Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Valorisation of Trauma

Many art students will be familiar with the pervasive belief that ‘real’ artists have to suffer in some way for their art; that great work is the result of a profound and enduring struggle with an underlying trauma or neurosis. It seems likely that this assumption is in part driven by the similarly common association of effort with worth. In this peculiar economics of endeavor, the pain or torment of creative people is valorized as some kind of unique manifestation or potential for genius. The more screwed up the artist, the better they must necessarily be, so long of course as they manage to hold their creative output together.

There’s little doubt that this perception leads some artists to actively cultivate the persona of the troubled artist and to embellish their work through the stories of trial and tribulation that they construct around it. According to this logic, if each work produced appears to have come as the result of some deep anguish or at the risk of personal loss or injury then it follows that the object – the artwork - must necessarily contain some vestige of this struggle and is therefore a more precious commodity as a consequence. Small wonder then that some art teachers still feel compelled to encourage students to mine their personal biographies and small wonder also that there’s such a common association between artists, trauma and/or neurosis.

For many students this ‘common-sense’ connection between greatness and struggle can be a significant source of confusion and frustration, the cause of which can easily be traced to those more prominent historical and contemporary artists who have gained particular notoriety for their psychological struggles. Students end up feeling like they’re either incapable of competing in this fearsome arena of emotional turmoil or that they need to plumb their own psychological depths in order to dredge up some significantly painful spectre from the past.

The mistake is to confuse psychological struggle with profound experience. Trauma and neurosis are certainly clear sources of profound experience but they are by no means the only ones. Moreover, the belief that profound experiences are rare and inaccessible things that can only be encountered through personal suffering or by placing oneself in mortal danger misrepresent the fact that profundity can be found wherever one cares to look deeply, rather than how deeply fragile one is. The point then would seem to entail the pursuit and promotion of the kinds of profundity that do not threaten to undermine the integrity of the self but that instead place depth and significance where it deserves to be – ie: in the artwork rather than in the biography of the artist.


Tamsin said...

Very important point. Would you concede, though, that if you want to do more than find a formula and keep reproducing it, you can feel quite lost a lot of the time? If you want to push into your own resistances and fears, try to learn something new each time you produce something, aren't you likely to come up against some pretty uncomfortable feelings, and experience quite a bit of struggle? I wonder if the difficulty of pushing into the new is what's misinterpreted from the outide as the stuff you're talking about....

J. Hamlyn said...

Yes absolutely - the struggle with creating art is definitely something I would applaud and encourage.

This Brazen Teacher said...

Have you ever seen the TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on this topic? If you haven't... you MUST :)

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Brazen,

Thanks for the link. I have seen it yes, but nice to see it again. Gilbert suggests that we might benefit from seeing creativity, insight or genius as something bestowed upon us by circumstances beyond our control and that we should:

“Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then "Ole!" And if not, do your dance anyhow. And "Ole!" to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. "Ole!" to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

This is good stuff but you probably won’t be surprised to know that I’m more than a little uneasy about ascribing creative discovery to mystical external forces. She’s right, I think, that we should be persistent in our pursuit. And, if we might think of that “divine cockeyed genius” more as a metaphor for the felicity of chance apprehended through the heightened sensibilities of a receptive mind and eye then all the better.

“A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” -Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

Dale said...

I am writing in response to your post as this is a crucial aspect to my own creative process.
Personal suffering has had a direct influence in my creative process. But relief from suffering has also had it's due.

Struggling with Bi-Polar Disorder all my life and the relief of suffering through practicing and studying Buddhism are a part of the dialogue that carries through SOME of my work.
But there is more. And there should be more for any artist.

The historical ontology of art should also play a role or often will - though not necessarily. There can be a rebellion against what is the current trend. And on and on
Yes; doing art can be a cathartic process, but it can be so much more. If one does actually suffer and creating is a positive outlet then by all means do it. So many artists that I have studied did struggle with anguish or suffering: Van Gogh, Frida Kalo, Mark Rothko, etc., but many others didn't Martin Puryear, Matisse, Guaguin, Kiki Smith, on and on.

It's up to the art instructor to be sure that a balanced view of what doing art is about.

I have looked in many places for inspiration. And so have many other artists. While I believe that personal history DOES play a role in one's process and also in the interpretation of art works, much more IS going on when one does art.

While Barthes has something to say on this subject, I think Derrida's "Truth in Painting" addresses the process better.

So...I do concur with your post. Unfortunately the heavy burden of educating these students as to the truth, falls upon your shoulders.

I would encourage them to try sitting in meditation, or mine the weirdness of dreams, or get political.
Some of my best work didn't come from my illness but from the periods of balance. Biography may be unavoidable and even important, but it's only a small part of the whole when it comes to making art.

Thanks Much for Your Post
Best Regards,

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Dale,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments - you've even gotten me to unearth my copy of "Truth in Painting" - though I'm not sure I can bring myself to wade through its depths !-)

J. Hamlyn said...


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