This article looks at creative dimensions of the self in society, and at possible ways of mapping them, through the presentation of one case study from the Risky Business Research Project. It embraces the ambivalence and uncertainty of contemporary social processes.

Tracing the creative implications of imagination at the level of selfhood, interpersonal relationships, culture and society in the chosen case study, this article looks at the nature of these interconnections as shaped by recent debate on the concept of post-modern reflexivity (Beck, Giddens, Lash, 1994; Bauman, 2001), and particularly the concept ofindividualisation as discussed in Ulrich Beck’s (2002) recent writings.

Literature shows (Fiske 1999; Matarasso 1997; Stone et al, 1997) that an engagement in the arts and creative expression contributes to better education and lower unemployment; it increases the capacity for responsibility, improves self esteem, physical and mental health, and community coherence. Creative activities can be especially useful for young marginalised people as a way of expressing what cannot be conveyed in verbal language. Such a set of arts practices occupy a critical space beyond the grasp of verbal forms prioritised in logocentric western societies, and can provide a potential for constituting the ‘intensivity of the individual’ (Lash, 2002).


The Research project

Risky Business investigates the effectiveness of diverse models of creative expression among young people ‘at risk’ in urban and rural Victoria. It examines the capacity of various art forms to stimulate personal artistic potential and the gaining of skills as a pathway to social (re)integration, a return to formal education and/or the workforce. The project involves a number of research partners and providers of youth support services (O’Brien, 2003).

The Risky Business research project documents how the arts-based models of mentoring and learning at three selected sites in Victoria (Footscray, an inner Melbourne suburb; Dandenong, an outer Melbourne suburb; and Bendigo, a country town north of Melbourne) achieve the aim in expanding life opportunities for young people involved in arts programs through participating in creative activities. This has been accomplished by collecting evidence from a sample of eight arts projects organised in collaboration with the project industry partners and their services.

Geographical areas selected for the Risky Business research are socio-economically diverse, and include higher than average unemployment rates amongst young people, a significantly lower income population, and a youth population with high rate of substance abuse. This indicates that these areas and their residents are at risk of the devastating impact of long-term negative life circumstances. The longer the economically disadvantaged areas are exposed to problems like unemployment, the stronger is the impact of negative circumstances on their residents (Hurst, 1992). One of the propositions of the Risky Business research project is that there is a need for alternative strategies to supplement general social policy to improve the well being of residents of disadvantaged areas or disadvantaged segments of the population in some areas (and young people in particular).


The case study

The case study discussed in this article is based on one Risky Business research program conducted at the Dandenong Community Arts Centre between September and December 2003. A total of ten young people were involved in this art program. Eight of them were aged between16 and 20 years and two participants were in their early thirties. Participation in the program was voluntary and flexible. The participants were both male and female, coming from socially and culturally diverse backgrounds, and mainly disengaged from formal education and/or vocational training programs. Through observation and individual interviews with the participants and artist before, during and at the end of the program, the researcher documented how and whether the process engaged the participants and assisted them in building and developing their self-esteem, confidence, teamwork and communication skills in order to transfer those skills into the area of employment or further education.

Arts based research is defined by its use of the arts as objects of inquiry as well as modes of investigation. One of the major concerns here is that very few studies have focused on interpreting the creative process and its significance for the participants. If the art practice is directed by the principles of visual arts, then research methods should correspond to the processes and aesthetic issues being studied. I am not suggesting that the verbal text should be eliminated as a way of viewing experience, but considering the ‘pictorial turn’ (Mitchell, 1994) in the contemporary critical study of culture, the dominance of verbal text should be alleviated in an effort to look at the content emanating from the art based process. In analysing this case study, I suggest that the verbal text be combined with the nonverbal pictorial text, so that the collected data is examined from the artistic perspective from which it emerged.


Creative process

In this section I will present and discuss the type and quality of artistic experience of the participant, and cultural factors that appear to have facilitated this experience.

During the involvement in the program each participant worked on a painting using synthetic paint on board. One of the most intriguing issues was the choice of subject matter and its visualisation from initial exercises and sketches to the final stage of painting. The focal point was the bridging of artistic expression and psychological contemplation. The practice of the workshop in the first few weeks was to leave new participants to adapt to the environment, make connections with other participants and find a topic of interest. They would then start drawing sketches and the artist would become more involved in a one to one mentoring process.

During the field research I noticed one participant, I call her ‘Sandra’, who brought to her first session a book on the visual artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). It consisted mostly of black and white reproductions and the accompanying text was in Italian. The participant indicated in the first interview that she had some experience with visual art:

I can draw. I’ve never tried painting. A lot of people can’t even draw. It’s a good start if you ask me.Sandra also clearly indicated why she joined the program and what her expectations were of participating in it

I want to see if I’m a good painter. That’s really what I want to do.She was obviously fascinated by Dali, interested in images and not in the text in Italian (which she didn’t understand).

I just love Dali. He’s such a great artist and he looks very funny and that’s what sort of caught my eye.After the first session Sandra decided to make a painting based on Dali’s work, Gala and the Angelus of Millet Preceding the Imminent Arrival of the Conical Anamorphoses (oil on panel, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). In the same interview she explained the technical process and how she planned to complete her first painting:

Just sketching it up freehand in my sketchbook and then I put it on to a clear acetone and then project it and then just drew it up on the board and complete it that way.She focused on one particular detail in her chosen reproduction, a genre scene, with the intention to incorporate in it a Dali style ‘double image’ form. At that time she was not aware that the chosen detail, a painting within the painting, was Dali’s homage to French painter Jean Francois Millet (1814 – 1875). She realised this fact later during the preparation process, while browsing through the book in order to better understand Dali’s style of representing ‘double reality’. But even after realising that the painting was Millet’s work, she continued using a reproduction of Dali’s painting and developed her visual narrative from what she could see in a reasonably poor quality reproduction.

I’ve been working on a Dali inspiration painting and it’s just an acrylic on board … He originally painted a Millet painting or he used a Millet to inspire him through a lot of works actually. There’s like a dozen, a ridiculous amount that have all been incorporated with this Millet painting that was an original painting of this … ehm, I’ve forgotten his first name, and I just thought I might give it a go and used this original and change it. Like Dali’s used the same painting and changed it. 

Art historical (con)texts

In what follows I will present a brief reconstruction of development of Sandra’s painting, situating her work within the context of both Millet’s and Dali’s pictorial representations. I will begin with a brief description and history of the painting The Angelus (oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris) by Jean Francois Millet, which inspired Dali, as his obsessive subject matter, and which further inspired the participant’s creative response.

Millet’s ‘Angelus’

The composition of the original painting that prompted this case study is simple. The focus of the painting, Millet’s favourite subject of agricultural labourers, is focused on two figures, a young male holding his hat in his hands and bowing his head, and a female figure in a white cap and long blue apron, clasping her hands in a moment of prayer. A fork is stuck in the ground at the man’s side, and a basket of potatoes and a wheelbarrow laden with sacks are lying at the female figure’s side. Above, the clouds are coloured with pink light, and birds fly through the early evening sky. The sunset’s glow lights up the sleeve and folded hands of the woman and falls on the bowed head of her companion. Behind them the great plain stretches to the distant horizon where a church rises against the sky. After Millet completed the painting in 1859, the patron for whom the painting was originally destined declined to buy it. According to documents and letters from this period, Millet’s life was a suffering one, and the year in which he painted the Angelus was among the darkest in his life (Cartwright, 1896).

Dali’s paranoiac critical method

Now, back (or forward) to Dali’s painting and his obsessive attachment to Millet’s painting. Around 1926 Dali discovered that he could subvert the viewer’s sense of reality using what he called ‘all the usual paralysing tricks of eye-fooling, the most discrete academism’ to invoke ‘sublime hierarchies of thought’. Dalí developed a method that he described as ‘paranoiac-critical’ and as a ‘spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the critical and systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations’. As a child at De la Salle School in Figueras, Dali had been deeply moved by a reproduction of the Angelus that hung in the passageway of the school. As a result of this recovered memory, the two figures of the Angelus were introduced into numerous paintings and his essay ‘Paranoiac-Critical Method’ (Dali1932, 1935). Dali argued in his essay that Millet’s Angelus’ manifest content masked a much more significant latent one related to the Oedipal complex, to the male child’s desire for and simultaneous fear of the mother. Dali went further requesting the scanning of theAngelus, and the X-ray result revealed the outlines of a coffin at the woman’s feet that was later covered by the potato field and the basket next to her wooden shoes. Dali claimed that the theme of the death of the son in the painting was not only confirmed by the coffin in the first version of it, but also by some statements that Millet’s original intention was to paint the burial of a little peasant boy. Dali related the Angelus to what he called ‘the atavism of twilight’ which elicited unrestrained associations out of external reality, interpreted by a heightened sensibility that, when coupled with one’s memory and subjective perception, developed a meaning and symbolism of personal significance, a ‘primal’ and atavistic ‘tragic myth’, as Dali suggested.

Sandra responded to Dali/Millet’s painting, making minor changes to the original formal structure:

I incorporated the two figures that were standing. These peasant people and they were standing in a paddock and I’ve incorporated both the bodies, both the figures in the painting and I’ve moved them up into the left hand corner at the back and made a portrait out of both the people.Within such a fine thread of historical interactions the participant in the art program followed her own ideas, intuitively unmasking the ‘atavistic tragic myth’ of Millet’sAngelus. In order to achieve this, Sandra focused on the two main characters and a ‘double image’ portrait.

Untitled Sandra, Modern Art Painting Program

Untitled Sandra, Modern Art Painting Program

I didn’t really change him (male figure)… I’ve created her (female figure) with a hayfork sticking out of her back. It’s not so much sticking out of her back. It’s part of her. She’s feeling a bit anguished over a small animal that’s died. And she’s praying there and it’s just like how she’s feeling. She’s sort of feeling in anguish from this death… The portrait? That’s, I tried to make it look like Dali. It’s kind of like Dali but not really.


Flowing individual

If we now circle back to our starting point, the point of issue can be identified more clearly. I suggest that we look at this particular case through the concept ofindividualisation as discussed in Beck’s writings. He argues that the first or simplemodernity comprises a logic of structures, while the second or reflexive modernity involves a logic of flows. In this sense the individual of the first modernity is reflective while that of the second modernity is reflexive. Reflecting presumes knowledge and certainty. Reflexion, however, is more indeterminate and immediate and a reflexive, non-linear individual is ‘nomadic’ and fragmented. Beck radically re-conceptualises the relation between self and society, arguing that the individual’s involvement in social life involves an ongoing reconstruction of the sources of the self. This process of reconstruction touches on domains where emotions are significantly involved, as in all kinds of creative practices, therapy or counselling.

I achieved a painting. That was good … You got sort of left to your own devices a lot which was good for me because different people have different learning barriers … I learned to work with colours and blend with paints. I’d never really painted before. I picked up new skills with pencils. I can blend colour pencils really well now so it actually looks like it’s got lots of depth … just get different skills or take time out to find myself which is exactly what I used the time for.The case study presented in this article pertains, therefore, to the creative process, and to experiences of learning and self-discovery through meaning making. However, all learning is contextual and what is discussed here in relation to learning through creative expression relates also to learning from other situations informed by one’s personal involvement and one’s own living experience. Learning is therefore a product of the overlapping contexts: the personal, the socio-cultural and the physical, none of which is stable and constant. But this approach demands another component, namely time. Creative learning and its expression is constructed slowly, layer upon layer, as an individual moves through his or her socio-cultural and physical world. He or she both forms, and is formed by, his or her environment. Personal context is moving through time, and en route it is constantly shaped and reshaped as it experiences events within the physical context all of that is mediated by and through the socio-cultural context. Sandra’s account illustrates the ambivalent character of her gradual reflexive process.

I don’t know. I asked myself that question over the last five years and it didn’t work out right, so. I don’t know. I can’t promise myself anything. I don’t really have that much to promise. If I get sick of this course I might go on and do another course, I certainly don’t want to go back into the workforce until I get some idea of what I want to do. At the moment I don’t really know, no idea … I need my time out sometimes to do things and I really wanted to try and walk down this artist’s avenue and that’s exactly what I’ve done. 

Conclusion: reflexive individual

I attempted to describe in this article how the transformative forces of creative energy correspond to the dynamics of everyday life. This particular participant entered the art-based workshop without a concept of painting. She was not informed about the subject matter of the chosen painting and its art historical interpretations, but she deconstructed it, fragmented and intuitively – and with great sensitivity – selected those fragments which corresponded to her personal concerns, and discerned its narrative. What the participant extracted from this painting was a specific cultural meaning of anxiety, personal dilemmas and the feeling of loss.

It might be that the changes that occur in people through an engagement in the physical activities of creative expression, are due to the activation of creative energy generated precisely by the physical conditions of that activity, along with internal dialogues, interactions with the artist mentor, and interactions between the participants. The result in this particular example is a revealing of spirituality and the complexities of human existence behind a piece of genre painting. The participant demonstrated an ability to move beyond history and beyond her own social and cultural position to find her own meaning in the work. She brought into her cultural sphere texts from chronologically earlier periods, that in turn interacted with personal and contemporary social mechanisms, renegotiating the meaning, and allowing her to find her own reflection in them.



The Risky Business research project is funded through the Australian Research Council Linkage Scheme.



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