Taming the tormented artist

The choice to pursue a creative career is noble, yet daunting, and talent alone is no guarantee of success. Driven by passion, resilience, and creative effort one traverses a non-linear path laden with obstacles and instability.

Image by Anastasia Makarevich

Wellbeing in the arts

While some aspiring creatives flourish, others may eventually give up on their artistic dreams having found the rejection, criticism, and tribulations all too overwhelming. Those who do find the resilience and perseverance to endure might enjoy fame, however fleeting, and the positive emotions that accompany such accomplishment.

What draws a person to this life, given the uncertainty and slim chance of success, is deeply personal. I’m particularly curious about the conditions and processes which contribute to the flourishing and optimal functioning of creative people in competitive, non-traditional work environments with sporadic (often unpaid) hours. I maintain deep concern for the professionals working in creative industries, particularly in a season where live performances have been restricted for several months, and many artists are unemployed and battling mental illness.

Happiness, emotional intelligence, gratitude, subjective wellbeing, and psychological wellbeing are particularly important to me. I’ve found both personal and professional applications for them and will elaborate on their benefits and limitations herein.

Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi observed that “[…] much of our [psychology] profession has been shaped by clinical paradigms, we tend to think that positive psychology is about helping people be more optimistic, happy, satisfied with their lives. We may call this the direct or therapeutic approach to improving the quality of life and this is and will be an important component of positive psychology. The other approach to making life better we may call the indirect or enabling one. It consists of finding out what conditions make people more optimistic, happy, and satisfied, and then helping these conditions to come about.” (2009)

Support Act, an organisation which offers a 24/7 counselling service, is freely available to anyone who works in Australian music and wants to talk confidentially about their mental health. While therapeutic and admirable, I believe that more indirect and enabling interventions are required so that when, and if, artists reach a point of crisis they may have the tools to cope with setbacks and develop the ideal conditions and processes for optimal functioning.

Shelly L. Gable and Jonathan Haidt lament that “[…]the science of psychology has made great strides in understanding what goes wrong in individuals, families, groups, and institutions, but these advances have come at the cost of understanding what is right with people.” (2005)

Having worked with individuals across the spectrum of languishing to flourishing, I have observed that the flourishing artists possess authenticity, resilience, and conscientiousness, among many other admirable traits.

Stereotypes and stability

The stereotype of ‘the tormented artist’ is prevalent and people may buy into this category and behave accordingly. According to author Elizabeth Gilbert, “far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and to put their faith in struggle alone. Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only truly authentic emotional experience.”

Image by Blauth B.

The old adage of ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is often quoted by those who’ve chosen to turn their passion into their career. Such is the case for the professional arts practitioner. Whilst being creative generally brings happiness to the practising artist, in some cases, they are perpetually miserable. To quote the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “If my devils are to leave me, I’m afraid my angels will take flight, as well.”

One contributing factor to artistic struggle is limited financial stability. Many artists possess the talent but not the entrepreneurial mindset to monetise their skills and, as a result, portfolio careers are common in the arts industry. Arts practitioners may find themselves working a non-artistic job to maintain a steady income. The time spent working away from their creative practice may create inner conflict and can have an effect on their wellbeing.

A 2015 report, Arts Nation, documented that “the 44,000 practicing professional artists in Australia predominantly have portfolio careers, with just 17 per cent working full time on their creative practice.”

There are some who thrive in balancing a job that pays the bills with the ability to work part-time on their practice. I have once interviewed mural artist Claire Foxton who described herself as “risk-averse”. She said that she had “always had one foot in the art world and one foot in the commercial land. It works for me and keeps me sane. I’m the kind of person who stresses a lot so I need that stability, and I have struggled with the fact that I’m not that crazy, happy to live off ten dollars a week sort of person. It’s taken a long time to come to terms with that.”

My conversation with Foxton highlighted the burden of expectation many artists carry, in that they wish to conform to societal standards, while creating novel work that pushes the boundaries. Such a paradox can clearly affect one’s wellbeing and, disturbingly, there seems to exist a romanticised archetype of an ‘artist’, a role creatives feel pressured to assume, in order to legitimise their vocation.

Freedom from positive and negative labels

In her book Mindfulness Ellen J. Langer writes that “many, if not all, of the qualities that make up a mindful attitude are characteristic of creative people. Those who can free themselves of old mindsets, who can open themselves up to new information and surprise, play with perspective and context, and focus on process rather than outcome, are likely to be creative whether they are scientists, artists, or cooks.”

Image by psychofladoodle

While these qualities, and the process of being in a creative state, may lead to positive emotions and wellbeing, they are either complemented or hampered by the mindset an artist chooses to employ. As Csikszentmihalyi states in his book Flow, “[…] having achieved flow in one activity does not necessarily guarantee it will be carried over to the rest of life.” (2002)

There are artists who are willing to sacrifice their wellbeing for the sake of the work. Sacrifice, a commonly held belief in western culture, much like in Christianity, may lead some to justify suffering for their art as though suffering somehow increases its artistic value.

Elizabeth Gilbert challenged this pathological approach to creativity in her book Big Magic. She argues, “I believe that our creativity grows like sidewall weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies – not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way around. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that if they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish.” (2015)

This is the potential pitfall for those who adopt ‘the tormented artist’ persona. Since artists deal in the practice of creativity, one would hope they could be persuaded to see other possibilities for themselves. Perhaps a compassionate friend, coach, or mentor could show them otherwise, and encourage their growth mindset. The self-limiting fixation with a label is revealed in the works of Carol S. Dweck and Ellen J. Langer.

“A personal renaissance is an internal life that’s not cut off from the external world; instead, the external is food for our internal lives.”

– Ellen J. Langer

Dweck’s book Mindset contrasts the fixed mindset with the growth mindset and recognises effort as the foremost trait responsible for people’s success across various domains. While Dweck cites many examples of elite performers adopting growth mindsets, such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, I’ve found her studies in the realm of education and the arts most fascinating. Many individuals with the fixed mindset also possessed what Dweck called ‘the low-effort syndrome’, and she noticed that “students with the fixed mindset who were facing the hard transition [to junior high school] saw it as a threat. It threatened to unmask their flaws and turn them from winners into losers. In fact, in the fixed mindset, adolescence is one big test. ‘Am I smart or dumb? Am I a winner or a loser? And in the fixed mindset, a loser is forever’.

Dweck noticed that “[…] when it comes to artistic ability, it seems more like a God-given gift. For example, people seem to naturally draw well or poorly.” Applying the label of ‘talented’ or ‘gifted’ to someone, while well-meaning, has been proven to put people into a fixed mindset. It has the added drawback of discouraging an individual – who perceives themselves to be talented or gifted – from attempting a challenging task for fear of failure.

Creative effort and mindsets

Image by Lucija Rasonja

Dweck encourages one to praise the effort rather than the individual and her research demonstrates that intellectual ability can be developed. Those who adopt a growth mindset see their own capacity to become highly skilled in a particular domain based on the effort they apply to it.

In a similar way, Langer cautions us against teaching unconditional categories. By inserting the words ‘could be’ into the usual declarative statements such as ‘this is a pen’ to illustrate facts about random objects, we deter the fixed mindset. Mindsets are strong and Langer states that, “we are locked in by the unconditional way we learn in childhood.” The good news is that effort can improve a person’s artistic ability.

As Dweck asserts, “just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training. This is so important, because many, many people with the fixed mindset think that someone’s early performance tells you all you need to know about their talent and their future.”

It is inevitable that an artist should experience setbacks. Sometimes external factors beyond their control stand in between them and their dreams. When a performer doesn’t land their desired role, receives a bad review, loses work due to extenuating circumstances, or doesn’t achieve the desired grade in their performance exam, they are naturally disappointed in themselves. One of the limitations of happiness is that it’s often based on hedonism. The desired outcome is usually one of pleasure, one that affirms an artist’s self-worth and ability.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow gives anecdotal examples of people who’ve overcome adversity, and it has inspired me to cultivate a holistic approach to my creative life. He writes, “to find purpose in suffering one must interpret it as a possible challenge. What transforms the consequences of a traumatic event into a challenge that gives meaning to life is called a dissipative structure, or the ability to draw order from disorder.”

These words by Csikszentmihalyi offer the kind of wisdom a crestfallen artist needs; “when adversity threatens to paralyse us, we need to reassert control by finding a new direction in which to invest psychic energy, a direction that lies outside the reach of external forces. When every aspiration is frustrated, a person still must seek a meaningful goal around which to organise the self.”

Langer’s work highlights the dangers of mindlessness; she stresses, “when we blindly follow routines or senselessly carry out orders, we are acting like automatons with potentially grave consequences for ourselves and others.”

Her studies on the power of mindfulness, in contrast to the destructive state of mindlessness, encourage the individual to take greater control and responsibility in their life. Langer cautions against living life mindlessly and not paying attention to our intuition.

She insists, “out of an intuitive experience of the world comes a continuous flow of novel distinctions. Purely rational understanding, on the other hand, serves to confirm old mindsets, rigid categories. Artists, who live in the same world as the rest of us, steer clear of these mindsets to make us see things anew.”

Changing your life for the better requires you to change your habits. This requires effort. Practise gratitude daily, read extensively, experiment with the indirect and enabling positive psychology interventions (mentioned herein), and determine a unifying life theme. Csikszentmihalyi suggests that “when a person’s psychic energy coalesces into a life theme, consciousness achieves harmony.”

Furthermore, seek gratification and meaning over pleasure. Acknowledge that all emotions are data, and as Martin Seligman states “although gratifications are activities that may be enjoyable, they are not necessarily accompanied by positive emotions. Finding flow in gratifications need not involve anything larger than the self. Although the pursuit of gratifications involves deploying our strengths, a third route to happiness comes from using these strengths to belong to and in the service of something larger than ourselves; something such as knowledge, goodness, family, community, politics, justice, or a higher spiritual power. [This] gives life meaning. It satisfies a longing for purpose in life and is the antidote to a ‘fidgeting until we die syndrome.”(2004).

Finally, Csikszentmihalyi has fruitful advice when seeking order amongst the chaos of life. He writes “there is much knowledge – or well-ordered information – accumulated in culture, ready for this use. Great music, architecture, art, poetry, drama, dance, philosophy, and religion are there for anyone to see as examples of how harmony can be imposed on chaos. Yet so many people ignore them, expecting to create meaning in their lives by their own devices. To discard the hard-won information on how to live accumulated by our ancestors, or to expect to discover a viable set of goals all by oneself, is misguided hubris.”

Thus, I will not adopt the persona of the tormented artist, but rather the purposeful and mindful creative.

Reference list

Australia Council for the Arts. (2015). Arts Nation: An Overview of Australian Arts, 2015 Edition. Sydney, Australia.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow, the classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rider An imprint of The Random House Group.

Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset, changing the way you think to fulfil your potential. Penguin Group.

Gable, S. L. and Haidt, J. (2005). What and why is positive psychology? Review of General Psychology. Vol. 9. No. 2. Education Publishing Foundation.

Gilbert, E. (2015). Big Magic. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Langer, E. J. (2015). Mindfulness 25th anniversary edition. Lifelong Books.

Langer, E. J. (2006). On Becoming an Artist, reinventing yourself through mindful creativity. Ballantine Books.

Seligman, M. (2004). A balanced psychology and a full life. The Royal Society.

Support Act. (2020). Retrieved 24 October, 2020, from https://supportact.org.au/wellbeinghelpline/

[First published on The Serenade Files 1 October, 2021.]

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