IS YOUR SUBCONSCIOUS AN ARTIST?
by Gene Phillips
Easy answer to the title question: no. But the human subconscious is by and large the resource from which we get artistic inspiration, even if that resource is dependent on getting input from all sorts of physical and cognitive perceptions via the conscious mind.
Given this definition of art's origins, I'd suggest that art that is too "conscious," too obvious about putting forth an agenda or some other hortatory purpose, is often inferior. Jack London's novel THE IRON HEEL, a pro-Marxist diatribe, comes to mind. The best art needs the looseness of associations that comes with the play of the imagination. However, the imagination isn't an elitist like reason, and it confers its blessings on "high" and "low" art alike: the "high" art that satisfies standards of formal excellent in regard to style, theme and content, and the "low" art that is satisfying in part it doesn't do any of those things.
Take the strange cases of Doctor Jekyll and Superman.
When Robert Louis Stevenson did his first draft of JEKYLL & HYDE, "high art" seems to have been far from his mind: reportedly he told his wife he'd written a "fine bogie story." Stevenson's wife persuaded him to destroy this presumably-simpler version of the story and write something with a greater moral purpose. This distaff editorializing resulted in the JEKYLL we have today. We do not know what elements of the original tale Stevenson used in the final version, any more than we know all the subconscious elements that went into Stevenson's having the idea in the first place (though of course, speculations abound). But the version we have is, last time I looked, accepted within the academic canon of "high art."
The first printed version of Siegel and Shuster's Superman, in contrast, is probably pretty much as he was originally conceived, though a few elements, like the costume, were probably executed late in the long-delayed development of the project. As a brilliant breakthrough of the subconscious, the concept of Superman is in every way the equal of Stevenson's changeable physician. The primary difference in the published versions is that Stevenson's concept was reworked to express some degree of moral or dialectical ideas, which are, even more than Stevenson's formal writing-skills, what define it as high art.
Neither Siegel nor Shuster possessed levels of artistic skill commensurate with Stevenson's skills, at least not in the formal sense. But formal skill, like the reasoning process that makes a rough concept into something more developed, must be understood to be a secondary manifestation of the creative impulse. Some critics, however, regard aspects like formal skill or a sophisticated theme to be primary areas of concern. These may be important concerns, depending on the nature of the work, but they should not be primary in any critical appraisal of a fictional work. To make this critical mistake is to misrepresent the nature of human creative activity.
Next time I'll deal with specifically what elements of both the Superman and the Jekyll/Hyde fiction-myths make them worth a second look, and whether the subconscious always knows what it's doing.