ARTISTS AND SOCIETY
by Dorothea McArthur, Ph.D.
I have seen many artists over the years as clients in my private practice. They walk into my office with a humble quietness. They see the world deeply through an exquisite lens and can feel sadness, concern, disgust, and the triumph of civilization and joy about nature easily. Many artists have a need to understand, and are deeply impacted by the poignancy of, their own life story. They often experience themselves on the outside of the “in” crowd in childhood, and can be bored in school. Some have become accustomed to putting themselves down because it’s commonplace for artists to have doubts about the validity of their creative endeavors.
Many of these clients do not know that they have been blessed with creative genes because their parents did not acknowledge or encourage them to actualize their particular talent. Instead, families responded cautiously because they were afraid that their artist child would not be able to make a sufficient living by practicing their art. Parents may encourage a degree in business, or law instead of a degree in fine arts. As a result, many artistic clients view their opportunity to create as an “extravagance” they should not bother to indulge.
Being an artist is one way to make sense of and express feelings about living life on this planet. An artistic exhibition or performance can bring forth and regroup feelings we did not know we had buried deeply inside us. Art can reach out and aid a viewer the way a therapist helps each person reach a resolution. When an audience gathers to watch a movie, play, concert, poetry reading, or dance performance, they mutually agree to study together whatever the artist has decided to say.
However, clients come to realize they are artists when they use their particular talent in a way that feels effortless, and brings contentment with results that make them feel proud. A few are so passionate and compelled that they do not have the choice not to be artistic. Some feel their creative expression comes “through” them from the outside world, while others feel it is generated from “within” themselves and their life experience. Others feel their creative expression comes from both sources. Whichever way it happens, the creative work of an artist has to be a solo journey until the creation is completed. Then others may be involved in getting it out into the world. Sometimes that journey leaves the artist feeling isolated, different, alone and sometimes, afraid. Throughout my own life, and many hours with clients, I have come to understand that society and the world in general does not treat our artists well.
I believe that most people are jealous of artists, especially the ones who get to perform in public. Probably everyone has had dreams of being in the “limelight” with that wonderful high moment when artists are performing and their creativity is appreciated. Many get to hear the clapping and to feel that they have done something truly meaningful and important. Artists tend not to be interested in riches or fame. Instead, they just want enough support to go on doing their creative work. Many famous artists have lived in poverty. What are the words that so frequently come just before the word artist? The answer is, of course, “struggling” and “starving.”
Perhaps, because society is jealous, we make artists create and complete most of their projects with no financial compensation. Maybe we’ll look at their work after it’s done, and maybe we’ll respect it, and maybe we won’t. Often we don’t even bother to look carefully. In the meantime, we give artists little hope. We think nothing about discounting them and their creative endeavors. Actors and authors particularly have to be experts at handling rejection after rejection as an expected and normal part of the process. Artistic clients come to me to quell their fear, acquire a strong enough self-esteem to survive society’s tentative response.
It would be outstanding if society could take a step forward and treat our artists with the utmost respect. That support starts right in my office. Many of these clients are often Highly Sensitive Persons (HSP) with an overly tuned response to one or more of the five senses. Artists are our deep thinkers with acute intuition; our quiet and honest leaders, observing, creating and commenting on what we most need to hear as a society and as individuals. Artists risk saying things that are really important, even if they get rejected. They tend not to stay on the well-worn path, but to carve new trails.
But often, as a society, we are reluctant to hear what artists have to say, perhaps because we will have to alter the way we do things as a result of their input. Therefore, we shut them up with lack of support, ignore them, or criticize them. Many famous artists have become known only after they’ve died.
In writer’s workshops, authors are often encouraged not to write unless they absolutely can’t live without putting words together in that effortless way that brings contentment. After the first draft, there is a lot of editing to finish each piece of writing. Success is difficult and often elusive.
There are two conditions that contribute to becoming a successful artist. First, the person has to be born with creative genes. The second condition is always a surprise to my artistic clients. Artists are often involved in a struggle, such as a difficult childhood, that becomes well understood by the client in terms of emotions and misconceptions. The resolution of this conflict often gives shape to the particular subject and expression of their creativity, while lack of resolution may block expression. As the clients and I work on their unresolved issues, their creativity is able to flow freely again. Their resolution shapes an important creative endeavor that can make a difference for those who suffer in a similar way.
As Julia Cameron writes in Walking In this World: The Practical Art of Creativity:
1. explore the territory of the human heart, braving the dark woods to report to our human tribe that a trail can be found and will survive.
2. report dangers we might wish to ignore
3. record perceptions that feel unbearable to others
4. encapsulate the loneliness of missed connections
5. function out of nerve, daring, stamina, vision, and persistence
It’s exhilarating for me to watch artist clients awaken to their creativity, to own it and begin talking about their particular project. Sometimes we look together at ways they can support themselves with a non-taxing “job-job” so they can save all of their energy for their creative work. The “job-job” pays the living costs and takes away the struggle to pay for rent and food that otherwise could erode the creative process.
Artists hate to promote their work. They rarely have the disposition for this area of expertise. Hence, society has to have publishing houses, agents, publicists, and marketing experts. Artists don’t want to tell people what they’ve done, or try to sell it. They just want to get on to the next project. Secondarily, they’re happy to be financially successful, but their primary interest lies in making a difference by articulating what needs to be realized.
It’s hard to kill an artist’s drive, especially when each artist becomes an expert at rising above or ignoring sabotaging remarks, meant to clip their wings in place of useful criticism. With enough encouragement and support, the artist will prevail. Two quotes speak poignantly to this issue.
One of life’s most exhilarating feelings is to be shot at with no result. — Winston Churchill
All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self -evident.
I encourage my clients to listen carefully to their creativity and intuition. When they have the urge to be creative, they’re being sent a message from the universe to act. The universe is so much more intelligent than any one human artist that it becomes ridiculous to resist. Only the universe knows the whole picture. The artist merely has to do what is suggested through their creativity. All fear of failure, evaluation, judgment, or rejection of the work has to be sent down the drain of the artist’s daily bath or shower. These feelings will only cause writer’s block eroding the process of producing valuable works of art for us all.
Can we even imagine what civilization would be like if just half of the funds that have gone into war, were diverted for education, training, and support of artistic expression. Art would be taught in every school. There would be funding for tickets to live performance so that everyone who was interested would have a chance to attend. Artists would be paid for creating and the development of their art. They would be “honored” instead of “struggling” and “starving.” I would have been paid for the hours that went into the writing and editing of this article!
Currently, fifty percent of my clients are artistic. They leave my office when we have worked with all of the above issues and they:
- understand and respect their particular creative genius
2. have found and accepted their “job-job” when it is needed
3. feel entitled and compelled to use their artistic genes
4. understand the unresolved issues within their own lives and have some artistic way to express it to help others with similar problem.
5. have mastered their fears of rejection and are able to create anyway.
6. can distinguish between useful constructive criticism to be incorporated, and sabotage based upon threat and jealously that must to be eliminated.In the final analysis, it is powerful and compelling and hard to be an artist.
Dorothea McArthur is a Diplomate Clinical Psychologist practicing in Los Angeles. She is President of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. She can be reached at (323) 663-2340. Her email is DMcA@ucla.edu.