Everything about the Tormented Artist
The tormented artist is a myth that Americans especially like. Hollywood biographical films about artists such as Jackson Pollock and Vincent van Gogh concentrate on the agonizing aspects of artists' lives, their mental vulnerability and their hard routine.
The difficult lives of the artists have become an idea in many sources, and even the perception that suffering produces the most beautiful art works.
A contemporary example is Nick Cave's new album (Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds), which was written and recorded after his son's tragic death. Nick Cave is a great artist; there is who argue he’s the greatest artist in his field of our generation and maybe even over several generations. Cave is a truely special artist, exciting and complex, that I love especially, and his new album shakes the capillaries, it's hard to imagine that anyone would disagree. His evocative work does carry a melancholy atmosphere and even its name Ghosteen means a wandering spirit of a dead person, as explained in the opening video released with the album. It's hard to listen to the songs without connecting every line to Cave's personal tragedy, but what happens if you listen to this kind of album without knowing the background?
I believe it is precisely the lack of prior knowledge that allows the listener to find his personal connection to musical works, and to make independent interpretations. In my opinion, this is also the essence of all kinds of contemporary art, which is not recruited to a patron or agenda.
The unrestricted art allows the artist the freedom to create from any emotion, motivation or purpose. But still, many think that art is created out of misery and the artist must suffer in order to produce his wonderful work, much like "The Thorn Birds"... I come across such occasional statements alongside the well-known romantic image of the iconic artist.
But is creation-suffering-madness an axiomatic equation? As a creator myself this equation upsets me.
I work on two levels of creativity: commissioned works for portrait clients and illustrations for books, texts or films. The second level is personal creation, sometimes in preparation for an exhibition, sometimes personal inspired, sometimes in the field of design. In all cases, it is important for me to emphasize that this is a work full of joy and positive high energies, truly highs of personal satisfaction.
My artwork is pure happiness. If I don't feel good I can't create. When I am depressed or stressed no inspiration will rest on me and I will not imagine nor create. When I receive an order from a customer I am filled with anticipation and excitement and creativity that motivate me to create. When there are no such commissions on my schedule, sometimes the daily pressures are overwhelming and no artistic work will come from me at all. On hard, depressing, or stressful days, I am busy creating To Do Lists and chasing them.
Many hard days I knew before I had the chance to become a full time artist. These days included entirely different jobs, which made a living without any added value. Over the years I have worked in so many different jobs, hoping to get ahead or get used to, or at least earn a living, and maybe get enough time occasionally to create something, see art, read or hear it. Most of the times it did not happen, as I was stressed out in time, exhausted, nervous, depressed, and absolutely without any inspiration to create. Mostly I survived. This unbearable but casual suffering did not produce any beautiful art.
The anguish that was accompanied by economic hardship, which many consider it part of the romance of an artist's life, led to no creation. That included work as waitress, work in clothing stores, shoes, jewelry, stationery, customer service, lots of sales of all kinds, telephone and frontal sales, in malls and door to door, I used to be a law firm secretery, scooter delivery (including two road accidents), I worked in nursing care for a paralyzed women, and at a cat rescue center (heartbreaking and exhausting work), assisting a veterinary clinic (not heroic as it sounds), and many other bad Sisyphean jobs I managed to forget.
Perhaps the highlight was a job I have long longed for, and believed to have a livelihood with some interest, when I was accepted into a major known chain store in the culture field. Maybe I'm particularly naive because I thought they were interested in intellectuals and men of letters, and I arrived at the end of my master's degree studies in art history (during writing my theses about Caravaggio and alchemy in 15th-17th European art…) hoping to use my background in work. But as the size of the expectation is the size of the fraud: that chain store likes scholars but is actually interested in greedy fish sellers, pushers, liars, and who are ready for all. The work included cleaning the store space, arranging merchandise in huge masses that never matched the store's storage space, within a space that did not include employee’s bathroom and did not even include running water. A container of drinking water would sometimes come and sometimes be missing. Sitting was prohibited throughout the shift, for a manager a minimum of 9 hours a shift, and no maximum hours limit, for some mysterious global salary. Alongside this, each employee carried a personal magnetic card that she/he had to pass before any action on the super-sophisticated computer box, that monitors every action, from sale, through break and everything in the between. The break, by the way, was fifteen minutes on shift. Only then it was permissible to sit, away from the eyes of the sensitive customers who could likely be hurt by this... In that chain store the employees work under exploitative conditions. The trampling of systematic workers' rights is unbelievable, starting with signing dozens of pages of the employment contract without giving a copy to the employee, continuing through the payment of salaries without letting the employee see his work hourly summary. Prohibition of sitting while working, and often a complete disregard for the right for a break, with no place to sit and eat, no neat coffee corner, or at least a corner where you can put a cup of beverage. Really a severe shortage of basic living conditions for an employee who is at work 8 hours or more. One manager claimed to me that she works about 250 hours a month and I tend to believe it based on the fact that I witnessed that she was at work (almost) daily from opening to closing the store. Since everything was very secretive on that store chain, I had no way of knowing what my future there would be, not how many work hours, not the branch location, certainly not the wages, and how long I would continue to serve as a punching bag of busy, tired, worn and frustrated managers like those in that store chain (and they were probably not a model I aspired to) until the reserve ends. The managers I worked for were very happy to receive a non-paid employee out of their budget and the abuse cried out to heaven. The work arrangements landed on me without any weekly planning and without hearing my requests. A free weekend was nothing to talk about. The climax was that one manager seemed to have a nervous breakdown in the store one weekend, continually reprimanding everyone, and finally, 10 minutes before I was due to leave, she demanded me to stay for another two hours. Beyond that, during my entire time on that store chain, I was given no opportunity to initiate anything. Any comment or question led to reactions of anger and aggression from the managers who were supposed to teach me. Beyond all of that, it was demanded of every employee to use whatever it takes to sell, in every way and by all means, especially if you have to lie that you read every single one of the thousands of new titles in the store, which it’s probably like selling fish and research art at the same time. The demands were in the sky, I was examined under a microscope and all my actions were monitored, but all my rights were trampled on dirt. I have never felt so humiliated and crushed in the workplace.
The better jobs were library stewardship, museum tutorials, creative workshops, design shop work that included sewing, which would also be paid at minimum wage or close to that. The staggering gap between early and processed demands from employees and the minimum wage made me mad. I worked so hard and so many hours and I always stayed broke and frustrated, tired and nervous and without any leisure time.
On the contrary, the work I have been doing in recent years is art. I am not rich, and without my partner the situation was difficult, but I make a living, and the peace of mind is wonderful and accompanied by highs of creation and rewarding work.
So when talking about the link between suffering and creativity, it's important to remember that an artist who has to make a living from jobs other than his art is the one who suffers to the point of losing sanity. Anyone who thinks an artist should not make a living from his art is a sinner to artists and creativity. Another professional who has to make a living from other jobs is also often suffering. So is a talented cook who has to work in sales, an historian forced to clean houses, an engineer forced to wait in restaurants.
Suffering is in my eyes a life that does not reach its full potential and interests. Good art is created when conditions are in place and there are enough resources like money, time, and space, like already said before by Virginia Wolf in her book A Room of One's Own.