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Creativity Crisis

Chapter 8

SUBJECTIVITY

We can never be creative without comfort in our subjectivity. As individuals, we depend upon confidence in our own imagination; and this faith in ourselves to wage our wits in an independent spirit in turn depends upon our security with our selves. There is always some difficulty describing this core of personhood, this self-possessed seat of consciousness which we might once have bundled up with mystical language such as the person’s spirit or soul. In today’s institutional frameworks, such terms are embarrassing and no one is likely to invoke them in the formulation of new educational theory. But other terms circulate in contemporary discourse that are more institutionally palatable; and one of the more acceptable acknowledgements of the student’s personhood is subjectivity. The student’s subjectivity is the site, if you like, where learning takes place. The ability of the student warmly to approach some new learning challenge depends on building an imaginative connexion with her or his subjectivity, so that the learning enters the intimacy of the student’s view of herself or himself. This ontological core of the student’s self is the point at which syllabus has a toehold or not. If I cannot find the match between the material to be learned and my subjectivity, I will learn anxiously, joylessly and without ownership.

Fatefully, however, subjectivity is not easy to define, as it means both an inalienable quality of a person’s being (and is consequently central to the integrity of a person’s work) and a weakness in method.1

All forms of education put pressure on the subjective. Most evaluation methodologies are skewed toward the systematic elimination of subjectivity. For fairness’ sake and also out of respect for the paradigms of science, we are intolerant of subjectivity, even if we acknowledge that it might in some way form part of the engine of invention. To accept subjectivity within judgements risks the arbitrary. In all forms of scholarship, it does not suffice to call upon subjective impressions but to support them with evidence; and, once the data have been assembled and a case can be argued, the subjective impressions are, to a large extent, redundant and dispensible. In research, the subjective impressions are only as good as the facts that prove them; and on their own, they do not qualify as research. My subjectivity could be antithetical to your subjectivity; and, alas, the only mediation imaginable in this clash of opinion is an appeal to objectivity or some other means of triangulation related to values that can somehow be calibrated, as if in some sense absolute. As a scholar myself, I have no polemic against this regime of verification, by which material generated with intuition is laundered of its subjectivity and somehow holds up in the cold light of objective judgement.

As if the ghost of relativity, the subjective is not naturally a welcome partner in coursework evaluation or research method. In most disciplines, the canonical proofs or tests of plausibility cleave to objective evidence, and the subjective is attenuated or marginalized as much as possible. The persua-siveness of the case is generally respected on account of objective evidence and associated logical argument dispelling interpretative chaos.

Alas, the restrictions of the objective become dysfunctional in creative fields, which then creates a problem of method. The distinguishing feature of the artistic process is its subjectivity: the unique consciousness of the person who speaks or sees or acts. As an inalienable property of perception and narrative, subjectivity is a necessary ingredient of the creative process, and perhaps representation of all kinds. In their Thousand Plateaux, Deleuze & Guattari describe how the projection of meaning in Western culture requires a white wall; but this is always punctured by the black hole of subjectivity.2 Similarly embedding the concept as crucial and inevitable for individual autonomy, Nicolas Bourriaud explains how the creative allows for changes to subjectivity, so that it becomes negotiable for the individual: ‘Art is the thing upon and around which subjectivity can reform itself.’3 And Monique Roelofs has said that ‘Aesthetic experience is preserved and understood as a space for authentic subjectivity.’4 Throughout contemporary theory, no one actually denounces subjectivity as bad, even if it is unconsciously seen as indulgent throughout the educational systems of the Anglophone world. Alas, subjectivity is sometimes banished even in arts and humanities when assessment comes into its habitual anxiety and fears of arbitrariness set in. All learning outcomes, assessment criteria and marking rubrics are subjectivity-averse.

In the same way that creative output can condition an otherwise fixed subjectivity so that subjectivity itself may develop, subjectivity as a form of centred consciousness is necessary to the growth of the individual as well as the developmental structure of any creative idea that an individual entertains. For an essay to have expressive authenticity, its ideas and voice must accord with privacy of thought, intuitions genuinely grounded in the ‘me’, the ego, where all things make sense and whence all expressions proceed if they are sincere.

In any discipline, students depend for their motivation on a personal impulse which should not be excessively compromised or negated by positivistic methodology. In arts and humanities, however, the most interesting aspects of student work are those which are imaginatively sui generis, which have their own voice and subjective integrity. The anxious pressure to square the work within referenced coordinates, policed by a canon of rigour, is an uncomfortable fit, at times misguided and anti-inspirational. The application of rigorous objective standards must be moderated in any creative undertaking to accommodate its subjective complexions. These are in many ways antithetical to what is normally considered rigorous method in conventional academic disciplines. The concept of rigour must be deconstructed,5 but especially in its misguided zeal for research questions and epistemological structure.

To explain the paradox of subjectivity being necessary to creative output and foreign to proof of quality, it is useful to examine the concept historically. In fact the concept of subjectivity by that name is relatively new and remains fugitive, powerless and vulnerable. Further, no sooner did subjectivity emerge than it was suspected. The term may be considered disparagingly, as with Hare in 1827 impatiently decrying ‘those who cannot get quit of their subjectivity, or write about objects objectively’.6 The grim preposition ‘sub’ haunts this conception, as if destined to the lower zones of ambiguity and confusion. And even the quintessentially subjectivist philosopher Nietzsche in 1885 acknowledges a damnable self-definition or self-referentiality (verfluchten Ipsissimosität) in everything subjective, which you can become utterly fed up with (bis zum Sterben satt gewesen!). Just the same, he warns against accepting the objective spirit, which entails spiritual destruction of the self and depersonalizing (Entselbstung und Entpersönlichung) under the title of disinterest.7

My challenge in this chapter is to provide an analysis of why subjectivity— given its centrality to the motivational integrity of anyone doing anything personally meaningful—has proved so evasive, so contradictory and fragile that it seldom forms part of a syllabus unless apologetically. There is scarcely a precondition more essential to learning and creativity and scarcely a quality more abject in academia.

Subjectivity was presumably always an element in artistic production but, like creativity itself, it only began to be recognized recently. Like creativity, it has a development from a simple noun or verb (subject) to an adjective (subjective) to an abstract noun (subjectivity). The abstract word is of nineteenth-century coinage, the substantive ‘subjectivity’ appearing first in 1821, following a slow development of the ‘subjective’ from mechanical origins in the renaissance to the enlightenment, where it may describe, say, the ‘Subjective certainty … in the infinite Mind’.8 In the romantic period, the idea is installed in feeling, from ‘an internal subjective discovery’ to ‘an internal, personal, private, subjective diorama’.9 The peculiarity to a single person is emphasized in 1876: ‘a subjective sentiment … each individual experiences it in a degree and manner peculiar to himself ’ or herself.10

To add lexical insult to artistic injury, the term ‘subject matter’ involves the opposite elements to subjectivity. How did the motif attract the words subject matter? The apple or jug in a still life is equally the motif for another artist who treats it differently: the vision is different, but not the apple. Thus ‘subject’ turns out to be invariable or absolute: in a painting, it is (bizarrely) the objective element. When we speak of the subject of a painting, alas, it means the common topic, neither the artist nor his or her receptiveness and individual treatment. The authorial confession—which in another discourse we would characterize through subjectivity—is not reflected in what we call the subject of the picture.

Language was never so perverse as in this contradiction. Grammar gives a strict definition to the word subject. In any sentence, the subject is unequivocally distinguished from the object by a simple structure. The subject is the independent person or thing which exists or acts. ‘The chair holds the door open.’ In such a sentence, the chair is the subject because it commands the verb. The door is the object because it is acted upon. A sentence must always have a subject though not always an object. You can say, for example: I sit. There is a subject (I) but no object. The destination—where or in what do you sit?—is missing. In sentence construction, there is no need to add an object but you cannot subtract the subject, which is indispensable. The subject, always taking the nominative case, is the centre, the point of departure. So if you translate this to art and imagine the act of painting, the subject ought to be the painter who paints, the author who senses and feels and registers, the prior body who sees the object, the apple or jug, and apprehends and depicts. Sadly, however, this dynamic in the act of painting does not transfer to the picture. Of the oil-painting itself, the subject is the objects that the painter has depicted.

So when we say instead that the apple or jug is the subject, we witness the first denial of subjectivity, the treachery of language in the artist’s studio which robs the artist of his or her position as the instigator and maker. By this deceptive protocol, a person can walk into the studio and describe the subject without ever having to refer to the artist. And the same thing occurs in the writer’s studio too: the subject of the poem is not the poet (who possesses the receptiveness, is the origin of the response and who has wrought the evocation) but the sunset or wind tormenting the window which the poet has evoked. The first instances of the word which was later to become ‘subject’ in ancient Greece in fact mean subject matter.11 This linguistic sleight of hand testifies to a great shyness over subjectivity, which is also a reluctance to recognize the agency of artistic process. If language can own the result of an artwork, it would prefer not to have to grapple with its gestation. This evasion is confusing for studio artists seeking to elaborate and advance the gestational, in which subjectivity is of maximum importance. Language itself expropriates the artist’s privilege.

But if subjectivity is a nineteenth-century conception, we might ask what existed before its invention? What is the prehistory of subjectivity? In other words, what is the understanding of subjectivity—or the counterpart of subjectivity by some other name—before it was named? These questions are not answered in the major studies in the field, such as Reto Luzius Fetz, Roland Hagenbüchle and Peter Schulz, Geschichte und Vorgeschichte der modernen Subjektivität.

In ancient Greece for example, the nearest word for subject (ὑποκείμενον) was still used in a verbal sense and has no metaphoric dimension: it means ‘that which lies before us or lies to hand’. The nearest conceptions to subjectivity relate to what we would call the soul. Each person possesses a cell of individual consciousness, which is more than the operation of thinking (νόος) but some integrity of character, feeling and being which I suppose is what we still mean by soul, though we seldom use the word in a professional context; and, perhaps because of its mystifying spiritualism, it has receded to the sub-professional. In archaic Greece, the soul (ψυχή) is not well distinguished as a locus of consciousness so much as a force that keeps people alive and without which they die, an animus, if you like, which leads to the Latin anima in a way that is not coincidental; for these conceptions of life were relatively mechanistic. In Homeric society, greater dynamism of perception and subjective response to circumstances was expressed by the seat of emotion (θυμός); but these conceptions are vague and do not have the specificity of soul much less subjectivity, as is revealed in a beautiful analysis by Bruno Snell.12 And tellingly, the word loses potency in classical and later antiquity and is more active in the abstract compound, meaning desire (ἐπιθυμία).

It is strange, given the extraordinary sophistication and sensitivity of Greek art. As Auerbach found in his monumental study of the representation of reality,13 immediacy of feeling is more likely to be registered among the ancient Jews than the Greeks, noting a much more subjectivist and perhaps less intellectual soul in the Bible. Here, a person’s soul can command a sense of attachment: ‘his soul clave unto Dinah’;14 or moody negotiation: ‘O my soul, come not thou into their secret’.15 In spite of such statements of passion, the soul is often a mechanical expression for naming a person, as when souls are counted like head of cattle. Compared to our romantic conceptions, however, the soul is institutional: it is the part of a person that recommends itself to God and society, by analogy to the flesh that has not been ceremonially mutilated: ‘the uncircumcised man child whose flesh of his foreskin is not circumcised, that soul shall be cut off from his people; he hath broken my covenant.’16

So too with the heart, which is prolifically invoked; and sure, there are examples where depth and passion are felt. But the heart is also very instrumental, a receptacle of ingrained determinations: ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’.17 The heart is the organ in which thinking takes place; but it does not reveal much scope for receiving impressions. It is rather a dead metaphor. Other less profound words could be substituted and the sense would not change. For example when the patriarch-to-be is informed by God that his wife will have a baby, ‘Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear?’18 The text goes: ‘he said it in his heart’; but we could just as easily translate it as: ‘he said to himself ’ or perhaps ‘he sincerely thought’.

Because the heart is deep inside us, it is used as a metaphor for truth, as with ‘the integrity of my heart’.19 And because it argues for truth, it is called upon to bear witness, a tool to establish legal integrity. Strikingly, Jesus says ‘That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart (ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ)’.20 This heart is an almost legal institution, a thing of personal testimonial; and generally, the Christian interest in the affairs of the heart are for the sake of control, either of behaviour or belief: ‘lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt … for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’21 The intention is to change desires from the material to the spiritual; and the heart can be read as commitment, routed by divine recommendation toward the pious.

We tend to think of this economy of faith as the old world, reflecting the limited consciousness of antiquity and expect that in the later ages of genius and artistic inspiration, a new force of subjectivity arose. But it is not conspicuously so. The Biblical understanding of the soul provides the keynote for the Renaissance, in which the heart is an engine, as when Vasari in his Life of Brunelleschi describes how certain people born diminutive in stature nevertheless have formidable soul and an immensely awesome heart (di sì smisurata terribilità).22 Similarly, those endowed with little in their bodies may have great generosity of soul and sincerity in the heart.23 Or Perino who had a heart for rivaling or even outstripping the ancients in his work.24 To have heart means to be emboldened. These are not terms of profound consciousness. Where, you wonder, is subjectivity?

We look to the arts and its enormous literature for signs of such qualities; but while we are always struck by the powerful evocative character of renaissance painting and sculpture—where each artist’s work is finger-printed to the point that connoisseurs can distinguish between hands and identify authorship—when you seek lexical signs of that independence of consciousness that we are describing as subjectivity, it is largely missing. The soul remains instrumental in Vasari. In his Proemio delle vite, he describes drawing as the fundamental element of painting and sculpture, in fact the very soul that conceives and nourishes in itself25 all the other parts, by analogy to God’s making of the earth.

With classical aesthetics grafted upon theological traditions, renaissance art theory enjoyed the conceit of the artist as demiurge, hopefully inducing the transfer of divine privilege to the artist. From this epoch, we build a heroic view of the artist, hence the artist as genius. Yet the age of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, though bringing forth geniuses such as we still classify such figures, used the word genius in an entirely different way. Their use of the word genio, or Latin genius, was impeccably classical and equivalent to the Greek daimon, almost an independent being who advises the soul. He is figured, tellingly, as a little boy who is external to the body and who accompanies the adult. Genius in their terms is a quality or adjunct character-giving property of a person, but not actually a person. Nobody in the renaissance said: ‘he is a genius’. You, as any person, have a genius. Your genius may not be to paint rooms in the Vatican but you still have a genius, evidently to do other things.26

So potentially, genius could be considered as some kind of antecedent to subjectivity. Admittedly, when it comes to describing the genius of a great artist, the classical definition sometimes converges with the contemporary romantic view of genius, namely exceptional and stellar greatness of talent. So in setting the scene for describing the sculptor and architect Benedetto da Maiano, Vasari says that beyond those who have great gifts to do useful things there are ‘those who are moved by their genius (mossi dal genio loro) to learn an art or science and become perfect in it, and driven and decorated by a name, fired by glory, they then rise from an imperfect to a perfect one, from a mortal one to an eternal’.

But then genio can also just be one’s nature to be happy. Raphael who was clearly an ambitious and angelic painter of exceptional gifts, is valued for his Olympian output above all; and yet among these peculiar gifts (fra le sue doti singulari) the term genio is reserved for his sweet nature, his ability to bring people of pompous humour together to work harmoniously. This occurred, Vasari says, because the other artists were won over by his courtesy and by his art, ‘but even more by the genius of his good nature’.27

Genius is not absolute and immutable, as we judge from the description of the painter Pellegrino da Modana, where physiological breakdown causes ‘one with a genius of happy complexion to be transformed into melancholy’. And on the other side, in the introductory paragraph to Franciabigio’s Life, we read that hard work can overcome poverty, turning bitterness into sweetness, to the point that the goodness of heaven is forced to be favour-able and kind to his genius.28 So the genius can change or suffer a good influence. It can also instruct, as in Francesco Mazzola’s Life, which identifies the virtues which nature in painting and his genius had taught him (la natura nel dipignere e ‘ l suo genio gli avevano insegnato). Alas, Vasari notes, the artist was attracted to many bizarre practices and these damaged his life.

And finally, genius could be a limitation, as when Bandello writes in Vasari’s century that two people do not get on, because the genius of the one does not match that of the other and the blood does not mix.29 But the eloquent Bandello has few words in his vast collection of Novelle to describe psychological traits, much less the subjectivity of an individual. A boy, for example, might be described as a lad of good nature (garzone di buona indole),30 just like the ten-year old described by Castiglione (maravigliosa indole),31 but this is a weak form of characterization; and like ‘good type’ (uomo da bene), such descriptions remain essentially moral, attesting to a kind of decency and fine disposition rather than a person’s calibre of receptivity and projection. The closest that Bandello comes to sensibility is in saying that I tangibly see myself (sensibilemente mi veggio) dying of melancholy.32 This means, however, that the feeling is so immediate that I can perceive it with my senses. It does not have anything to do with what we would call sensibility.

In poetic literature, however, the soul could always be used to denote internal feeling, as in Tasso’s line: if my heart is with you, as it wants to be, where is my soul?33 But it is poetic gamesmanship, toying with metaphors to express the dynamism of affection, jealousy34 and ownership, waywardness, ‘the errant soul’35 which, in one variant or another, is often addressed in the first line of a poem. Tasso speaks of the beautiful soul in a way which suitably also means vague (l’anima vaga)36 and sometimes, as in biblical times, the soul just means the person,37 a Petrarchan tradition that goes long into the baroque.

Slowly, such ideas of an irreducible feeling person detach themselves from the poetic institutions and enter the intimate. So when Montesquieu says that ‘you like my naivety and prefer my liberal air and my sensibility for pleasure (sensibilité pour les plaisirs) to the false modesty of my companions’,38 he is making a claim for the power of the private over the conventional. In the first lines of La religieuse Diderot describes a person as having ‘spirit, gaiety, taste for fine art and above all originality. One has praised his sensibility, his honour and probity’. In another case an eccentric and foolhardy woman is recognized for her incredible sensibility (sensibilité incroyable) in her sensual and eroticized grasp of music; and elsewhere, the greatest sensibility can suddenly give onto ferocity (de la plus grande sensibilité jusqu’à la férocité). With this preamble, running from the Greek psyche to the sensibility of the enlightenment, Europe is ready to invent subjectivity in the romantic period.

The powerful statements of subjectivity that you might identify with Schubert’s songs, Delacroix’s painting or Baudelaire’s poetry were never inherent in language or culture. They had to be invented, called into being by forces that announce the emancipation of the individual from the institutional, that declare that expression is the property of the person who expresses, not the property of the people who listen. They must enter the subjectivity of the person who speaks or sings or paints. It seems no accident that the word ‘subjectivity’ takes root in western thinking during an epoch when its expression can be witnessed in demonstrative incarnations through art, poetry and music. In the period from romanticism to post-impressionism, the subjectivity of the artist wins unprecedented prestige, where the artwork, before it is a depiction of the street or the apple, is a record of organic experience, wrought with a confession of its process. Subjectivity has not always been recognized and has been slow to emerge from institutional conventions. It is acceptable in expressions of emotion but, like the construction of the ego inside Freud’s famous triangle of potent forces in the psyche, it has no power. In the academy, subjectivity is similarly defenceless. Unless poetic parameters are generously extended, the disavowal of subjectivity persists through inappropriate syllabus design and research methodologies, where subjectivity is mishandled as a consequence. It seems strange to me that we are so keen to claim student-centredness, yet the precondition of students identifiying their own centre is so diminished.


1 Parts of this chapter are grafted from an unrefereed conference paper, ‘Toward a history of subjectivity: a call for the deconstruction of rigour’, Art.Media.Design | Writing Intersections, Swinburne University of Technology, November 18–19, 2009 pp. 78–87.

2 Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, Minuit, Paris 1980.

3 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational aesthetics, translated by Simon Pleasance & Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland, original title: Esthétique relationnelle, Les presses du réel, 2003, p. 97.

4 Monique Roelofs, Aesthetification as a Feminist Strategy: On Art’s Relational Politics, eds, Davies and Sukla, Westport, Praeger, 2003, p. 197.

5 See my article ‘Toward a history of rigour: an examination of the nasty side of scholarship’, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, vol. 10, no. 4, October 2011, pp. 374–387 (doi: 10.1177/1474022211408797); see also my book The jealousy of ideas: research methods in the creative arts, London and Melbourne, Goldsmiths (WritingPAD) and Ellikon, 2009.

6 OED, s.v.

7 Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 207.

8 Oldfield 1707, OED, s.v.

9 Boston 1850, OED, s.v.

10 Groote 1876, OED, s.v.

11 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1094b12, 1098a28.

12 Bruno Snell, Die Entdeckung des Geistes, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, (originally 1975) 5th ed. 1980, pp. 18 ff.

13 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur, Bern, Francke, 1967.

14 Genesis 34.3.

15 Genesis 49.6.

16 Genesis 17.14.

17 Genesis 6.5.

18 Genesis 17.17.

19 Genesis 20.5.

20 Matthew 5.28.

21 Matthew 6.20–21.

22 ‘l’animo pieno di tanta grandezza et il cuore di sì smisurata terribilità’.

23 ‘tanta generosità d’animo e tanta sincerità di cuore’.

24 ‘cuore non solo in paragonare a gli antichi le opere loro, ma forse in passarle di gran lunga’.

25 ‘anzi l’istessa anima che concepe e nutrisce in se medesima’.

26 Edgar Zilsel, Die Entstehung des Geniebegriffes. Ein Beitrag zur Ideengeschichte der Antike und des Frühkapitalismus, Tübingen, Mohr, 1926.

27 ‘ma più dal genio della sua buona natura’.

28 ‘essergli nel genio favorevole e benigna’, Life of Franciabigio.

29 Bandello, Novelle 1.2.

30 ibid. 4.3.

31 Castiglione, Cortegiano 1.3.

32 Bandello 4.5.

33 ‘Se ’l mio core è con voi, come desia, / dov’è l’anima mia?’ Tasso, Rime 26.1–2.

34 ‘ch’al cor non geli l’anima gelosa’, ibid. 32.6.

35 ‘Anima errante’, Tasso, Rime 61.1.

36 ibid. 74.7.

37 ‘“Anima, addio,” con languide parole / e l’altra: “Vita, addio” le rispondea’, 379.16.

38 Montesquieu, Lettres persanes, lettre 53.

Creativity Crisis

   by Robert Nelson