Myth of the Tortured Artist

The “tortured artist” is one our society’s most toxic cultural archetypes. Not only because it puts forth an unsustainable identity framework for creative achievement, but because that framework isn’t effective for making great creative work possible. 

It is true that abnormally creative individuals are more likely to suffer from dramatic swings in emotion. But to assume that those swings are what makes creativity possible takes away from an artist’s authentic merit.

The tortured artist idea is simply another offshoot of that even more prevalent conception of creativity; that great works are produced in an unconscious, unwilled flash of brilliance, rather than over large amounts of time wherein a huge amount of competency within a medium is established.

The 20th century hosted an abundance of great talent, doomed to die at a young age. These culture heroes fell victim to the modern phenomenon of extreme and quickly cultivated fame, as well as a superabundance of powerful and unstudied drugs. In honoring them, it is important to separate their mistakes from their masterpieces and acknowledge that the lifestyle that destroyed them is not whatsoever what made them great.

In a perverse way, these assumptions actually make producing great works seem easier than it actually is. No one can sustain a flash of brilliance, or a period of profound depression over the amount of time it takes to become a great painter or novelist, or even to produce a single significant work. Most of the time in front of the canvas or blank page will be spent in mind state similar to that of a competent machinist or woodworker. The good work will come from long periods of deep focus and deliberate will. Such periods are not sustainable if one is depressed or manic.

Turbulent emotional spikes will perhaps give you a day of good work, but they will rob you of a lifetime of steady progress and production.

The proof is written in the historical record. With few exceptions, we see that minor talents are usually manic, drug addicted, and obsessed with a conception of creativity that relies on divine inspiration.

On the other hand, we see that the Shakespeares and Da Vincis of the world are highly industrious and of sober mind. This is not to say they were not emotional or sometimes divinely inspired; it is to say that such artists merely ornamented their creative lives with such extremes, and built the rest upon a solid framework of discipline and measured devotion.

 

Laughing at Life

Whats disturbing in one moment is hilarious the next.

Humor is usually the release of tension caused by a change in context regarding a shocking or absurd event.

People who don’t laugh are usually bitter, cynical, and resentful of the cruel nature of the world. The reasons for this are more than chemical. It is all too easy for one to despair in the knowledge of our condition; as mortal members of a young species existing on a floating piece of rock in a largely empty and barren Universe.

Yet that very description of our existence could function as the set up to a joke.

I’ve heard that morticians usually go to their work with a light-hearted attitude. Because what other choice do they have?

If every mortician woke up every day considering the dark implications and meanings implied by every part of their work, none would ever last more than a month.

We, as humans have no other choice but to laugh in the face of our absurd position as self-aware monkeys capable of gaining control and understanding of physical laws and conditions. Our options, if we are to confront the reality of existence, rather than ignore it, are only this; cradle our heads and weep, or throw them back and laugh at the stars.

The moments we forget that smirk and glimmer in the eye, whenever we cast our eyes down to consider graveyards and names long forgotten, we lose the emotional levity and leverage required for a productive experience and existence. The agoraphobes and the shut-ins aren’t laughing very much–, and from a certain perspective, their attitudes toward the world are accurate. It is risky out there. Chaos reigns supreme everywhere, successful though we might be at managing specific processes and outcomes. To live is to risk, to be in danger, to get hurt, stumble, fall, get embarrassed, and fail as many times as not.

But to despair and retreat from all that, to hide in safety and sadness–

What is that but a death for the living?

 

The Future of Ideas

A crude version of the steam engine existed in the first century AD. It was thought of as a novelty, a toy, an interesting spectacle. It was by no means utilized for pragmatic purposes or used to jump start a revolution in manufacturing and transport. In fact, it didn’t change the world at all.

We often think that good ideas and great works automatically gain popularity and prominence. We believe that good ideas win, and bad ideas lose. Perhaps on an extreme macro scale, this is true. But it took almost 2,000 years for steam power to transform the world, even though the basic principle was known in the first century.

Such a historical oddity forces us to consider something:

What if the revolutionary ideas of the future are already in existence?

Perhaps some obscure book collecting dust in a local library is the only one that really got things right. Or what if some new age author accidentally stumbled upon the true meaning of life?

What if an unknown and minor physicist has already discovered the principle that will allow for intergalactic travel in 1,000 years?

Such “what ifs” are fun to entertain, but how can they help us?

They help us to understand that our civilization is still young, and far from understanding the Universe, or optimizing our lives through technology.

And in the realms of psychology and philosophy, I doubt we’re even at the point of discovering a rudimentary steam engine. Our most profound ideas today will be looked back on as profoundly naive and misguided.

Keep your mind open. Read the obscure and strange. Be skeptical of the popular and widely accepted.

Because when you look back at history one clear pattern comes into view:

Everyone was wrong about everything, except for a few brilliant weirdos.

Accepting Chaos

I have an important question to ask you.

How many actions do you witness on a daily basis that are in anyway motivated by concerted efforts towards virtue or rationality? Include your own actions in that census of course, and be honest with yourself.

For myself, the number of such actions is so small as to be negligible, to the degree that such striving towards virtuous action usually sticks in my minds for months. I pat myself on the back for good deeds and am flabbergasted when someone interrupts their normal programming to reach out a hand to help another or refrain from a reflexive and toxic behavior.

Most of what we do is done without conscious care or consideration. The philosophical principles we study and logically understand only come into play if we make a massive moment-to-moment effort. Of course, in our pre-agricultural society, this made perfect sense. Actions needed to be quick and instinctive.

But modern life has granted us copious leisure time with which we can design our own standards of conduct. Few use their free hours in such a way. Even fewer actually apply the lessons they glean from centuries of the written word.

Therefore, in dealing with ourselves and other people, it is important to understand we are not dealing with consistent belief systems housed in logical minds. Each and every one of us is a web of conflicting drives and subpersonalities that all vie for manifestation in action.

Rationality, logic, and morality are not the default ideals or modes of being. In fact, those very words and their conceptual contexts took millennia to develop. Don’t take them for granted, and don’t expect them or feel they are owed to you by the individuals that make up our civilized society.

High standards will save you, and transform your life. But if you expect them, demand them from the external world, you will become embittered and distanced from the environment. Or else you will fall into the trap of cynicism, and adjust your standards to match the brutality and thoughtlessness that exists all around.

Progress is achieved through aiming at an ideal, whilst meeting external conditions and your own psyche exactly where they are in the present moment. 

An honest acceptance of conditions is the necessary precondition to conforming them to a virtuous ideal.

The Danger in Goals

What is the point in attaining anything, if it does not bring you joy?

A simple, cliche question but the one that is most important in considering the setting of goals and achieving of outcomes.

Human beings do not desire objects directly; we desire the states of being those objects grant us. A luxurious car is only incidental to what is actually worth a million dollars or more; the sensation of having something difficult to create, and difficult to obtain. That pleasure is, of course, the real prize. If it were not, the million would be spent on simply the fastest, most intensely practical form of transportation, rather than a meticulously engineered work of art.

Consider this fact when aligning yourself towards a particular end goal. What is the state you are after, the thing which the object or desired condition will bring you? How will you feel in that state? How long will it last? What will be the thing to break it, or strengthen it?

Most importantly, consider if your goal is truly the thing necessary to bring about that state. Most of the time, our goals do not grant us the states we hope for, and if they do, those states last only a moment.

 

Escaping Failure

Why do people tolerate conditions that to an outside observer appear torturous and unbearable?

Because it usually takes a long time for things to go from good to average to terrible. The loosening of standards, the growing rarity of success, all stack up so slowly that we often find ourselves in a living hell with no idea as to how we got there, and no clear memory of when it all changed.

Perhaps this is why quicksand exists in our minds as an archetypal fear. Quicksand is that which kills you so slowly that you don’t notice until your head is nearly below ground.

No wonder standards, principles, and consistent strategies are the weapons by which failure and stagnation can be fought off.

Motivation, inspiration, and passion are too weak and unreliable a resource to be used in continuous personal growth. They are nowhere to be found when you need them most, and often lead us into self-aggrandizements and prideful displays of self-perceived talent.

Inspiration is what may propel us to create principles sufficient to change the course of our life. But it in itself is not enough. Motivation may be enough to get us up off the couch the first time, but it likely won’t be there the second or the third, or the other inestimable times we might need motivation if we are to take consistent proper action.

Emotion is the water that turns the solid ground to quicksand. Principles and strategies are the rope which we have either spun ourselves, or has been offered by a mentor. But with no rope, we are doomed to sink.

 

 

Don’t Listen to Your Peers

There is no better motivator than necessity.

When people complain about not having the proper time, energy, or motivation needed to accomplish some goal, I wonder about the strength of their incentives. If you needed to accomplish that goal, you would. If success were necessary for survival, nothing short of death would stop you.

This is the underlying reason for the lack of sympathy and encouragement starving artists and weekend warriors garner from their peers.

Unconsciously, everyone around you knows, if you are meant to get what you say you want, you won’t need support or encouragement. 

The more difficult and distant the goal, the less you can rely on the people around you. What can they do? If the goal is distant, a Universe away from your present situation, what can your peers offer?

Not much besides, “Don’t forget about us when you make it” or “You’ll never make it”

That’s all the help you can expect.

If that seems unfair, or unpleasant, your goal is no goal at all. It’s merely a fantasy.

Support and external validation are what you get at precisely the moment you no longer need them. They are what you get once you’ve already won, and nothing your supporters or detractors say has any relevance to your accomplishment.

This brings us to the core realization behind every successful ascension towards a better mode of being; beyond those people you have deliberately selected as mentors, nothing anyone says matters. No one knows what you should do.

The people around you will support when they feel charitable, and criticize once they’re jealous or annoyed by your ambition.

Those are not helpful feedbacks. Better to ignore them, and keep the line towards your goal as straight as possible.