Was Vincent van Gogh an Individualistic Creative Genius?

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh

What is with the obsession with Individualism in creativity?

Recently we wrote a number of posts that argue how being an individual is a collaborative, intra-subjective, intra-dependent & emergent phenomenon & that this matters immensely to human creative practices.

The common push back we got is:

But, what about van Gogh?
The claim seems to be that some individuals are so unique that they transcend everything. & Their radical uniqueness is some “thing” special IN them – in their essence – that is untouched by any outside force. Some argue that it had to do with how his trials, tribulations & illnesses shaped his brain – but whatever “it” was it is IN him & not from elsewhere.

This hyper-individualistic essentialist argument misses the point of the Enactive Approach to cognition. Of course something unique is going on in relation to van Gogh – just as with each of us – but it is not some unique “thing” deep withIN us.

What is unique about us cannot be found in the brain or anywhere else. To be alive is to be an emergent outcome of processes. & as in any emergent process, the emergent “you” is irreducible to what made you. The complex set of forces that gave rise to something emergent cannot be deconstructed & peeled away in a linear manner to reveal some core nugget that is the “real” you. Because of the non-linear nature of emergence we cannot point to any thing as “THE” cause or the source. It is not a unique mindset, a unique brain, or unique experiences that will explain why you are you. These contribute – but in a non-linear manner. The whole is different than the linear sum of its parts.

We cannot stop there with our emergent approach: The new emergent whole (the self in this case) has the ability to shape its parts. The parts make the whole (via non-linear processes) – & then the irreducible whole re-makes the parts. And just to make it more complex – this is happening in a dynamic ongoing way over a lifetime…

So – van Gogh is the emergent outcome of a intra-active milieu of forces – some internal & others external, some very unique & others generic. And, like all of us, he is (intra)dependent on this contextual set of forces to be who he is & can be (he is also irreducible to any one of them & he plays a role in their shaping).

But “van Gogh” the artist does not stop there he is also a further construction (not a negative term – everything is constructed) – really a co-construction of many other forces that shape our concepts of art, individualism, genius, etc.

Hyper-individualism – the perspective that there is a unique essence to each of us separate from outside forces is a perspective that stops us from being able to both understand ourselves AND how we can deeply engage with creative processes that are always collaborative, emergent & more than human.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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