Many art students will be familiar with the pervasive belief that ‘real’ artists have to suffer in some way for their art; that great work is the result of a profound and enduring struggle with an underlying trauma or neurosis. It seems likely that this assumption is in part driven by the similarly common association of effort with worth. In this peculiar economics of endeavor, the pain or torment of creative people is valorized as some kind of unique manifestation or potential for genius. The more screwed up the artist, the better they must necessarily be, so long of course as they manage to hold their creative output together.
There’s little doubt that this perception leads some artists to actively cultivate the persona of the troubled artist and to embellish their work through the stories of trial and tribulation that they construct around it. According to this logic, if each work produced appears to have come as the result of some deep anguish or at the risk of personal loss or injury then it follows that the object – the artwork – must necessarily contain some vestige of this struggle and is therefore a more precious commodity as a consequence. Small wonder then that some art teachers still feel compelled to encourage students to mine their personal biographies and small wonder also that there’s such a common association between artists, trauma and/or neurosis.
For many students this ‘common-sense’ connection between greatness and struggle can be a significant source of confusion and frustration, the cause of which can easily be traced to those more prominent historical and contemporary artists who have gained particular notoriety for their psychological struggles. Students end up feeling like they’re either incapable of competing in this fearsome arena of emotional turmoil or that they need to plumb their own psychological depths in order to dredge up some significantly painful spectre from the past.
The mistake is to confuse psychological struggle with profound experience. Trauma and neurosis are certainly clear sources of profound experience but they are by no means the only ones. Moreover, the belief that profound experiences are rare and inaccessible things that can only be encountered through personal suffering or by placing oneself in mortal danger misrepresent the fact that profundity can be found wherever one cares to look deeply, rather than how deeply fragile one is. The point then would seem to entail the pursuit and promotion of the kinds of profundity that do not threaten to undermine the integrity of the self but that instead place depth and significance where it deserves to be – ie: in the artwork rather than in the biography of the artist.