There are few sections of any society or culture more susceptible to the siren call of monstrous egotism and delusional self belief than that of the artist. Primarily (but not exclusively) a lone calling, the artist interprets and remakes the world in music, dance, writing, sculpting, film, or other materials present. At the highest levels of achievement, the artist breaks the bonds of ego and culture and history and sheds new light on the human condition, providing a direction and an understanding on who we are in the world that has never been hitherto available. The fact that a few have done this sometimes leads to delusions of grandeur, and the reputation of having an artistic temperament, of being self-centred, moody, narcissistic, extremely rude, aggressive, secretive, gossiping, bitterly jealous, demanding to a level of infantile neediness, mercurial and subject to irrational changes of mind, all seems to add to an artist’s mystique of being caught up in a process of near mystical congress with the inner workings of the universe that mortals of lesser genius could never truly grasp. With great gifts, after all, cometh great burdens. In reality what is needed in instances like the foregoing is an intervention.
But how do people get like that? Family? Perhaps compensating for feeling a failure in more culturally approved careers? I mean becoming an artist is neither a popular or profitable venture. Few go to their parents at eighteen and announce their intentions to become novelists or sculptors for instance. Perhaps the negative characteristics described in the previous paragraph attributed to the artist come from all or a couple of the above origins. They are probably made worse by years and years of failure to get a single thing of worth into print. People find ways to compensate for feeling they just haven’t measured up to expectations when others seem to succeed.
The thing about being an artist is it isn’t about the money or the fame. Its a horribly difficult thing to be. And if you don’t succeed (and sometimes when you do) sometimes ego takes the place of true self confidence and after that the rot sets in. More than anything the key indicator for the artist who has drunk the Kool-Aid is whether or not s/he has any real friendships. If ones ego has grown to such astral proportions and ones belief in ones glittering artistic destiny so absolute, it takes up any and all personal space within and around the artist’s psyche. No one gets in and no one is allowed in to see the real self. All supposed friends are replaced by forgeries that the artist has created to serve the needs of his art. By ‘needs of his art, s/he means the needs of the ego. Family, sex, marriage, business relationships, even a passing drink in a bar on the way home from an exhibition or a reading all serve the Kool-Aid drinking genius. It is truly a horribly lonely empty pseudo existence.
Allied to the aforementioned burdens of genius is the romantic myth of the self destructive artist. According to this theory, to be a really creative person, one has to, somehow, have a rather partial grasp of the basics of self maintenance. One must eat badly, drink excessively, copulate with anything that exhibits a pulse, and finally become addicted to various substances not readily available in a licensed pharmacist (I am not in any way anti-drug by the way). But such freedom from inhibition,such refusal to live life except in excess is, within the myth of the self destructive artist, for the sake of, or perhaps because of one’s muse. This approach is rather dubious in itself as it depicts the creative life as rather like being slowly consumed by a very sadistic cannibal. As one works away creatively, one is being slowly ruined. Ones body and mind and loved ones are all being eaten away as a consequence of the very thing one is creating. Being creative is supposedly destructive, which is a very odd thing. I mean there are so many novels and paintings and poems and movies on this subject and one certainly has material to work with because of the sturm und drang of an excessive lifestyle. The problem with this is its a death sentence. And of course its really stupid. If life will kill you, so why waste the time one has? Ones body crashes or one goes insane, or both, and, according to, or in accordance with the aforementioned romantic blueprint, one winds up dying in one glorious act of self annihilation leaving behind a legacy of a short but supernova-esque career of brilliant output.
Well, not exactly. Brilliant writers (for instance) write like that not because they took a lot of drugs (including alcohol) but because they are really good. The addict does not make the artist, nor vice versa. In the end its putting sugar in the fuel tank, to use a metaphor. Addiction or self destructive excess will not improve ones work a jot, invariably its the opposite. This palpable nonsense has its origins in movies and novels and biographies of artists who happened to be self destructive because of issues they had, and made for interesting and poignant subject matters for drama. The myth of the self destructive artist itself goes back to a time when artists, like most folks centuries ago, were not properly inoculated and venereal diseases and TB and other diseases were rampant. The side effects of these illnesses led artists to acts of excess in all areas of their lives, to really live life to the full before it was all over so quickly, not to mention a race against time before they succumbed to an inevitable youthful, less than beautiful, death that was deeply unromantic in its awfulness when experienced in the first person. Their lives were tragic and their lifestyles a symptom of a malaise not a sign of giftedness that was there anyway in abundance.
There are of course gradations of delusion that flow from the
desire for fame and artistic greatness. The ‘lone’ Kool-Aid drinking genius nowadays is usually rarely alone, accepting college and teaching positions, positions on government art discussion groups and various influential boards as well as grant aid packages, all of which can give them seniority to other artists, and of course time to work in a comfortable existence. If they write (as I do), they are also editing various journals and attending the right meetings and readings, giving keynote speeches, attending conferences and get-togethers, making appointments for casual cups of coffee with people they have targeted who will help them to get on, always worrying and working desperately hard to get on, without of course giving the appearance of effort, and to forge long lasting close personal friendships with the right long-established artists who will, by association, give the necessary affirmations and recommendations in their chosen field of excellence, and ensure they rise to the top of the line. These people are players with a capital ‘P’. Power has replaced love as the meaning of things, and it has changed them.
The fact that few, if any, artists of world historical significance mentioned obliquely in the last paragraph ever achieve the kind of well deserved fame and notoriety in the relatively short lifetime of a human being does not seem to strike these aspiring Kool-Aid drinking people as in any way significant. The fact that most of these aspiring greats will very probably be forgotten soon after their demise is not at issue, nor would it cross their minds. For them life is good. Their egotism is their Kool-Aid. Instead of concentrating on their work, on getting better at their art, thus having a real shot at greatness, they have suffered a kind of mission drift – moving away from artistic output to a kind of intense lifelong act of self aggrandising propaganda. What they want is to be seen to be great, not to be the real deal. They have done what’s necessary to appear great. They have officially excelled. They have ticked the right boxes. They have produced a few good pieces of work. They have moved to where it’s happening- a big city or university campus. They go to the right parties. They have changed their identities so that the real person, the vulnerable self, the part where the talent comes from, is hidden under a hard self assured outer persona. They believe money means success. They believe attention is success. They believe fame means giftedness. They believe being interviewed means they have something to say. They think if they are not succeeding and getting attention they are in agony, and they believe their agony is that of the misunderstood genius. But they know the truth about themselves, and in more distracted moments it comes to the fore, the self doubt, the sense of betrayal, the anger and the overriding ambition and jealousies that can never fill the sense of not having achieved, really achieved. They know to some extent this is something that has been foisted upon them, but also it is something that the artist themselves have chosen, a type of Faustian bargain made with oneself to identify the apparent trappings of success with success itself.
On one level or another something dies, and after a certain point a talent squandered is a talent that is gone.
Much nonsense has been written about art and the status of the artist in society, when it, like human nature or the thing in itself, it is an unknown. The artist is primarily a person in the world, neither a saviour nor a cut above the rest. S/he is not a commodity to be bought or sold, nor should artist be left in the kind of penury which has defined the lives of so many artists that make them sell out. We need the real thing, something born from the raw individuality of earned experience without the input of grant-aid or boardroom discussion. Because society cannot survive without the mirror of self-reflection that is art, hopefully somewhere along the line we will toss the Kool-Aid. We will let artists be artists and give them what they need most: real self determination. This is something not easily given. The right conditions need to exist for it to happen. Most of all the artist has to choose it as their right.