What It Is: Bad Times Don't Make Great Art, They Hinder Great Artists

Everybody deals with tough times. Some of us find the clarity to transcend and we create a path for ourselves that ultimately leads to a stronger self. Some of us are not as fortunate and we get trapped in the ever-intensifying labyrinth of emotions that arises from life’s least savory complications. For us artists though, things are a little more complicated.

In the time that I've been alive society has accepted and perpetuated the notion that artists benefit from turmoil, that existential crises are somehow essential to the creative experience. This is not true. When we celebrate works of great art that are born out of turmoil we are not celebrating work that is unique to times of severe duress. What we are actually celebrating is artists who manage to PROTECT their creative capacity from grave stress, and channel negative energy into a productive process. It's not that bad times make great art, it's that great artists rise to any occasion, and often show us how to transcend the ills the plague humanity. The only thing that makes great art is a great artist who has the clarity, resilience, and peace of mind to create.

Artists are just like plants, athletes, and Whole Foods employees: they perform their best when they're happy and their needs are met. If Serena Williams’ mom died, and one day later Serena found the strength to win a championship how would we call that? Would we say that Serena’s mother’s death gave her the strength to play her best? Or would we say, “Wow, she was dealing with so much and she went out there and crushed it. I can't imagine the kind of conviction and focus that requires?” In the case of superstar athletes dealing with traumatic life experiences you will be hard-pressed to find an example that reflects the same values that are used to measure artists.

An artist who is buried under turmoil is an artist who is incapable of producing their best work. An artist who is at peace is an artist producing their best work. When artists confront turmoil we are often lead to believe that we should embrace it. And on some level we certainly should embrace it, but only in order to know it completely and ensure that we can detach from it thoroughly. In times of conflict artists must protect their creative self from their violent self, and embracing turmoil, giving in to ill intention, ultimately poisons the creative spirit.

The violent self, and the creative self are in utter opposition. If we indulge the violent self too much, or too often, then the creative self recedes into books, museums, rare films, wilderness, and other places beyond society’s limits where inspiration and reverence mix. If the creative self is driven too far away one will have to go to great lengths--physical, spiritual, and mental--to rejoin with it. But, the creative self cannot offer any protection, and so in traumatic times artists need protection--be it physical, psychological, or otherwise--to survive. And so the violent self comes to protect the creative self, and in traumatic times a dance takes place, a dance that complicates the artist’s existence dramatically.

The creative self recedes when it has been sufficiently traumatized, and then the violent self emerges to disperse the cause of the trauma. Then the creative self reemerges, and until the underlying cause of the trauma is rooted out this exchange of the two selves, this nuanced shifting of the tide within the cosmic ether of the soul draws us back and forth between the poles of violence and creativity. In these times it is of the utmost importance that we remain mindful and ultimately intentional in all of our actions as artists.

We must always be focused on protecting the creative self. This means protecting the creative self from external traumas and stressors, but also protecting the creative self from an unchecked violent self. The violent self is chaotic and destructive, and so it cannot be predicted. The difference between protecting the creative self and destroying it can quickly recede from the reach of our influence when the violent self is in control. And so, we must always limit the violent self based on what the creative self can handle. We can only employ the violent self effectively if its limits are established, accounted for, and ultimately abided by.

As artists we are exemplars of human life, we transform our subjective reality into tangible objects that become society’s crucial touchpoint. The objects born of an artist’s subjectivity are the way that society sees itself, speaks about itself, and ultimately understands itself. Through today’s art society is able to trace a bread that runs back through all of human time. Art pre-dates language, and it is the most complete form of communication that society has come up with. Whether by film, music, photo, collage, illustration, fashion, or other means art creates a complex network of signification that communicates the myriad complexities of human experience. And so it should make sense that this complex manner of communication requires the intentional maintenance of a complex self. Be brave artists, you're our best hope.