A conversation with Xavier

The possibility that artists can build substantial castles on insubstantial foundations leads naturally to the subject of “self-deception”. During a recent conversation, the French artist Xavier Krebs confided that, during the process of making a painting, there sometimes comes a moment of what he described as a time of massive self-deception. Suddenly, to his delight, the painting that he is working on seems to come alive in a way that is thrilling beyond belief. The experience is extremely potent and only too real. The balloon is not pricked until the next morning when Xavier rushes excitedly to the studio. There he finds himself confronted, not by the “masterpiece” he was expecting, but what he now experiences as a spirit-crushing “disaster”. Nothing has changed but the artist’s experience of what he is seeing, Yet he assures me that there is no room for doubt: The scales of self-deception have dropped permanently from his eyes:

Xavier Krebs : Trois Gorges, 2007

My own experience of self-deception

I was particularly struck by Xavier’s confession because it corresponded precisely to my own experience both as a painter and as a theoretician. If someone were to ask me which of all the paintings I have ever seen have excited me the most, the only honest answer would have to be certain of my own, during the euphoria of an analogous period of self-deception. Like Xavier, I have experienced the reality check coming the next morning (or next year), although, unlike Xavier, I have learnt not to take my plunging spirits as providing the final word. There is always something useful to realise and often something worthwhile to build upon, even though long periods of struggle may lie ahead before I can be more lastingly satisfied with what has emerged.

The same answer would have to be given for the theoretical speculations which have most excited me. In “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, I write of the bubbling stream of ideas stimulated by the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”, the ridiculously simple notion of mine mentioned earlier. For me the sheer abundance of the ideas it generated was remarkable because to start with I hardly took the model more seriously than I did my lighthearted fancy about Wagner writing deliberately second-rate music. Yet, despite its almost flippant origins, in the end it proved to be a crucial turning point in the evolution of my ideas.

Needless to say, my somewhat frivolous game-playing pleasures did not always work out so well. On a host of other occasions, after luring me on to thoughts that started the adrenaline flowing, they led to nothing but embarrassment. Nor is this negative feeling necessarily a bad thing. Positive possibilities that can stem from the deep despair that can come when speculations that have at first, generated euphoria are followed by deep disappointment. In my own experience and from what I read about the experiences of others, the inner turmoil of spirit that characterises these hard-to-live-through moments can prove to be an essential step in triggering the radical rethinking required if the phoenix is to be brought out of the ashes.

Advantages of self-deception

But let us return to the high-level of confidence that characteristically accompanies the first falling into place or of new ideas or new arrangements of elements on the picture surface. The question arises as to whether it is necessarily a bad thing. My answer is, “Not at all”.

My reason for this positive answer is that to be successfully developed, tested and accepted by others, even the simplest ideas can need a very substantial degree of motivation and, as history shows, this may have to be maintained over years of frustration and seeming failure. Surely, without a good dose of premature confidence, the necessary motivation would either be still-born or soon wither away? The problem for creative workers is to sort out the grain from the chaff. Sooner of later, they have to decide whether they are:

  • Under the unreliable influence of a falsely inflated state of self-assurance.
  • Under an equally fallible sway of abject despair.
  • Onto a good thing.

Self-deception and the survival of our species

While we are on this subject, it should never be forgotten that the euphoric or despairing states of mind which are triggered by the kinds of experience referred to above are certainly reflecting biochemical processes.  If we can trust Darwinian ideas, it is reasonable to presume that these occur because, over the millennia, they have demonstrated a valuable role in the survival of the human species.

All in all, it would seem that, despite its record for engendering false certainties, the period of high excitement that occurs while at work on hopefully creative projects, is a completely normal and possibly a necessary part of creativity. The same goes for feelings of abject despair.

Posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

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5 thoughts on “Self-deception”

  1. The aspect of subjectivity could be mentioned relative to this post – because how others would view the picture (whether in the euphoric stage or the despairing stage) will likely not match the artist’s disposition. I’ve had people frame playful sketches for children and birthday cards I’ve made that to me aren’t worth keeping, much less displaying. And I have pieces I would charge big bucks for that only get sideways glances and furrowed brows.

    1. Thanks for your comment Savannah. You are right that others often respond positively to work you have done that you don’t like and negatively to the work that you do like. I have always made it a principle to try to understand the basis for their disagreement; and, over the years, I have learnt much from doing so.

  2. I’ve been having this discussion a lot lately! I had one of these experience recently…. a night of euphoric re-working of a “good” painting that felt like sheer brilliance in the moment followed by opening the studio door in the morning and feeling the blood drain out of my body.

    A painting friend of mine was saying that this is the creative “spirit” that just wants release and doesn’t care much for end-product.

    Equally I’ve come to distrust the days when I leave the studio feeling completely defeated. I almost always arrive the next day to a pleasant surprise.

    It is curious to think that this is something universally experienced.

    Thanks for the post Francis.

    1. Thanks for your comment Cathy. So many of our worries, are not only shared with innumerable others, but are the flip side of something that regularly plays a positive role in the creative process. It is my belief that a propensity for self-deception has stayed with our species over the ages because its history of beneficial outcomes has been picked up by the processes of evolution. The same applies to “false confidence”, the subject of my last Post <>. Perhaps you would like to comment on that too. It is so helpful to have examples of relevant experience to back up the ideas I have been sharing.

  3. I too can relate to this changing of perceptions, which I feel is experienced by people in all aspects of life to greater or lesser extents. As you mention, there is much to learn from each change of perception. What triggered a change? Simply being more aware of them is a great lesson. Thank you for sharing this Francis.

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