Deconstructing the Myth: You Do NOT Have To Suffer To Be A ‘True Artist’

My son, four-years-old at the time and sitting next to me with a sticky juice box in hand, offhandedly asked, “Mom, are you an artist?” Surprised by the question from a boy whose typical discourse involved Duplos, Matchbox cars, and the Rugrats, I smiled and answered, ‘Yes, sweetheart, I am.” He looked over with shy admiration and declared, “You’re so bwave.”

Beyond the Elmer Fuddian dialect that never failed to slay me, his comment pricked tears because, regardless of what inspired either the question or the response (he had nothing more to add when prodded), he was right: it does take courage to be an artist. What it doesn’t take? Or, perhaps, more accurately, what is not required, is suffering.

It’s a hoary meme, suffering for one’s art, one that’s likely been bandied since the onset of man + art, conjuring images of sweat-drenched cave painters, bloodletting Roman sculptors; emaciated Frenchmen in grubby garrets fighting off scurvy to complete their latest masterpiece. There are slews of celebrated suicidal poets, iconic authors awash in clinical depression; famed dancers beset by eating disorders, drug-addled musicians, and brilliant comic minds battered by addiction and self-loathing. And from this wealth of damaged artistic souls, the myth emerged: that true art demands such torture, inspires such laments; that those talented enough to wear the mantle of true artist are inevitably destined to suffer, to angst, to be eternally roiled and ennuied.

Balderdash.

I am not impugning the greatness of the many great artists who were/are inflicted by any of this litany of miseries. Nor am I suggesting that suffering prevents one from being a true artist (though with some it certainly can). What I’m saying is there is no linkage. No equation. No cause and effect. They are simply two different things: art and human affliction. There’s no + with a desired = to follow. They do not go together like a horse and carriage. They do not go together at all.

As for artists who are depressed, suicidal, addicted, troubled, and sick, the question must be asked: Would they suffer so even if they weren’t artistic; if they were doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, or plumbers? I suspect so. Yet we don’t automatically assign “suffering” as a prerequisite to any of those other professions.

Frankly, subscribing to the “suffering theory” can be detrimental to one’s health: believing it is natural, expected, inevitable for an artist to endure the Sturm und Drang of creative malaise sets one up to wear suffering like a mantle, a red badge of courage. It suggests artistic agony is romantic. It might even give one franchise to “act out” in deference to the dictum, to allow oneself to crash-and-burn as a matter of presumed destiny. As a self-destructive painter once said to me after nearly drinking himself to death, “I’m an artist, it’s what we do.”

I’m attuned to this at the moment because just this week I was inundated by a series of articles pushing the myth, offering impassioned treatises, provocative quotes, sighs of resignation from various artists, old and new, living and dead, in support of the “suffer theory.” And, as is often the case, these quotes and essays were presented with breathless aggrandizement granted by virtue of the quotee’s celebrity, success, or agree-upon excellence. These folks know, therefore this theory must have merit.

What these folks know is their own singular experience. Their individual states of being and how it all goes—or went—with their unique participation in the arts, their chosen allegiance to the “suffer theory” as they found it applicable to them. Their mistake, I’d posit, is in assuming it applies to everyone and, with the power of their celebrityhood, turning it into belief.

For example:

“No artist is pleased… no satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” ~ Martha Graham, choreographer

What I’d suggest is that Martha felt that way, then made a declaration about it, which then became a mantra for those who celebrate her.

But, all due respect to the great Martha Graham, I beg to differ. Many artists, myself included, have found satisfaction in the creation and communication of their art, the outside enjoyment of what they created; the success—minimal or grand—that offered enough encouragement to carry on.

I would argue that it is not “blessed unrest” or “divine dissatisfaction” that enlivens an artist, keeps them creating, drives them to accomplish profound work. It’s not madness, despair, or angst that compels true artistry. It’s the relentless, compelling, burning desire to create; to get out on paper, on canvas; on stage, through instruments and voice; that idea, that image, that sound that demands conception, that tickles nerves and brain and synapses so thoroughly one can’t sleep for needing to express it.

That’s not suffering. That’s the exhilaration of artistic inspiration.

But even the great writer e.e. cummings, in critique of artistic academia, pushed the suffering conceit in the aptly titled article, The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A)

“… being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.”

In e.e.’s estimation, it’s not just any artistic suffering, it’s the kind of agony that alchemizes a lower case artist into one “with a capital A.” What a siren song that must be for the tender, gullible spirit seeking artistic guidance!

Rinse and repeat my response to Martha.

But if you thought the notion belonged only to philosophers of yore, you’d be mistaken. Another article this past week referenced a young, contemporary writer who asserts in Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing the following:

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

Never? Ever?

Zadie had other, more useful, items within her “rules of writing” (though such lists are anathema to me, given my subversive view that there are NO rules to writing), but still I’d repeat my Martha response to her last “rule.” Instructing writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied” is, to me, a disservice. As with Martha, I’d guess that is Zadie’s view as it applies to her. For you? I’d encourage you to reject it wholesale; embrace the “heresy” that you can, should, ought to feel joy, find satisfaction, revel in accomplishment, even fall in love with your own work as you artistically evolve. That is your right as an artist; the other is an assigned burden of no particular value.

As a take-away to all this, let me reference back to my son’s statement: While agony and suffering are not prerequisites to artistry, courage is. Because art—expressing art, pursuing art, doing art—is as close to a person’s entity as skin and bones and heart and soul. It’s not a thing “out there” to be learned at the hands of professors, teachers, mentors, and skilled practitioners. Beyond technique (which can be learned), art—at its most creative, bold, individualistic, daring, experimental, and innovative— is innate, intrinsic, endemic to an artist’s being, the essence of who they are, not just what they do, and in that it becomes deeply, profoundly, elementally unique to that person. It becomes Personal, with a capital P (to borrow from e.e. cummings!).

To be vulnerable and intimate enough to make personal art, then make public that art, exposing it to the potential of rejection, misinterpretation, critique, insults, and painful, hurtful, soul-scraping judgment takes courage. To get up after each onslaught to continue tapping into one’s soul to access what bubbles within takes courage. Honoring your muse by not ignoring or discarding your talent takes courage.

Courage is not suffering. One is necessary, the other is not. As I’ve chosen to be courageous enough to be frequently satisfied, occasionally pleased; persistently enlivened, relentlessly creative, selectively frustrated, mildly self-effacing, but always, indefatigably artistic without suffering, I hope you will too. It’s far less exhausting on body and soul… which only leaves room for more creativity.

Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash
Dancer In a Red Dress & Joy of Song by LDW

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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When You’re Trying To Do Christmas and Politics Get In the Way

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I remember the good old days when I could find all sorts of fun, quirky things to write about at this time of year: cheerful vignettes about childhood holiday memories, charming seasonal facts long forgotten, the ten worst Christmas traditions ever; you know… meaningful stuff like that.

The holiday season just seems to lend itself to warmth and whimsy, the exploration of themes related to love and gratitude, our favorite recipes and the funniest Santa Claus pictures. Unless one is truly a curmudgeon, it’s almost impossible to not have least one happy memory attached to this time of year. I was—and am—no exception.

In fact, I love Christmas. I’m one of those. It makes me happy. I feel no compunction to spend money I don’t have, plans trips I don’t wish to take, or attend events I’d rather avoid. I’m very protective that way. It’s all about designing a season in which the only obligation is to create happiness for those within the circle. In fact, my husband and I began our marriage by making our first Christmas a thing of joy, and those handpicked ornaments and table decorations, cookie traditions and family gatherings, favorite meals and notable activities, sustain to this day, as precious to us as anything we hold dear.

scary-election_mikeyBut still, I’ve been more serious lately. Life got more serious. I blame the election. The damn, interminable election that sucked the air out of our nation starting a little over a year ago and ratcheting up every day since. It’s been a war of sorts, one that’s left us battered, bothered and bewildered. As one friend put it, “I hate that I’m actually in fear for our future. I’ve been disappointed in election results before, but I’ve never felt terrified about where this person might take us, or how and if we’ll survive.”

I’m not one who lives in fear, but I feel her pain. I share the concern. Despite previous political conflicts, rancorous partisanship, and caustic disparities amongst the parties, I, too, have never felt quite the level of darkness and toxicity that permeates this particular election… and this particular person. That the man entering office is doing so despite his opponent winning almost 3 MILLION MORE VOTES, and despite the fact that the wisest, more experienced, most admirable and honorable men and women in the country/world believe he’s an unmitigated disaster, means little at this point. We are here. Where we are. And at this moment there’s no changing that (later moments…we’ll see).

Dealing with the daily litany of horrible, idiotic, hateful, head-shaking, corrupt, indecent, and just plain stupid things the next presi— (I can’t say it… I won’t… #NotMyPresident… ever), occupant of the White House says or does has been exhausting and unnerving (that’s a tepid word… how about TERRIFYING?!). I have no idea where it’s all going either, how long the trainwreck will be allowed to smolder before someone gets it to the scrap yard, or if we’ll be teaching our children how to desk-dive in “nuclear drills” before the year is over. But I won’t live in fear. I prefer the sentiment of this section of the poem, Protest, that Dan Rather shared:

‘Protest,’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, 1914

To sin by silence when we should protest
makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law.
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare must speak and speak again,
To right the wrongs of many.

I will live by that. I will continue to raise my voice, as Ella suggests, to “speak and speak again,” however loud and long is required of me. I promise you that.

But still… there’s Christmas.

And Christmas is important. We human beings need the rituals and traditions of our holidays, those times when we can collectively acknowledge and experience celebration and joy. Without them we might end up spending all our time wailing on social media, and that’s not a good thing!

But to those for whom loss or grief keeps them from finding the joy… those whose loneliness and isolation occludes their ability to embrace the happier aspects of seasonal celebration, I say this: I understand. I do. I’ve been there. I know how tough it can be, when you’re in those particular places, to carry on about “jolly St. Nick” and the proper temp for Christmas roast. My beloved grandmother died the morning of Christmas 1979. I had some of the loneliest days of my life over Christmas of 1988. I went into the season of 1989 having just lost a job. I got dumped once right before Christmas. My father died in early December of 1999. I know how those seminal events, those states of being, can impact one’s ability to celebrate and be happy, Christmas or no Christmas.

I hope, though, that through friends, through social media, through whatever connections you can make, can find and feel in your world, that you’re able to glean at least a moment or two of warmth and holiday spirit this season… I wish that for you.

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As for me this year: I’m fortunate. My family is healthy and doing well, my work is moving along; I’ve got a new theatrical adventure to begin this coming year (more on that soon); the house looks magical, the gifts are wrapped, the cookies are baking, every gathering has met expectations, so we’re doing it up right. But yes… at least a few times a day, as I do my work online, I check social media and various news sources to see what the hellfire is going on, and dammit if I don’t have to tweet or post or write or share or comment or yell about one damn thing or another because that little orange mother—BUT WAIT!!

It’s Christmas… I’m mellow and jolly, wrapped in reds and greens, nutmeg and cinnamon wafting through the air; Music Choice is set to “Sounds of the Season” and it’s so, so, so lovely… so NO! Donald Trump does not get my holiday! He may have shattered my belief in democracy, lowered my estimation of human decency, made me question how deep my coffer of disdain can go, and raised my level of revulsion beyond good health, but he is NOT going to ruin my damn Christmas!

So, despite politics, I will revel madly, enjoy friends and family to the utmost, occasionally hug my big Santa statue by the doorway, all with hopes that you can do some version of the same (the big Santa is pretty exclusive but, I tell ya, he’s quite something!). And please know that—if you’re reading this— you’re likely one of my circle, those chosen few with whom I vent, debate, inspire, exchange ideas, share important articles, post unimportant but utterly appreciated videos of pandas playing with snowmen, or just, in general, grant outlets and venues and canvasses upon whicchrismas-carh to commiserate. Our mutual and connected attempts to makes sense of this crazy world have literally kept me from feeling alone and insane during this “Annus horribilis,” so THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart!

And Merry Christmas, dear friends. Let’s make 2017 a year that “trumps” the year we’ve just had… in all the good ways in which that word can be applied. Let’s reflect on the poem Dan Rather shared and make sure we are not those who “sin by silence.” Let’s be loud, and make COURAGE the word most spoken this coming year.

Until then, have a Christmas cookie… mmm, so good! ❤

Santa photo by Caleb Wood at Unsplash
Scary Election by Mike (Mikey) @ Unsplash
Christmas Car photo @ Pinterest

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.