As a creative person, I often muse on the tensions and the contradictions that go into being an artist and also a human being. Many examples of this tension come to mind, which tell us valuable lessons if we are keen to learn. One example that comes to mind is that of Alanis Morisette, who became famous in her late teens as a result of her scorching album “Jagged Little Pill.” This album was written and recorded, with substantial but often unrecognized input from her producer, during a painful breakup with the much older comedian/actor Dave Coulier (famous for his role on the sitcom Full House) . Of course, the album became massively popular, and people expected her to keep making music like that. She had, however, grown up, found a bit more happiness and peace of mind, and as a result of her music became less angry and hostile and more reflective, and less popular as a result. Yet, unquestionably, her life was far better later in her career when her albums were far less popular but she was more at peace, living and loving life, and even poking gentle fun at the way she used to be with her video to “My Humps.” Do we celebrate the success of an artist, in critical or popular appeal, or do we celebrate a life becoming better even if it means that one’s quality of artistic work declines as productive energies go into family and relationships that would have otherwise gone into art.
I often ponder this question with regards to myself, as well as other creative people. As a human being, I tend to prefer that people live well than that they keep suffering, even if that suffering produces great art. To be sure, a great deal of art comes from stress and torment and trouble, and such art deserves to be remembered and appreciated, as a way of demonstrating that good can come from evil under the proper inspiration. Yet that does not make the trouble something that one wants to persist in. Perhaps it is best, if one is to be a creative artist of great ability, to have a period of deep productivity resulting from the sort of torment that artists know well, and then to be able to profit in terms of reputation and income from that period afterward when one’s life has gotten better. That would be the best of both worlds, a life to be enjoyed and profitable, and art to be remembered, while the pain does not last long enough to mar one’s existence altogether. If there is to be a time for tears, there needs to be a time for laughter and joy, if a time for conflict and stress, a time for peace and love and harmony as well. A life without that balance loses either the significance that we want or the peace of mind that makes life worth living in the first place.
There are a lot of tensions inherent in creative art in our contemporary world. As already mentioned, there is the tension between works of great insight and creativity that come from horrors and torment. In addition to this, there is the fact that for an artist to live off of his (or her) art, they must be a part of a larger community that includes consumers and critics and conveyors of that art. There is a business side as well as the creative side, one that artists are often less skilled in dealing with and less interested in. An artist generally seeks to turn what it inside into works of art, but seldom directly, since many artists are people of great sensitivity as well as privacy (as ironic as that may seem given the publicity that comes with art in the public sphere). Yet those who are fans of a given artist want to see works of a certain type, even as an artist may have moved on from that period to something else, and may want to broaden their creativity far beyond what people are willing to obey. When one adds to this the fact that there are critics who presume to be gatekeepers of honor and respect in the artistic community, the task of being a successful artist is made more difficult because the barbs and sarcastic and harsh judgment of such critics can be immensely difficult for sensitive artists to deal with successfully.
We cannot forget that artists are, at the end of the day, people. If someone paints in their torment, like Vincent Van Gogh , we can appreciate their art and sometimes forget the pain that it cost someone to create such a work. The same is true often with writers or musicians or other artists. Perhaps part of the problem is that we expect too much out of art sometimes. We expect that it will help us communicate, give us some peace of mind, provide respect for us, and possibly part or all of a living. Perhaps this is too much to expect, to hope for a good life, positive relationship, creative art, financial success, critical appeal, and being able to work with all the people making it possible. Besides the fact that this requires a lot to go right, it also requires a lot of good fortune in knowing how to communicate and how to select the right people to cover for our weaknesses and shortcomings. Few of us are that fortunate, and those of us who are are not good at appreciating it sometimes. How do we get better, and live better, given what we have to work with, so that our hearts may not always be in a cage in front of jeering and potentially hostile crowds, or at best uncomprehending ones?