Spring Cleaning in the Studio
Art, Escapism, and Despair
Folds and Fabric in Art
A Gift from the Netherworld
News for February!
Art, Escapism, and DespairWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So it was a rough month for me, since last we spoke, O Readers, and various bad emotional upheavals happened and whatnot, the details of which I shall not tax you with, since y'all are here to listen to me rant about art, not my personal life.
And as I slogged through the mires of misery, en route to the plains of angst, several people who meant well, and I love them dearly, and I know that they really, really meant well, and were merely trying to find a silver lining in this cloud, and so and so forth, uttered variations on "Well, at least you can pour this emotion into your art!"
Did I mention that they meant well?
And because they meant well, I smiled and nodded and generally did not do any of the things I wanted to do, which largely involved shotguns and screaming "What am I supposed to do, paint sad hamsters?"
They meant well.
I blame Van Gogh.
Sure, we're all in love with the notion of the tormented artist, who hauls his artwork out from the slimy sub-basement of despair. Art like that has Meaning. It has Suffering. Everybody loves suffering! Van Gogh did it!
But the fact is that depression, despite all our stereotypes of the tormented artist, generally ain't good for art. Art is work. Art is often hard. And I don't know about how anybody else experiences depression, but when I'm miserable, I want to lay on the couch with a pint of ice cream, and when I'm really miserable, I want to sleep. Emotional havoc is exhausting. I don't feel fired up to paint, I feel like pulling the blankets over my head. It's hard enough to get up in the morning, you expect me to go court the muse? Feh!
Van Gogh was miserable most of his life, and also produced art generally acknowledged to be Great. There are those who use these two points to say that we shouldn't take meds for depression because we would have lost Van Gogh's brilliant art, and…therefore something about Prozac and creativity and how we're all hypermedicated drones or something. I dunno, the argument's fuzzy. Still, the notion is that Van Gogh's misery was inextricably linked to his art, and a happy Van Gogh would have thrown his paints in the river and become an investment banker.
Me, I rather suspect that if Van Gogh had been happy, he would have lived thirty years longer and produced twice as much art.
"But Ursula," you say now, approaching cautiously, bearing chocolate and bubble bath to throw, in case I suddenly snap and begin foaming at the mouth, "would it have been good art?"
It's a fair question. I point you at the art done by legions of teenage girls when their boyfriends break up with them, generally involving slit wrists and song lyrics, as exhibit A for the defense. Angst does not make good art by itself. (Useful art, emotional, cathartic, laden with coping mechanisms—sure, I'll give you all those. But generally not good. Let us not confuse the two.)
And on the other hand, while I cannot speak about Van Gogh—speculating on what was wrong with that boy is a cottage industry among art historians, the "Fun With Cadmium"* hypothesis being my favorite—the art I do when I'm upset is absolute fluff.
Seriously. Happy, fuzzy, cute, big eyes, rodents cavorting the fields. If I'm depressed, I don't start plumbing the black wells of my soul, I start doin' painfully saccharine tripe.
I'm not alone in this. A buddy of mine's a bestselling romance writer, and she confirms that when her life was at its lowest ebb, she wrote the fluffiest, happiest, gooiest stuff ever to get its bodice ripped. She claims it's because that was the one thing she could bloody well control, and used her writing as escapism. There's truth to that. I have used art as escapism at personal low points. That's part of what it's there for.
I can't speak for everyone. I can't speak for anyone, maybe. But I suspect that it's when we're feeling stable, when we're doin' okay, when life is going well—that's when we've got enough of a foundation to go try the weird and dark and creepy stuff—and do it well, do it so it means something.
How many people do you know who do dark and tormented art who are cheerful, mild-mannered people? A surprising number, I'll bet you.
It's like bungee jumping. You don't just freefall into the abyss. It'll end badly. You need an anchor and stability to make sure that you can snap back out of it. Dark art that explores the misery of the human condition is a good and important thing. Somebody's gotta do it. But you don't have to be depressed to do it right.
Ironically, hard work being the great cure for misery, art can help misery. But that's diametrically opposed from misery helping art.
*Many oil paints contained—and some still contain—heavy metals. Like cadmium. Eat too much paint, lick your brushes to get 'em pointy, mix your own pigments without a dust mask, and you, too, can aspire to insanity!
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