Artists’ Intensity, Obsessions, and Will
To say that artistic work is often difficult and artists must be highly motivated if they are to produce it is to say the surface of the sun is quite hot. The artist must not only have that motivation, but must also sustain it, often over a long period of many years. Among the personal qualities that cause motivation that is strong are not luxuries but virtual necessities for any artist: passion, restlessness, intensity, obsessiveness, will, and persistence. It’s not hard at all to look at an artist and say, “That man (or woman) is driven.”
French author Gustave Flaubert called his motivation rage: “Sometimes I don’t understand why my arms don’t drop from my body with fatigue, why my brains don’t melt away. I am leading a stern existence, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent rage, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but which never abates.”
“While the daily life of every [ballet] dancer is a full-time struggle against fatigue, strain, natural physical limitations and those due to injuries (which are inevitable), dance itself is an enactment of an energy which must seem, in all respects, untrammeled, effortless, at every moment fully mastered.” The dancer’s performance smile is “a categorical denial of what he or she is actually experiencing–for there is some discomfort, and often pain, in every major stint of performing [–and we might add, practicing]. (Susan Sontag. American writer, teacher, and film-maker)
But artists seem to develop tremendous recuperative powers and verge on the inexhaustible. Flaubert went back for more every day and dancers continue to smile while in pain. Picasso, who worked incessantly from childhood and produced a quarter million works, claimed never to have felt tired, never to have felt the slightest fatigue. He said, “When I work I leave my body outside the door.”
If There Is One Thing Famous Artists Will Tell You
Freud thought that artists are actually seeking wealth and power, but being unable to secure them directly find satisfaction in creative activities. Whether that is true or it isn’t, if there is one thing famous artists will tell you it is that you work best and are most powerfully motivated to create and will work long, often tedious, hours and endure a great deal and surmount even major obstacles when you’re not thinking of anyone’s liking but your own.
It may take years to come to that conclusion, but come to it many do. “I alone here, on my inch of earth, paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself. Let who will get good or ill from this–I am not concerned therewith. Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it, woe be to me if I paint as other people see or like.”(Art Critic John Ruskin)
At the time American novelist William Faulkner’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill. As soon as he resigned himself to the fact that his unique vision and natural complex and rhetorical style and particular subject matter were not those of a commercially-popular author, he immediately entered a period of sustained creative energy that produced in quick succession one masterpiece after another. Making the decisions not to seek fame or wealth, he embarked on a path that would lead ironically to eventual world fame, financial security, and celebrity, culminating in the Nobel Prize.
He turned inward and decided to write for himself: “One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers. I said to myself, ‘Now I can write.’“ He started working on what would be the innovative The Sound and the Fury–“thinking of books, publication, only in the sense in saying to myself, I wont [sic] have to worry about publishers liking or not liking this at all.”
The Awareness of Being Judged
When an artist is hard at work, work is center stage and doing it as skillfully as possible and enjoying it for its own sake are the strongest driving forces. The standard against which artists measure themselves is making use of their capabilities to the fullest each time they set to work—a notion of personal perfection, as in ballet, perfect expression and perfect technique.
But from time to time the thought that the work is going to be judged by someone else enters the artist’s mind. When thinking that a critic, an editor, an agent, a reviewer, a potential buyer, an audience will soon be evaluating the work, for most artists, even the best and most highly regarded, the self-conscious nervousness begins. Prolific nineteenth century English novelist Anthony Trollope said that an author should let criticism fall on him as “dew or hail from heaven,” and accept it as fate. But even the most renowned artists worry about the reception their work will receive and cannot help but to bear that in mind during the creative process.
Psychologist Teresa M. Amabile staked her whole reputation on proving that creative solutions to problems occur more frequently when people engage in the activity for the sheer pleasure it offers, and less frequently when their creativity is being judged. When we are not being evaluated, our creativity is liberated and free, but is inhibited when we are. Amabile tested a wide range of subjects. No matter what the reward was or when it was given, if the subjects thought they were working for external remuneration, they became less creative. But when they were playing, they were creative. A playful approach to the task increases the likelihood of producing creative results.
Another experiment showed that even the hint that an external reward was riding on performance was sufficient to make the subject lose interest. The same happens to chimps. Given paint and canvas chimpanzees become so absorbed in painting that they show little interest in sex or food. But if the chimps are extrinsically rewarded for their painting, the quantity and quality of their painting declines. They do only well enough to get the reward. Chimps, like many humans, are more likely to be creative when no expectations of external reward are contingent on their performance. Then it’s fun. But even thinking about external rewards reduces creativity among many people.
The Thought of Failing
With every performance an actor, violinist, singer, or dancer gives, and every work a painter, writer, or composer begins, the slate is wiped clean. Past successes mean nothing, and there is a new opportunity to please other people, true, but also the possibility of disappointing them and having to suffer the devastating thought, “I failed,” and possibly the loss of reputation and income. More than one performer has vomited before going on, fearing the unfavorable opinion of the people filling the theater and critics out there jotting notes on their pads.
All artists go through fallow periods when success seems unattainable. Hemingway’s career consisted of alternating decades of critical success and failure. I have a friend who won a prestigious national literary award, but couldn’t find a single publisher who would publish his next book.
Artists Deprived of Success
Deprived of favorable outward success and validation, some artists experience hopelessness and simply give up. But others continue to work at their craft without external feedback on the strong basis of their self-confidence or unflagging hope or sheer love of their art. (Creativity is addictive.) Jack London received 600 rejection letters before selling his first story. But within two years of that he was one of the most famous writers in the world. 85% of Equity (union) actors are unemployed at any one time, but survive as best they can, and refuse to give up their art.
An ideal world for artists would be one in which the work sold itself. Van Gogh wrote, “My opinion is that the best thing would be to work on till art lovers feel drawn toward it (his work) of their own accord, instead of having to praise or explain it.” I can hardly think of anyone who doesn’t believe their art would be better quality if they didn’t have to worry about making it saleable—possibly producing a more extreme, more original, more daring, and more outrageous art out of the commercial mainstream that is less compromised and truer to the artist’s individuality.
Artists would prefer not to be dependent on the opinion of others at all, and must decide, as you must, whose liking their art is for; if they dance for me or themselves.
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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