Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Difficult Artist

I'm pretty good at ruining friendships, and a lot of other people who indulge in creative activities (like, say, writing multi-paragraph analytical essays on artists and social dysfunctionality) are pretty good at that too. So I wondered why artists and other performers (e.g, Charlie Sheen) are such fuck-ups when it comes to their interpersonal relationships? This might make for a dubious premise; perhaps creative sorts are no more prone to meltdowns or wildly erratic behavior than any other groups of people you could invent. But since "the difficult artist" label seems to have become a generally-accepted cliché, and since I've been in a meltdown mode of my own for the past couple of months--and yet at this stage still luckily find myself lucid enough to express myself in writing--I thought I'd take the opportunity to gather my thoughts.

A lot of things go into making an artist, but two personality characteristics that are essential and most relevant to my argument are vanity and delusion. You will find these traits in most artists, both the successful and un-successful ones. Vanity and delusion are generally regarded negatively, but in fact both are essential for the artist, as these bolster an artist's spirit and self-confidence, without which one cannot create.

Vanity is essentially self-love, and since art reflects oneself and is an extension of oneself, vanity can also be thought of as pride in one's creative output. This is what compels an artist to create in the first place; if you hated your work, your output--effectively yourself, then why would you ever put in the time to create new things?

Delusion gives the artist the strength to labor through the tough times that most artists must go through (and many never emerge from). For many people, religion is that life-affirming delusion, an irrational belief in a heavenly reward to compensate for the pain of life. For the artist, delusion offers strength through the conviction that he or she is talented, a genius, a creator of things that will emotionally transform and better all others who bear witness to them.

Life inside the artist's head is often surprisingly cheerful; illusions are pleasant things. Where problems occur is when reality rudely collides with the delusion. For example, one might create 20 amazing paintings for an upcoming art opening under the delusional conviction that the opening will be a huge success, but when the doors open only two or three people arrive, and they came for the beer. Perhaps the delusion is that several of one's photographs hanging prominently on a wall in a popular café will sell, but no buyers materialize, and all the joy spent under that happy illusion--mounting those images and preparing the labels--is washed away by this unhappy fact.

But what's worse is that most artists, myself included, are not particularly or even slightly successful by any compelling measurement. This is what creates the bipolar mania of the artist; laboring happily and passionately (if exhaustingly and sometimes worriedly) on a project, followed by the deep dip that occurs when the delusion gives way to the rude awakening: nobody is interested. The impact of reality on delusion then roughly demolishes the vanity, the depression sets in, and the low ebb of the manic cycle is reached.

For many artists, even success fails to deliver real happiness, because the artist is always failing to measure up to a delusional yardstick that never corresponds to the metrics used by others.

And if that describes the artist's relation to his or her art, why would it be any different with his or her interpersonal relations? The artist lives in a strange world that oscillates between a keen ability to see things as they really are vs. a world that is twisted to suit the artist's particular vision. It follows that artists sometimes see the people around them more accurately than those people see themselves (this has its own drawbacks). However, they also sometimes err severely. In a sense, the artist, in viewing a person, captures the reality of the individual in order to render that thing in a recognizeable fashion; but the artist also creates a personal impressionistic portrait of that individual which says more about the artist than the person rendered in his or her mind.

When the delusional, false image of the person collides with reality, there is then a tempestuous explosion, like Mr. Sheen's towards "Two and a Half Men" executive producer Chuck Lorre (I know this is perhaps a funny example, but these are real guys and they're in the news and they make my point). Sheen's expectations were based once-again on unreasonable yardsticks. There is a meltdown, a blow-up that serves to rupture the relationship perhaps forever, and then the stunned reaction of us onlookers asking, "What happened?"

A footnote: artists are also often associated with drug addiction and alcoholism, which makes sense since drugs and alcohol provide a distance from self which affords a useful perspective on what one is creating. Artists are also prone to working manically on their projects at the cost of sleep. All these aspects also serve to make the artist vulnerable to interpersonal meltdowns.

So, I think you will, unfortunately have to get used to the "difficult artist," and the difficult artist will have to get used to losing friends. But have I actually only described the nature of all of us?

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