The image of a struggling artist is a powerful one in Western culture. Many people believe it is an artist’s lot to starve, and more importantly that depravation is an important part of the creative process. In this view, great art has a life of its own that comes from the birthing pains of anguish. An artist is must suffer to create works that will endure, because great art is born from torment and strife.
What a load of horseshit.
The exact origin of this nonsense is hard to pin down, but it’s not something which is universally shared around the world. In China, Korea, and Japan artists have been traditionally revered or at least supported by the community. They were called upon to produce works that decorated the lives of people, depicting the joyous and contemplative far more than the depressing and angry.
My guess as to where this comes from in the West takes me back to a great hero of mine, Ludwig van Beethoven. He was, in many ways, the first successful free-lance artist – which is to say that he never had a patronage in his adult working life. Some might argue that Handel or even Haydn should get credit for what they did, and I understand this, but van Beethoven took it to a new level.
One of the things that van Beethoven created which opened up an artist’s life to anyone was a two-prong strategy of defining a personal image and using that image to openly dodge paying bills. As Herr van Beethoven, he was regarded as a great genius and probably very wealthy, despite the fact that he was destitute. This enabled him to run up enormous bar tabs and get invites to all the best parties with the prettiest Contessas.
The image he created was one that we still have today. Herr van Beethoven was a tortured soul, a man who channeled the deepest forces of the heart and nature and ultimately was impossible to deal with. More importantly, since it can easily be argued that the Romantic Era started when the first WHUMP! WHUMP! of his Third Symphony filled the Theater and der Wien on April 7, 1805, van Beethoven cast a long shadow over the next 100 years.
I have no reason to dismiss the creation of a personal image that van Beethoven perfected. Today, books are sold in part by hyping the author more than his or her work; you sell the sizzle, not the steak. But must this include a torment like that van Beethoven felt? I have deep problems with continuing the same petulant behavior that grabbed the attention of the Viennese bourgeoisie 200 years ago.
The reason why the image of a suffering and tormented artist has such enduring appeal has a lot to do with how we value art. We do not expect art to be a part of our daily lives, illuminating every aspect from dawn to dusk and from joy to sorrow. We demand that art hit us in the guts and evoke a strong emotional response, at least if it has any chance at being “great”. To have that emotional punch, art has to come from a deep well of emotions and someone who channels them well. They must suffer.
What this says is that we do not value art for the sake of art. It has to make its presence known before we have any chance of accepting it. Consequently, an artist has little value to the world because what he or she produces has little value, excepting its ability to grab our attention. Art must be culturally validated before it is considered “art”.
Any artist who accepts this arrangement is accepting a position of servitude. By allowing themselves to suffer for your art and play our culture’s little games, an artist has acknowledged that what they do has no value at all. I think that if van Beethoven were alive, he would be appalled (he was appalled by many things, after all).
I know many writers who say, “I write because I have to.” I am one of them. If I go for a few days without writing something down, I am an even more miserable person to live with than usual. But we have to understand that this is an addictive behavior, a habit that causes the flow of endorphins in our brains to hit a certain level and pattern we crave. Like any addiction, it can easily go out of control or be abused.
While we may have to write, there is nothing that says we have to be published. Indeed, there are many people out there who promise you access to the publishing industry who can best be described as crack dealers who want you to be their whore. The force of addiction causes many people to forgo a reasonable paycheck and decent life in their search for a fix.
In the end, however, I think that Western society’s attitude towards art is the real problem. It insists that art has be come from torment because it places little value on art and doesn’t see it as part of everyday life. Artists often accept the arrangement for historical and personal reasons, even though it is clearly against their own interest and the interest of their craft to do so. We are all poorer for the perpetuation of this myth.