order to chaos.


When do you feel chaotic?

In what ways do you use chaos to inhibit or to contribute to the creative process?

What if you did not straighten up your workspace for one week?

Are you a pattern recognizer? How do you know?

What conditions need to be present to jump into chaos with both feet?



1 Comment on Why Artists Encourage Chaos?

  1. This is an inspiring and brilliant piece which helped me examine something I had never really looked at. I find I am most creative in a non-chaotic environment, when I can find that quiet place to just be.
    first time visiting your blog, love it

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