The Playful Imagination

Back Flip by JB London*

Back Flip by JB London*

“The mind revels in conjecture. Where information is lacking, it will gladly fill in the gaps.” ~James Geary (The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism [2005], 29)

I recently encountered this quotation and I began thinking about thinking. I love Geary’s concept of the “revelry” of the mind, the joyous commotion of an activated imagination. But how is such play precipitated? What in the nature of these gaps in knowledge invites the imagination? And what kinds of wonderful mischief take place there? What is it about a Picasso painting, for instance, that calls out to me and draws me into engagement with its play of meanings? I am tempted right away to consider the space of these gaps as analogous to a playground, and I realize that one essential quality of what I have experienced in my own encounters with works of art is playfulness.

Considering the interaction between a reader and a text, literary theorist Wolfgang Iser proposes that the reader finds room to exercise her or his imagination within the “gaps” that a text provides—the spaces where the “unsaid” comes to life in-between and around what is actually said (The Act of Reading [1978], 168). He describes “a mutually restrictive and magnifying interaction between the explicit and the implicit, between revelation and concealment. What is concealed spurs the reader into action, but this action is also controlled by what is revealed; the explicit in its turn is transformed when the implicit has been brought to light” (169). If the gap is like a playground, maybe a game of restriction, magnification, revelation and concealment is staged on and around an apparatus made up of the explicit and implicit…

A great work of art, from my own perspective, is one that provides for a layered, multifaceted experience of imagination—with multiple points of entry. I look for gaps where transformation of meaning can happen. In some instances, artists consciously aim for such engagement. For his Tony Award-winning revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, for instance, director Bartlett Sher used large brush strokes, both literally and figuratively, to make room for audience members’ conceptual thinking: He employed suggestive, rather than literal, scenographic techniques and he directed his actors to keep their emotional portrayals distinctively spare. Interviewed in the book Imagination First: Unlocking the Power of Possibility (2009), he remarked, “I leave space and let the audience fill it in” (105).

I remember standing in front of Picasso’s The Blind Man’s Meal (1903) as a Lincoln Center Institute teaching artist guided me and my fellow workshop participants through an experience of noticing and inquiry, and I visualize my imagination as a human figure—part child, part acrobat, turning somersaults and playing guessing games in the spaces around the figure and the brushstrokes. I picture her squeezing into small openings and elbowing to the right and left to make room. But that’s not quite right, either—too wholly frenetic; nothing to grab onto. In Variations on a Blue Guitar (2001), Maxine Greene describes a state of “imaginative awareness” of a work of art as a convergence of “the focusing, the careful noticing, ….the savoring in inner time, the elaboration of what has been seen or heard, the seeping down” (31). The idea of “taking time” comes to mind. My languid imagination “revels” in and “savors” the “seeping down” of ideas and images. I pause and I breathe and I imagine. The interaction between me as a viewer and the painting on the wall combines the playfulness of “what if” with the calm of close attentiveness.

So what is your experience? How do you find yourself drawn into the play of meanings when viewing a work of art? And what is it like to flex or stretch your imagination?

*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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