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Hubris and Art

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Maybe “hubris” is too strong a word. But the recent tragic and avoidable death of a former colleague has made me think about how we see ourselves as creative people. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with being a musician or an artist or a writer, at least in the popular image. It’s baggage that drags many people down. While I love Janis Joplin’s music, I don’t love that she died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27.

My former colleague died in a single-car accident when she lost control on a freeway. Her car was a convertible with the top down, and she was not wearing a seatbelt. She was thrown from the car when it hit a guard rail. Just a few days earlier, I’d had a conversation with a woman who’d had an eerily similar accident, but who’d been wearing a seatbelt and survived without injury. Neither car had flipped.

Last year I taught a course for Creative Writing students called Mad, Bad, and Dangerous: Images and Roles of Writers in Society. One of my purposes in teaching the course was to try to address the enormous mythology that surrounds artists of all types. Based on the prototype of Lord Byron–and the wit of Lady Catherine, who called him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”—we tend to believe that writers and other artists have to be at least a little bit crazy and all the better to be bat-shit crazy. Crazy = creative in this formula. The idea goes back to the Greeks.

What surprised me was how completely unwilling many of my students were to even contemplate that this might not have to be true. I plied them with studies that demonstrate that the connection between creativity and mental illness is minor at most, and that many other factors are far more important in terms of what creates a writer (such as reading a lot). I asked them to read essays by famous, mentally well-adjusted authors. We read about how “blandness” is an aesthetic value in Chinese culture and how the role of artists in that society is different than in ours. They didn’t care. I knew the myth was powerful, but I hadn’t realized that even information and alternative models wouldn’t quell it.

So many of us have an image of ourselves as rebels and daredevils. And there is a kind of truth in it in that we need to be willing to take certain kinds of risks, at least intellectually and financially.

It is also necessary for writers and artists to have a healthy dollop of ego in our personalities. Without it, we would never have the nerve to go for it, to assert that we have something important enough to say for others to listen, and for us to survive the constant rejection and criticism that is always a part of a writer’s life. Frequently, that ego becomes defensive and overwrought in the face of so many fears and difficulties. And because another of our cultural myths is that artistic production is the result of genius, writers frequently begin to find it necessary to believe in their own invincibility, superiority, and exceptional nature. To put it crudely–and I just can’t think of a more apt term–it’s a mind-fuck.

What this too often leads to is a kind of bravado that involves drinking too much, taking drugs, acting irresponsibly and selfishly in the context of friends and family and self, and all manner of other wild behaviors. These habits by no means belong strictly to the arts, but in the arts we justify them with phrases like, “Genius takes its toll” or “Artists are crazy,” followed by sighs and eye-rolls. Everyone else who acts like this is just a jerk with problems, but we’re supposed to live on the edge. We are de-legitimized if we don’t.

Maybe this seems like an odd complaint, considering that my blog is about increasing intensity of feelings and not being vanilla and fake. Part of what I feel, however, is that, based on living this exaggerated if not false image, many of us in the writing world are losing touch with the real intensity of what it means to be creative and artistic. I even sometimes find in my students—and others— more of a desire to “be a writer” with all that implies about celebrity and lifestyle than to actually perfect their writing. The writing world is reaching a point where we will soon have our own Paris Hiltons. That may be inevitable, but let’s remember that writers and artists and musicians are distributed along the personality spectrum. Yes, some of us have mental health issues, but we don’t need to celebrate that. And no doubt there is some value in having a wild streak. Even I claim one. But we don’t need to drive each other further into stereotypes that end up killing us.

2 responses »

  1. In terms of mental illness, there seems to be a double standard among gender-lines here, in terms of reputations. Bad boys (T.S. Eliot, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hunter S. Thompson) are good for being a bit crazy, whereas women (Woolf, Plath, Sexton) are madwomen in the attic, so to speak. Many people don’t know Hemingway committed suicide. Many of my students don’t know that Woolf wrote anything.

    But illness is sad, and sometimes tragic. It isn’t glamorous unless it isn’t real to you.

    The test of real writers is that words get placed on the page, and hopefully, in print for public consumption. That is the first measure of writerly accomplishment.

  2. Patrick DeCarlo

    I’m gonna go off on somewhat of a tangent, but I think it’ll work for discussing my struggles with this issue. I mostly approach it through a lens concerning constructions of masculinity, so forgive me because it doesn’t stick to the heart… of your post.

    Masculinity rewards risky sexual decisions, alcohol and drug use, the ignoring of health problems, misogyny etc., and it’s logical to see genuflection of these behaviors in the arts (after all, who’s publishing it and writing it?)

    When issues such as violence towards women emerge in the arts — Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson — it’s seen as quirky character traits rather than systematic oppression. The failure to connect these messages to real life problems is because consumers aren’t media literate. Sure, students and teachers can discuss plot and character development, but can students challenge how behaviors are represented, albeit, glorified in media? Media literacy can help students critique the messages they receive — as I like to say in my own presentations concerning media: Grand Theft Auto is really fun, but is it really a good source for conflict resolution? Furthermore, where am I getting my messages on conflict resolution from — Jersey Shore, The Real World, or a non-existent reality show about the effectiveness of “I Statements.” Why is this — well, there’s a system that profits and rewards these depictions. We also live in a tabloid society where controversy isn’t regarded as a health problem, it’s regarded as entertainment. Battling this issue demands a change in what our society finds worthy of our attention, and I have to say, the eastern philosophy you cited in the article is certainly interesting to me.

    Check this out:

    There’s a treasure trove of articles like this that concern how the constructions of masculinity get men killed, incarcerated, and sick.

    I think back to my late high school and college days and how I soaked in all this literature, literally worshipped these malcontents, and it’s troublesome. Because it’s the arts, it has the air that it’s fringe and on the margins. But, really, it’s violent and unhealthy behaviors similar to those found in athletes and Fortune 500 CEO’s scandalized in the news. When we examine how patriarchy and privilege enables the latter, it should be easy to connect that it’s the same for the former.

    The process of examining how this has effected my own being is traumatic — no one really likes admitting they have privilege, that they participate in oiling the gears of patriarchy. I don’t write often anymore because a lot of my creative energy goes into my public speaking on the topics of domestic and sexual violence, but I’ve looked at a few of the things I’d written over the years. Way too many glimmers of victim blaming, misogyny, and the glorification of unhealthy behaviors that I wasn’t even aware that I was making, and the thing that’s scary…not many people around me were recognizing it either. But how many writers are versed on extensive gender, domestic violence, and media literacy theory?

    We’ve created an arts community that fails to intervene on these issues because we’ve never created systems for useful intervention. We almost ignore these issues and say it doesn’t even occur in our community, and like I said, when we do recognize it it’s labeled as a quirky character trait.

    Lisa, in your facebook post you commented: “Do many female artists believe at some level that if they participate in these gendered behaviors they will become honorary males?”

    That’s an excellent question. From my perspective, maybe it isn’t so much yearning to be male, but more demanding power and visibility. As the publishing world rewards these depictions, maybe females appropriate these into their art and their personal lives. Though it’s not the best analogy…does JT LeRoy ring a bell? Victorian writers used to write under pseudonyms, too, for legitimacy — so who knows?


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