Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Art in the fast lane
Art is not a comfortable activity. It’s extreme sport, as risky, pain-filled and exhilarating as BASE-jumping.
THE ESSAY by Elizabeth Farrelly
NO ONE starves in garrets any more. Not artists anyway. Suffering for your art is so-o-o old-fashioned. These days, artists are middle-class and awfully well-adjusted, just like everyone else. They may not all be Damien Hirsts and Tracy Emins – entrepreneurs-cum-snakeoil-people, the Richard Bransons of the art world. But they’re no longer the frayed ratbags of tradition, working all night and doing drugs all day.
As Columbia University’s Professor Joan Jeffri found in her groundbreaking study of 7700 artists in four American cities, the contemporary artist comes fully accessorised with tertiary education, health insurance, credit cards, retirement plans and a social conscience worthy of Rotary.
Just as well, perhaps, since, as we never tire of telling ourselves, we’re all artists now. Everyone is creative and everything is art. We may not know what it is but we know we’re doing it, or at least walking the walk. Half of every bubble-wrapped primary school class self-designates into the “gifted and talented” category. Richard Florida, global creativity guru, classes 30 per cent of adult workers in the US – some 38 million of them – as “Creatives”. And every city in the world now crawls on its belly to attract them since, as Florida has successfully convinced us, these creatives are the economic germens of our times.
So, what is a creative, exactly? Where are the distinguishing marks? And how come humanity is so extraordinarily more creative now than ever before, especially given the surprisingly uncreative way we seem, as a species, to be approaching the minor problem of our collective future?
Florida’s definition is loose-ish. Even his “super-creative core” includes not just the usual painters, poets and musos – the “bohemians” in Florida-speak – but also scientists, engineers, professors, programmers, entertainers, architects, editors, journalists, engineers, cultural figures, think-tank researchers, analysts and other opinion-makers. Pretty much everyone, that is, except the plumber, the undertaker and the quantity surveyor.
The next ring out, the Creative Class proper, takes in everyone else with a white or even pale blue collar: health professionals, managers, business people, lawyers and everyone in the financial or high-tech sectors. People who engage in “creative problem solving”, whose function is to create “meaningful new forms” – though Florida concedes that this also includes a lot of people (like his own Italian immigrant father) on the factory floor. In fact, at one point he even goes so far as to recognise creativity as the defining characteristic of the human being.
Which is fine but the real effect is simply to give the word a new meaning. Just as the word “university” was redefined in the late 20th century to mean a tertiary institution within everybody’s grasp, thus demonstrating ipso facto that the entire species is university material, so the word “creativity” has been redefined to imply something like what “professional” meant before it applied to footballers. Back when it still meant “working to a set of independent standards other than commerce or popularity”. Before it just meant “doing it for money”.
This new creative class, we’re told, has certain characteristics. They are vigorously self-directing. They show “a strong preference for individuality and self-statement” and a marked desire to succeed on merit; to be rewarded not just for doing something but for doing it well. They like to identify with their work colleagues as a tribe, to make mistakes without huge repercussions, to dress casually in the office and to have that office “feel like home”. When it comes to cities, they go for funky, diverse and relatively dense downtowns with a plethora of unexpected distractions.
As desires, these are probably near-universal. But as attributes they have generally been accessible only to the privileged few: the young, the wealthy, the self-employed – and artists. Artists, traditionally, have paid for these privileges not by having wealth but, on the contrary, by refusing to need it. Or at least by needing their creative head more.
But it is one of the hallmarks of modern life that the privileges of the few have become the presumed rights of the many. First suffrage, then home ownership, then second-home ownership, unfettered consumerism, global roaming, investment portfolios, share trading and now, in the blogosphere, fame. Still not satisfied, we feel entitled to claim the rights and lifestyle of the artist, as well.
For evidence we need look no further than Florida’s huge success with a theory that does little more than remix Jane Jacobs on creative cities with Paul Romer’s “human capital” theory, then wrap the lot in seductive sales parlance such as “creative class”, “bohemian index” and the three Ts – talent, technology and tolerance.
The key to Florida’s extraordinary trajectory, compared with such equally brilliant predecessors, is flattery. He found a theory and way of presenting it that are intensely flattering to its client class: the city administrators, politicians and latte sippers who form his natural constituency. Florida’s message picks these groups out for back-patting; assuring them not only that they are creative – every bit as significant and interesting as a Picasso or a Dante – but that there is no conflict between this creativity and their urge to make, have and spend money. They are, after all, the economic generators, fundamental to the social and moral order of our times. What’s good for them is therefore automatically good for the rest. Trickle down, all that.
It’s no wonder that people will pay to be told this, as often and as rhythmically as possible. And it has worked, kicking Florida’s speaker’s fee into the five-figure range.
The idea that genius and comfort are after all compatible is, not surprisingly, a favourite theme of the moneyed and privileged. As Robert Hughes so famously said in his 1984 Harold Rosenberg Lecture, “the idea that money, patronage and trade automatically corrupt wells of imagination is a pious fiction … flatly contradicted by history … On the whole, money does artists much more good than harm.”
Or as Geoffrey Roberston QC wrote in The Australian a while back, “the creative class … include[s] those top professionals in business, finance, law and business administration who bring an independent, educated but individual judgment to bear on finding ways through intellectual or administrative mazes”.
Nice. Seductive even, to think we can have it all, and genius too. It’s a message calculated for its baby-boomer appeal.
We want to be happy. That’s given. And we want to believe that being happy – in families, childhoods and working lives – is not just more comfortable but also more creative. This relatively new idea has, in recent decades, invaded the deep recesses of our collective unconscious and settled there, making happiness a basic human right. But is it true?
Well, no. Not really. Some artists, of course, are comfortable inside and out. On the whole, though, comfort and creativity do not seem, even now, to be on reliable speaking terms. In a 1994 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Felix Post examined the relationship between creativity and psychopathology in 291 famous men in science, thought, music, writing, politics and art.
Post’s subjects ranged widely, from Heisenberg to Hemingway, Nehru to Mahler, Wittgenstein to Wilde. All were dead, being examined through literary evidence (the exclusion of women was put down to lack of adequate biographies) but studies of the living have yielded similar results. Namely, that although most of these individuals, including the writers and artists, were warm and socially gifted, the writer and artist groups alone – Florida’s “bohemians” – showed abnormal incidence of functional psychoses, especially affective disorders such as depression, psychosexual problems and alcoholism.
An astonishing 98 per cent of writers and 85 per cent of artists exhibited some degree of psychopathology, with 72 per cent of writers and 42 per cent of artists showing mild to severe depression. (Other disorders, notably schizophrenia, were under-represented in these groups, suggesting to Post that “schizophrenic genes only rarely favour artistic creativity”.)
This, to Post’s mind, confirmed the traditional view that “certain pathological personality characteristics, as well as tendencies towards depression and alcoholism, are causally linked to some kinds of valuable creativity”. A similar study of almost 2000 American writers, conducted by psychologist James Kaufman and published in the journal Death Studies in 2003, yielded even more pointed results. Poets not only show especially high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide but die, on average, at 62, a good 10 years younger than non-fiction writers. As Aristotle noted in the 4th century BC, “all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic”.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean poetry should carry a health warning. Quite likely the causality runs the other way; poetry attracts depressives. But it does cut directly across what we want to hear, across the take-home Florida message of comfort and joy.
And yet there is a vast range of tradition and anecdote, as well as science, on the link between pain and creativity. Olinka Vistica, the Zagreb artist behind the peripatetic Museum of Broken Relationships, recently opened in Berlin, noted that “the pain caused by a break-up often produces a strong creative drive”. We all know the list. Vincent van Gogh, Charlotte Bronte, Edvard Munch, John Osborne, Agatha Christie, Arthur Rimbaud and so on. Beatrix Potter, who may well have been diagnosed dissociative today, would probably never have written, much less published, had her childhood been a happy one.
And it’s not just about art-therapy, although creativity has an undoubted therapeutic effect. For many artists, the act of creation itself is painful and terrifying. New Zealand poet James K. Baxter wrote, “I have little pleasure in making poetry … I am never more keenly aware of my own stupidity and clumsiness … I do not know any frustration to compare with it.” Only afterwards does the relief come. Nothing, as they say, feels like having written.
Janet Frame, a writer of excruciating brilliance who endured years of shock treatment for what was recently diagnosed by Australian doctor Sarah Abramson as “high-functioning autism” similar to Asperger syndrome, described her inner world thus: “if when night comes your thought creeps out like a furred animal concealed in the dark, to find, seize and kill its food and drag it back into the secret world, only to discover that the secret world has disappeared … then strange beasts walk upside down like flies on the ceiling, crimson wings flap, the curtains fly …”
Baxter again: “To the rational eye, the world is an environment, a sphere of operation. To the eye of the artist … it looks more like an annex of purgatory, which the medieval writers described simultaneously as a place of torment and a garden of flowers.”
A similar intense dualism in the artistic mind of the artist is noted in creativity studies by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creative people, says Csikszentmihalyi, are often complex and paradoxical, exhibiting contradictory moods and traits simultaneously: energetic and serene, smart and naive, irresponsible and disciplined, humility and pride, introversion and extroversion, realism and fantasy, passion and objectivity, pain and pleasure. As well, he says, they often evade rigid gender stereotyping.
Of course, we are all mixtures, all contradictory. To say this may simply be to say artists are extreme versions of normalcy. But in this very intensity a certain heroism lies.
Great artists are not just talented but brave. Spurred by pain or necessity, they are driven to places from which the rest of us shy. Artists are our adventurers, warriors, explorers. They are our Icaruses, soaring dangerously near the gods to steal for our delectation pieces of the divine, but always with the risk of vaporising on re-entry. And they’re our worms, often overlooked and despised, who till our cultural soil, metabolising the spiritual muck into a loam from which the rest of us mortals can extract nourishment.
People leading sunny, comfortable lives are not generally driven to these nether regions. This is not a fault. Any more than the artist’s prolonged infantilism – the reason, no doubt, that so many successful artists have extraordinarily devoted partners – is a fault. As W.H. Auden noted, the archetypal poet is the pool-gazing Narcissus. Baxter, developing this thought, argues that while most children realise quite young that they’ll never be Superman or Napoleon, “an artist retains the early image of himself as important – capable of learning the secrets of the universe”. For the working artist, this sort of prolonged infantilism is both a necessity and a prerogative, earned by hard labour and tolerated for this reason.
The fault comes when the comfort-seeking masses assume the same privileges without doing the hard yards; when creativity shifts from calling to lifestyle. Then, as petulance, self-gratification and fantasy become universalised, the consequences are planetary.
But art is not a comfortable drawing-room activity. It’s actually a form of extreme sport, as risky, pain-filled and exhilarating as BASE-jumping or snowboarding; and as dependent on neither denying, nor curing that secret psychopathology, but finding it and making it flower. So maybe, just maybe, we should focus less on bubble-wrapping our children against damage and more on giving them the tools to use that damage, if and when it happens.
Illustration: Simon Letch