This past week I had a new painting student who was struggling with imagination. There was confusion about what is “imaginary” and what is “real”, and as a result she was fearful of her own darker imaginings. As someone who has learned to “just sit” these kinds of imaginings are the passing stuff of mind and not really a problem, but as an artist who values a fertile imagination it has been helpful to understand it in some detail. This way all imagination can be an asset and not a problem.
If you are an artist or worker with imagination, this description might be helpful. It is just an understanding that is useful, not a truth claim.
The closest thing to direct experiencing without imagination is when I am just sitting, or just walking, or just driving, etc. Thoughts, images, memories, will come and go, but there is an underlying grounding in/as “just this”. The brain/mind takes in immediate sense information and forms a coherent “live stream”. Everything outside of this “here and now” is imagination. Beyond this immediacy mind has built a model of all the people, events and locations from experience, and that imaginary model is what I evoke when I say “my life” or “the world”, or if I want to plan ahead or make “life decisions”. The art student understood this point, but felt that it was dangerous to say it is “imagination”, because then how do you know what is “real”?
There is a difference between saying “there is a picnic shelter in the park’ and “there are gnomes living under my porch” . If I am nowhere near the park or my home, both those thoughts are 100% imagination. The difference is that the first imagining has a one-to-one correspondence with sense data, and the second imagining does not. In colloquial terms the first statement is “real” and second statement is “imagination”
It should not be difficult to tell the difference, and we tend to think of someone who confuses the two as very confused, or even suffering from a mental illness. Yet the picture is not so simple, because the wider and more encompassing my one-to-one sense-based model of the world is, the more generalized, abstract, and “unreal” it is. It is like the cone of uncertainty we see on a weather map where meteorologists use the best data to predict the path of a hurricane. On the “here” and “now” point there is little debate about the location of the storm, but as we move out in space and time the cone of uncertainty widens until it must be cut off before it becomes meaningless. Likewise with our “world views”, and it is why “big picture” views of the world are where (for instance) things like conspiracy theories flourish, because where the cone of uncertainty opens out, imagination rushes in. So it is easy to say there is a clear cut difference between “real” and “imaginary” at the point of the cone, but it quickly changes as we look outward in space and time. A bit of humility is needed with any general claim of “objective realism”.
This is where being a painter comes in. That open and abstract imagination beyond the wide end of the cone is a fertile place of symbols, allegory, and poetry. It is a beautiful gift that enriches our lives and is the bloom of culture, but it is only an asset if it can be picked up and put down as simple imagination. One of the important lessons in the studio is learning to rest in immediate awareness, of posture, and of how the brush is held (not too tight, not too loose) while allowing imagination to roam freely. By being grounded, imagination and inspiration can bloom without confusion.