“I do believe that you have to suffer for your art. I know I have”
– Amy Winehouse.
People who have the misfortune of working with me will probably have experienced, amongst other outbursts of linguistic fascism, me taking excessive umbrage when the word “passion” gets mentioned. My dislike of the word, besides the fact that it has become watered down and jargonized to the extent that it is adopted by tax optimisation firms, that it has a root in the latin word passio, meaning suffering, imported to English to describe the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. Even in its modern usage, passion is often used to describe a fervor that is mixed with pain.
Suffer For Your Art. This is the command our society bestows upon its cultural professionals, and indeed a mantra we often repeat amongst ourselves. Suffering is viewed not only as a necessary and unavoidable byproduct of our craft, but desirable, as an end in itself. I was talking a few weeks ago with someone who, without a hint of humour, posited the idea that “Great Artists have to be crazy to make Great Art”.
This is widely believed, but it is an astonishing reverse engineering of facts. Yes, mental health issues are more prevalent in artists according to some studies, with some even suggesting this has a link in genetics, but the associative leap to them being a driving force for better art is at best dubious, and at worst, incredibly harmful. When coal miners get lung diseases from their work, this is not viewed as part of a special superpower that bolsters their productivity. Subjectively, the experience of most artists I have talked to confirms this. Those who, like me, have suffered from periods of mental ill health, find their productivity and quality of work tanks during this period, ie in the same way it would for every other human being in every job ever.
Why do we view an occupational hazard as a blessing for such people? Sure, art engages with mental illness as a part of the human experience, but working with something does not mean you are required to become it, or the implications for zookepers would be dramatic. Sure, the art world is full of confusion about what our code of conduct and working practice should be. Most artists, I reckon, want to be part of an ordinary peripatetic skilled workforce and be treated as such, but there’s no denying that to some, like Douglas Gordon, who this week attacked the venue his play was being staged at with an axe, the job description is probably Professional Crazy Person. But I fear the reasons behind these ideas may be more insidious than the above.
As a society we tend to seek justifications for our oppressions and our apathy towards them. Dealing with mental illness among artists as an actual problem would require confronting the socioeconomic status we have given them, and their placement within what Marx called the Lumpenproletariat, those who hang off the edge of the capitalist economy, where he romantically but damningly, groups us with – “swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, pimps, brothel keepers, porters …in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème”. It might make us look, as others have, at that whole group, and other low-income citizens, and figure out how their health is affected on a broad scale. It might make us ask difficult questions about mental illness – what levels do we accept as normal, and if those are exceeded, what do we do about it?
But the Wibbly Wobbly Crazypants Artist shortcut lets us bypass all of this, allowing us to wrap artists at all levels of success in a shroud of myth and mystification, taking a step back and washing our hands of what happens to them. Sometimes this can just lead to awkward conversations. For Amy, it led to something a lot worse. I for one, don’t want us to suffer like Jesus on the cross to do our jobs. Didn’t he do that for me?
Wednesday, 15 July 2015