Thus far, we’ve examined creative process from the perspective of those making art. But the audience for any work of art engages its own creativity. What if Clark Terry’s advice to those learning to play jazz — “Imitate, assimilate, innovate” — tells us something about how we receive art as an audience?
I think his formulation captures exactly what happens:
- First, we imitate. — We listen to a piece of music, or read a book, or watch a film, and we take what we see into ourselves and begin by imitating it. We recreate what we are hearing (or reading, seeing, etc.) inside of us by way of our imagination.
- Then we assimilate. — Once we have recreated those images, we begin to embellish them. We ascribe details and meaning that may have been missing from the work we took in.
- Finally, we innovate. — After recreating and then embellishing the images, we discover parts of ourselves that stand outside the work, and sometimes, beyond our previous experience. The act of taking in the art has given us access to a part of ourselves. What we have accessed is not part of the art, it is a discovery made possible by our own creative imagination. The art made it possible, but the act of discovery (and perhaps the thing being discovered) is the result of our own creative innovation.
Consider these examples of how I think this works:
We imagine ourselves in stories. We are drawn to characters with whom we empathize and contexts that we find most appealing, perhaps because they are more readily imitated in our imagination. We imagine ourselves fighting off the antagonists. We imagine ourselves running for our lives.
When we listen to music, we imagine ourselves playing the song. We might even play air guitar or drums. The impulse to reenact what we are hearing is a natural form of the imitative component of our creative imagination.
Beneath theses surface forms of imitation, we imitate by way of repeating the artwork to ourselves by way of revisiting the images.
We take a few details from a story and fill in the world around it with details of our own, thereby embellishing and augmenting the work. An example of this: my memory of John Bonham’s drum sound on various Led Zeppelin albums is always larger than what I hear when I sit down to listen. His sound is huge on record; it’s even bigger in my imagination. The suggestive power of the recordings has led me to recreate and then embellish the largeness of the sound.
I can report that I sometimes have the urge to listen to music without knowing what I want to hear. Yet the impulse to listen seems to be specifying some song album I must identify before I can start:
Is it Hejira? Maybe.
Fulfillingness’ First Finale? Very Close.
The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night? No, but I have to revisit that one soon.
Aha! It’s Journey in Satchidananda.
My intuition has told me that this choice will give me access to some part of myself. In this case, Alice Coltrane and her ensemble launch me into a journey of discovery (or rediscovery). At the end of that journey lies some part of me that I may or may not have previously encountered. My need to hear the album points to the particular piece of music’s role in helping me make that journey. (Note that sometimes we listen to songs or albums over and over, because we want to stay in the place we've found within ourselves by way of listening.) I enter into unconscious recreation of what I’m hearing, and then mental embellishments of what I’m hearing, and then finally access a part of me that lies beyond the music.
All of this happens in abstract, which is why absorbing art is so wonderfully mysterious.
Thank you for reading.