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Pushing The Outside of The Envelope

I recently wrote a short note to accompany a quote I shared by the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. Picasso is recognized as one of the co-creators of visual art styles like Cubism and Surrealism. It’s modern art that some love and others hate, but who argues with someone who can sell one original piece for over 100 million dollars? What sort of mind does it take to create such a large and varied collection of art as Pablo did during his life? It takes one that’s willing to cross over the threshold of reality into the realm of the surreal, where things are not what is seen but a depiction of what is thought and felt. As both a traditionalist and a revolutionary Picasso dwelt in the rarefied atmosphere and realm at the outer reaches of the envelope we might call reality and fantasy.

The Picasso quote I shared is this one; “The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.” In my opinion it’s not only a true statement but a creative imperative as well. If artists and other creatives stuck to what is generally considered sensible and good we would never have progressed beyond scrawling lines with burnt sticks and berry juice onto cliff faces and cave walls. It’s not good enough to think outside the box or envelope. The creative mind has no limits. The human mind just needs time to make the tools, and then invent and create the devices with those tools, to make what the mind has conceived. Art is often a shortcut, or shorthand if you will, within the creative process. Look no further than science fiction which has a way of turning rapidly into science fact once the creative mind begins working on the how side of the why equation. Thought of in this way the mind asks why and art has a way of rephrasing the question into “why not?”

The good sense quote is far from Picasso’s only addition to the creative thinker’s bag of resources. Another good one is “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.” Or how about “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”? Here’s one that may sound vaguely familiar to you; “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” It’s also attributed to Irish literary genius George Bernard Shaw in a slightly modified version; “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” You are probably most familiar with it as a quote from Edward Kennedy’s 1968 eulogy for his brother, Robert Kennedy. Regardless of who quoted it first it’s been used often, by creatives and for creatives, to describe the process employed by many artistic types of what I like to call pushing the outside of the envelope.

I’ve adopted this phrase from an industry and profession I’ve had an interest in for years. The term, sometime also phrased as “pushing the envelope”, has its origins among the world of contract and military aircraft test pilots. It means a set of performance limits that may not be safely exceeded in a specific aircraft. Ironically it’s the job of the test pilot to “test” what those limits are. This is done by approaching and then exceeding them by figuratively pushing the outside of that performance envelope. The need for speed. Yes, indeed! The thrill of the hunt, the chase, the grasping at illusive butterflies as it were. The adrenaline rush of flight and an influx of artful ideas creates a similar energy all its own, to be fully owned, by the intrepid soul who will simply and bravely reach for the limits, push completely through them, and continue beyond the outside of the envelope. Just thinking about it makes me giddy with excitement and anticipation for what comes next.

An artist must strive for and into the unknown now and then, bringing back bits and pieces of what they discover there to share with humanity. By artist I mean every human being who knows and understands that they are a created and creative individual. This is the person whose hopes and dreams are simply a latent and hidden diamond, pleading to be cut, polished and set for others to see, hear, feel, taste, smell or otherwise experience in a new way. This only happens when the artist within decides it’s time to shine. What sets them apart is that they don’t let fear of failure or pain get in their way. We all experience these things in life. It’s simply a matter of whether we decide we’d rather take charge of that pain or let someone else be in charge of inflicting it upon us.

I won’t sugar coat the process. When a person begins to move in the direction of a higher plane of creativity, there will be failures and roadblocks that get in the way. There will be sleepless nights and days filled with anxiety and doubt. But when you know that this is what gets you up each morning and keeps you moving forward, no matter what, your momentum will increase in this thinner rarefied atmosphere of pursuit. You see it gets a lot less crowded the higher you fly, and dare I say, somewhat lonelier too. It’s often difficult for family, colleagues and friends to comprehend this drive which moves you forward, unless they’ve experienced it for themselves. Don’t let this deter you. It’s only temporary as your passionate persistence draws you closer to your dreams and goals. It’s just good to remember that the faster you go the more things will heat up. After all you’re climbing into a realm of white hot stars, burning embers that shine bright. Resistance and resolve go hand in hand. Resistance from the heat is just the friction which makes you glow in the eyes of others. Never forget this. Instead take comfort in knowing you are doing something that only a few allow themselves the privilege of experiencing. It’s not supposed to make sense to others, only to you while you’re in the moment.

Remember what Picasso said. Good sense is the enemy of creativity.

There’s no feeling like the one experienced when you finally do push through the envelope of anxiety, hardship, sacrifice and fear that you’ve endured while climbing higher than you’ve ever gone before. It may take several trial runs and even some fantastic failures before you find yourself outside this envelope. When you do I would love to hear about it, perhaps write about it, maybe even talk with you on a podcast. Have you got a good story to tell? I’d love to help you share it. Be in touch if you feel you do and we’ll start a conversation.

In the meantime keep climbing. Until next time.

** (If you prefer to listen to this Blog Post instead of reading it, Here's an audio version)

©2022 Michael D. Davis All Rights Reserved

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So inspiring and poetic. You always bring my spirits up and help me to see the possibilities. Thanks.

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