Songs for the Struggling Artist

Art as a Disease
October 19, 2015, 12:39 am
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , ,

I was trudging through the snow, frustrated with all the many disappointments this artist’s life has to offer when I suddenly thought, “What if art-making were a disease? What if I’ve just got a bad case of artist-itis?” And I suddenly felt oddly liberated. Why this is, I’m not sure yet. That’s why I’m writing this now. Why should the idea that this part of my identity is a disease give me some peace?

In part, I think it’s the release of responsibility that I feel about choosing this path. I have so often felt that I somehow had to be a wildly successful artist in order to justify having made all the sacrifices I’ve made. If it’s a disease I have, those sacrifices are just part of my condition. I don’t have to put any undo pressure on my art to justify it. I just make it because I have to. And, of course, I want it to be great but I won’t need my whole life to depend on it. I’m just managing my art-making condition.

This helps me stop wondering if I’m going to somehow come to my senses and become a lawyer. I’ve been at this long enough to know that that is not going to happen. And while I do know many artists who have happily gone on to become lawyers, I’m not sure if they were cured completely or if the disease just didn’t have such a strong hold on them. I know, for me, that even if I could be convinced to become a lawyer, I’d still be managing my condition, I’d still be an artist. I’d just be an artist trapped in a lawyer’s life.

There’s an air of nobility that we artists like to cultivate – that the poverty and the struggles make us more moral or something. But only if it ends in mega success, otherwise, it’s just sad. So I’m interested in the idea that maybe art isn’t noble – but a thing we need to aim our compassion at instead.

And also I hate this idea as much as I love it. I love the idea that we could have walk-a-thons to provide support for artists, that we could wear multi-colored ribbons in support of those living with the art-making disease and maybe get us some funds. But I also hate it. A lot. I hate the idea of turning ourselves into victims, of making art-making a pitiable vocation, instead of one worthy of recognition and remuneration.

However – as a thought experiment there’s something invigorating to just surrendering to all the voices that say there’s something wrong with us for pursuing the things we do – it’s bracing to embrace the judgments people have about us and just dive deeper into them. To stand up and say, “Yes, I’ve got the condition. But I’m thriving. And also look at this great painting I made.”

I think, too, this re-framing feels interesting in terms of how we communicate with people who aren’t artists. For so long now, we’ve been trying to convince everyone that our work is important, that they should pay for it because it is important to the culture, – etc. All of which is true, of course, in the aggregate. But when we’re asking them to fund individual projects, over and over again, it can be hard to make a case for the 8 millionth production of Macbeth. (Yep, I’ve done this.) Very few people are going to get on that noble funding train. (This is why it’s so important to have state funded arts – they can fund the field, not just individuals.) So I wonder what would happen if our fundraising pitches switched from saying, “My work is important!” to “I just can’t help it. Please help me treat my art making condition.” Because if it got us some actual funds to make our work, I wouldn’t really care how it got framed.


This was the bit that came first when I thought of this idea:

DOCTOR: I’m sorry to inform you that your child is an artist. She’s got a bad case of the art-making condition. And while there is no cure, there are many ways to learn to live with it. Have no fear, your child can still have a productive, fulfilling life. The condition is manageable. It’s possible that she’ll never be able to work in the traditional avenues – but you should know that accommodations can be made for even the most severe case of Artistitis.
And you may be one of the lucky ones – some children can learn to pass so well, you’d never even know they were afflicted. I’ve seen artists go on to become lawyers and teachers and office managers and any number of reasonable professions. But I don’t want to give you false hope. Looking at this one here, I’d say she’s got a pretty serious case. She might never be able to do anything but art. And listen, maybe she’ll make something great – maybe she’ll make you proud with her drawings or her films or her plays or her music, whatever. . . maybe she’ll even win an award of some kind.
But I wouldn’t count on it. She may be struggling with this condition her whole life. There’s nothing you can really do for it – we’ve seen all kinds of tactics fail at a cure. We recommend kindness and compassion – as we might, for any incurable condition.


My ambivalence about this idea kept me from posting it for ages. (“It’s an interesting idea! It’s a terrible idea!”) Then I heard a podcast interview with Michael and Sarah Bennett (authors of a new Self Help book called F*ck Feelings) in which they talked about how to deal with difficulties and something clicked. They used the example of how to deal with illness as a model for how to deal with things generally. The idea being that you acknowledge that you have the thing and then just figure out how to deal with it. In other words, you don’t spend a lot of time and energy wishing you didn’t have it. You just go, “It’s not my fault. And, yes, it sucks.” And then you work out what to do about it. It’s not going away. You – just – accept it – and proceed.

And I think this is why seeing being an artist this way makes a little sense. It is an enormous waste of time trying to imagine how things could be different. Accepting how things are seems like a darn good idea. And it’s all just a way to frame things so that ultimately we can proceed, without pulling ourselves in a million opposite directions.


You can help me manage my Artist-itis by becoming my patron on Patreon.


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