Friday, September 28, 2007

Tortured Artists

Today I'm reading François-René de Chateaubriand for my dissertation. One of the things that still fascinates about Chateaubriand is the way that he combines the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions in a body of work that is thoroughly Romantic; he romanticizes the Western tradition. He's not the first to do this, of course, and it's important to note just how much he borrows from Madame de Staël. Nevertheless, it's fascinating how Romanticism alters how we moderns understand culture.

For example, when Chateaubriand discusses Homer, he is at great pains to show that Homer was melancholy in nature. This is very much a Romantic idea- the brooding, melancholy genius. In fact, I would argue that Chateaubriand needs to show that Homer was melancholy in order to show that he was a genius- it's become a part of the definition of genius.

I think this is still the case. It's hard for us moderns to imagine a chipper artistic genius. Our ideal is someone like Van Gogh, an artist whose brilliance isolates them from the rest of the world and is akin to madness; it seems that personal misery boosts one's stock as an artist. Certainly, this would seem to be the case with Frida Kahlo, and actually, the depression and suicide has probably raised Van Gogh's profile quite a bit. The artist is someone whose emotional turmoil acts like a sort of chaotic radar, pulling in truths and sensations from the universe that the rest of us avoid.

The Romantics didn't "invent the artist", in spite of claims to the contrary. If we wanted to be cheeky, we could accuse Renaissance artists like Cellini of having created the Artist persona- Art as a projection of persona in fact. This reverses itself in the fin de siecle idea of Persona as a work of art. Yet, the Romantics give us the idea that the soul of an artist is more profound, and feels things more deeply than the rest of us, modifying the "sensibility" of the 1700s. The "tortured artist" dates from the late eighteenth-century.

But, of course, they may well have been on to something too. I don't want to sound like those academics who thinks that every cultural idea was "constructed" to fit society's needs. There really have been a number of wretched and miserable artists in the Western tradition. Actually, it's hard to name any upbeat artists. Most of them that come to mind have been insane, surly, alcoholic, depressive, or vicious. Cellini is actually a "nice guy" for the Renaissance having only killed a few people.

Can you all think of any happy artistic geniuses? I'd like to say Salvador Dali, but I'm not sure that's right. And given that there were brooding miserable artists before Romanticism, should we perhaps take the cliché as a statement of fact?


Hiromi said...

Ha! The only happy artist I can think of is Bob Ross.

But I dunno. If we describe a great artist as someone who takes us out of ourselves or makes us stretch ourselves or something, such a person might feel themselves outside of society and therefore rather morose.

Holly said...

Friedensreich Hundertwasser, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, pretty much all the Italian Futurists, Frank Lloyd Wright, all were supposed to have been fairly engaged and dynamic. I can't definitively say they were "happy" but that's only because happy is slippery as a term to apply to other people's lives.

Rufus said...

Hiromi- I think that was the idea that the Romantics had- that art came from a place outside of society and so from people who were solitary, morose, or alienated.

Holly- Of course, all of these terms are slippery and subjective. But I think Matisse could be called well-adjusted. The others definitely weren't morose or tortured artists. You couldn't really call them miserable. I don't know if I'd call any of them mentally or emotionally healthy though.

Holly said...

One thing to consider is that many people only are "happy" when they're in the mental state where their talents are being exercised. Artists may have wretched lives away from the studio, but it's possible that when they're at the canvas, or the keyboard, or whatever... they're not on the happy <----> unhappy continuum. What's the opposite of creating art? Figuring taxes? Maybe Bob Ross cried like little baby when he had to do his taxes. Does that make him happy, or unhappy?

The brain chemistry of creativity is addictive, and it's very common for artists to neglect aspects of their lives that don't lead to that chemistry. Love & sex, yes. Doing taxes, paying rent, selling work to actually get money... not so much. No matter how great your job is, if you're getting evicted, that sucks. And it affects your work-life, as well. See the problem?

As a double-down, I'm going to suggest that people who can get addicted to their own brain chemistry like that (like athletes, too) can and do get addicted to other substances, external substances. Drugs, mostly, but also gambling, and other "vices"... while these things are pleasurable when they're going well, they're awful when they're not, and then the artist is on a roller coaster instead of a monorail.

Since we're talking about brain chemistry, I'll just pitch in the possibility of various mental health issues. I think part of what makes artists artists in the eyes of other people, is that the artists perceive and react to their surroundings (internal and external) differently to others, tangentially to the norm. That's why the work is interesting, but being tangential to the norm is a disadvantage, sometimes a big one. Or, more shortly said, many amazing artists probably have had serious trouble integrating with society, ie, personality disorders and such. These have negative connotations, by and large, but realistically, those people probably would not have done what they did, had they been like the other kids.

What I'm getting at is, it's probably just a matter of point of view. Maybe you wouldn't have wanted William Blake's life*, but he probably wouldn't have wanted yours, either.

* You might, and I accept that. I'm just making a case here.

Rufus said...

There probably is a common brain chemistry there. A fairly high number of bipolars create art and a similarly high number end up addicted to drugs. Claire might know more about this though.

Anyway, I was thinking that I shouldn't have sounded so flippant about the slipperiness of language back there. I suspect that's pretty much the ur-question of the humanities- Given that the humanities have traditionally dealt with things like Beauty, Truth, and the Meanings of Life, which are notoriously vague and subjective terms, how can we hope to do any sort of empirical objective research at all? My short answer is, 'We probably can't, but so what. We're not in the sciences after all.' However, to a lot of people, that means that the Humanities aren't really academic. I suspect this is why the humanities in America have almost completely abandoned questions of Truth, Beauty, and the Meanings of Life in exchange for things they can measure- i.e. How did people in 18th century England use the term 'Truth'? Was there a common discourse there that we can empirically demonstrate by studying and citing examples from their writings? In other words, instead of dealing with things that can't be measured, we've moved to things that- although more trivial- can be measured.

Of course, the question is whether this attempt to be more 'scientific', basically, has diminished the humanities, which used to be the only place where you could explore things like Truth, Beauty, and the Meanings of Life.