The Artistic Temperament

Following an interesting conversation with a friend, I’ve been brought back to the idea of what the artistic temperament is, and more importantly, if it actually exists.

To frame the discussion I’ll mention a recent TED talk that has made its way around the intertubes. Elizabeth Gilbert, of “Eat Pray Love” fame (2 outta 3 ain’t bad) spoke on the idea of needing to separate herself from her work in order to retain her sanity. She takes for granted that there has been a long history of artistic “genius” being often accompanied with many self-destructive traits. Her solution is, however, that she’d like to reinstitute the idea of “genius” being a muse that influences you, instead of the reasonable and rational idea that you come up with ideas free from any divine inspiration. She doesn’t like the idea that we are the font of our creations. So, instead of simply owning up to the brute facts and exploring ways of dealing with them, she prefers to interpose a wall, of well, bullshit to distance herself from the difficulties of being a creative individual.

This is to me utterly unfulfilling, not because it’s untrue, which it clearly is, but because there is something to be learned and she doesn’t even seem inclined to explore it.  She is more comfortable imagining the realities of being an artist as an unknown and she hopes that her psychological/religious reworking fixes any problems with it. Well, that sounds like fluffy artist thinking if ever I’ve heard it. “Perhaps if we lie to ourselves, reality will change.” Well, allow me, with the merciless hammer of materialism, to crush that cute little idea. Reality changes for no thought. Reality IS. We exist in it. Our thoughts do not change it. “The Secret” is bullshit. The sooner we grasp this, the sooner progress on the issue (any issue) will actually be made.

Quite a despairing thought you say? (I shit you not, that the Marche Funebre actually just began playing on my classical radio station.) On the contrary, I contend that a world where you know the facts is in no way a dull, sad world to live in. It is instead, an empowering one. And if we’re to get to the heart of Gilbert’s problem which we’ll call, “The difficulties of being an artist”, then we better begin by asking a few basic questions:

1) Is the stereotype of the tortured artist even true?  In other words, is it actually prevalent, or do we simply assume it to be so and every time we find a drunk artist chalk it up as more evidence, while ignoring all the artists who are not drunks (Otherwise known as conformation bias)?

2) If it is in fact the case that the majority of great artists (or artists in general) are drunks, (or substitute whatever anti-social, self-destructive behavior you associate with artists) is it causal? Or is it simply correlation? A great many construction workers are drunks. Do we associate drinking with construction in popular discourse? No. We realize that they’re construction workers AND they’re drunks. One doesn’t cause the other. (Also, possibly helping the artist stereotype, we don’t talk about construction workers and their habits very often. But we do with artists, as they are in the public eye, and thus may exaggerate the influence of famous self-destructive artists). So the question remains; is it simply that there are a lot of drunks about, and an expected proportion of them are artists? Or are artists above average in the self-destructive behavior category as relates to the population as a whole?

3) If artists are more prone (and now, if all this happens to be true, we’ve finally reached the point Gilbert simply assumes to be the case) we must ask the question: Why? Or more specifically: does such a finding result from the benefits of such behavior for artists, or is it a side effect of being an artist that such behaviors are more common? In other words, are artists drunks because it aids them? Or are they drunks because being an artist makes them more vulnerable? This is an important question because the natural assumption is: “if artists are more prone to drink, how do we stop that?” But, Jonah Lehrer, who has many fascinating articles relating to creativity (and a new book), has one in particular on  lack of sleep and being drunk, that highlights the idea of destructive behavior actually helping produce creativity in the first place!

4) And now we reach the actual question (assuming all the previous questions end in the affirmative). What do we do with this information? Do we look for better ways to produce the same effects of self-destructive creativity boosting behavior without the need for the self-destruction (I should hope)? Until the day we can substitute it, do we look for ways to maximize such behavior so that when we reach the peak of its effectiveness we disengage with it (again I’d hope so)?

Or do we lie to ourselves and create a magical fiction in the hope that this will somehow end the assumed self-destructive behavior of so many artists? I think I’ve made my position clear.

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