A Potential Argument Against Art as a Source of Misery

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Okay, so I said in my last post that I wanted to make an attempt at revising Elizabeth Gilbert’s “argument” in relation to the anxiety often said to originate from artistic practice. I’ll say this again; I’m not doing this because I don’t like Gilbert’s argument, but because I think it might be possible to put it together in a manner that’ll be more intuitively appealing to people who find the idea of magic, spirits or divine forces difficult to accept. I don’t really think Gilbert intended for her argument to be particularly spiritual – indeed I may by promoting a misinterpretation here – but it does comes across as that to some extent, at least to me.

In her Ted talks speech, Gilbert talked about alternative perspectives on art, making specific reference to the daemons and geniuses of Ancient Rome and Greece. Her idea was that these perspectives allowed artists to feel a lot less pressure regarding their work and, as a result, lead somewhat happier and more relaxed lives. They would still have to face a certain amount of pain in having to accept that the quality of their work was never assured, and that their greatest piece might be produced early on in their career, but whenever anything went wrong or their work was not appreciated, they’d not see themselves as being solely responsible. In a sense, artists with this perspective would not say that their art was “who they were” (as many do today), but just “what they did”. That distinction is vital; if a person defines themselves through their art, they’re making themselves tremendously vulnerable. Creative people these days are notorious for being bad at dealing with criticism, and this may well be the cause; when someone criticizes their work – even if it’s just friendly, constructive criticism – an artist may well feel deeply offended and even wounded if they view that work as an expression of their innermost self.

There’s no doubt that modern artists suffer, sometimes extraordinarily, and that their suffering does seem intrinsically linked to their work. People often talk about pain as a source of inspiration. But, considering the above, it might be possible that this is not actually necessary. There is a possibility that a new perspective could halt the current spread of depression and mental instability amongst our great artists, and help them live just as happily as the rest of us. Alcohol, drugs, and other commonly employed means of distraction might be made obsolete (or at least far less alluring) through such a change in perspective. Does that view need to contain an element of the otherworldly, though? Are spiritual artists the only kind that can shield themselves against the pain of creative labour? I say no.

Let’s consider, for a moment, what gives a person his or her identity. I’m going to try very hard to not fall into the trap of trying to devise a simple answer to a complicated question here, but I’ll try to be concise. As far as I’m concerned, a person’s identity comes through one thing and one thing only; causation. So what do I mean by that? Well, we live in what appears to be a deterministic universe. In fact, if we accept that there is an external world and that it is at least remotely similar to what we perceive it to be through our senses, and if we accept that our grasp of basic logic is correct, I don’t see how we could deny that the universe is deterministic. Now, for the sake of those who haven’t read or heard about determinism before now, here’s a quick illustration of it; why are you reading this text? Hopefully, because you saw the title somewhere and thought it might be interesting. Assuming this is true, why did you think it’s interesting? Let’s say, it’s because you have an interest in art and are yourself concerned about the suffering it sometimes seems to cause people. Why do you have this concern? Perhaps because your parents brought you up to empathize with the suffering of other people, or because you’ve suffered yourself. Why did they bring you up like this? Maybe because they were brought up in a similar manner. Why were they brought up like that? Possibly their grandparents had been horribly unsympathetic in their youth, and later came to regret it. This is a (simplified) causative chain, and you could theoretically follow it all the way back to the big bang, and beyond.

So, assuming that determinism is correct, which I would say it is (possibly out of ignorance), how does this relate to an individual’s identity? Well, it means that who they are at any given point in time is simply the result of the immensely complex causative chain that has brought them up to that moment. Right now, I am who I am because I possessed a certain genetic make-up at birth (one resulting from billions of years of evolution*), was brought up in a certain manner by my parents, met and interacted with certain people during my childhood and received a certain form of education. All that I am just now comes from this chain, and this essay can be seen as a sort of biproduct of that chain. This text is not something I’ve brought up from the depths of my soul, created by my intellect and passion, but merely something arising from that immense chain of events. It can be argued that I have a certain degree of free will, and that this post comes, in part, from that free will, but that doesn’t change the fact that said causative chain has presumably had a significant effect on it. The causative chain, then, can be viewed as a sort of daemon, and if you don’t like what I’ve written (which I sincerely hope is not the case), then that isn’t entirely my fault.

This particular kind of determinism is tricky and, in some ways at least, debatable. It raises all sorts of other questions and can be a bit bleak if viewed in the wrong manner (perspective again!). Nevertheless, I think I can say with some confidence that it is possible so view the many “external factors” that affect artists and their work as somewhat less ethereal daemons. But does this conclusively prove that art and suffering are not bound together? Unfortunately not, because it only shows that there exist plausible alternative perspectives on art; it doesn’t prove that such perspectives can prevent said suffering. But attitude may well be the key to a contented artistic life.

More on this coming up soon, so if you like it, stay tuned.

*Once again, corrections from scientifically minded people are much appreciated if I’m found to have said something erroneous (or just plain stupid). Indeed, I appreciate valid corrections of any kind.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: conceptualising #3 « write drunk;

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