Posts Tagged ‘creative despair’

Artists, depression and moss – does this make it better?

March 29, 2010

When reading about links between creativity and depression, I recently came across this quote:

“Art may have evolved as a way of accentuating the emotional significance of communal rituals… It can still express shared spiritual and sacred meanings, although few exist in modern “secular” societies….

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1969 (I love this painting)

The depressed artist examines painfully the purpose of living and the possibility of dying in this spiritual vacuum, often at great personal cost, according to Schildkraut. “Yet depression in the artist may be of adaptive value to society at large,” he maintains.”

From an article here in Science News.(Italics mine) This is excerpted from a 1994 report in the American Journal of  Psychiatry.  Joseph J Schildchild, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, traced the depressive tendencies of several Abstract Expressionist painters. Only one of whom was still living; the rest had died tragically.  Their conclusion?  Art is a personal hell.  But profitable for the rest of us.

The irony of course being that the Abstract Expressionist painters were tremendously profitable for America.  They gave America a style that could be championed, wrestling world cultural authority away from a ruined Paris, and making several rich families very very rich and into cultural institutions.  Big art was big money, especially for the status-hungry nouveau riche of  1950-60’s America. The Abstract Expressionists effectively portrayed the heady experimentation and freedom from historical tradition that some were fortunate to experience.  (Even the CIA promoted Pollock for a culturally imperialist tour through the Soviet Union.)

Jackson Pollock, from artistquoteoftheday.wordpress.com

So, when considering their personal lives, it is somewhat sobering to note the correlation of public success and private suffering.  Or the parasitical nature of public success?  Perhaps it was more like a sensitive musician having a lifetime contract with a corrupt record company than we were lead to believe?  Are lead to believe?

Given the intoxicating economic and material frenzy of the 50’s and 60’s, perhaps this group of painters could be viewed as the soul, the collective sensitivity, that became public sacrifice to feed the gods of industry that grew fat on the spoils of war, the industrialization of the home, and the sexualization of the automobile? Is this the adaptive value Schildchild was talking about?  (I will have to start quoting  David Hickey soon.  I refer to his brilliant essay “The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market,” which can be downloaded here.)

Pollock actually died quite early on.  Most of his work was done during two short years before his death, but boy, what a legacy it has had. Like Van Gogh, the amazing work from a pitiable  life becomes the stuff of entire economies.  More details of Pollock’s personal life can be found at the Artist Quote of the Day blog.

Personally, I only really get depressed when I think about my failure as a professional artist.  (Or I think in terms if failure because I am depressed.  I have not been able to work that one out.)  However, I do try to counter the personal-failure-feelings with a recognition that what I feel is part of the general end-game-reality presently at work in the world.   And focus on the fact that I would rather be true to what is, and feel the reality of this global failure, than try to maintain a false sense of optimism and feed the speculative cultural economy.

Nevertheless, other emerging artists are surviving and even thriving within this milieu.  Honestly speaking, I am not able to pay for my life let alone my art practice.  What then do I call this practice?  An unhealthy obsession with making things?  Is my work any less art if it never gets shown in a gallery?  If I never get a single grant?  If people forget I exist?  Do the plants care about that?  Is being a successful artist the best way to serve the aliveness in the world?

At the end of my career, I will have the damn finest living room ever!    From what it’s going to be like!

On another note, I went moss collecting today.  It is amazing to me that these little dark dry pads open up and bloom such a vibrant green when misted.  And it happens instantly, before your very eyes!  I am going to post an animation of this. But not today. Today I was casting concrete for the moss to grow on, while I get the miniature terrariums ready.  I hope they will be happy.

I think mosses are one of the life forms that have reached perfection. Like dolphins.  Except mosses have been around since the dinosaurs, since Pangea, and survived the massive die-offs at the end of that era, which is surprising given their environmental sensitivity.

The drawing at right is called “Muscinae” from Ernst Haeckel‘s Kunstformen der Natur, 1904.  I cannot recommend his amazing work enough.  What a sensitive and patient eye he had, long before our convenient recording technologies.

A very comprehensive moss-love site is here at pflantzenliebe. ♡!

This is not the first time I have worked with moss; I used it in an installation two years ago in the vitrines of the Concordia Art Gallery.  What was meant to be an installation ended up becoming a performance piece, as everyday I would go in and mist the moss to make it humid enough again. It was a massive struggle to keep the moss alive in a very dry and hostile environment, and ultimately a lot of it did not survive.

This time, however, I am making friends with the moss at each step along the way.  This is already much more enriching than treating it like an art material, as some sort of proving ground, so to speak.  This is a thread I am only recently picking up again: making friends with my materials.  Making friends with them as each is an aspect of the living world.

These hopefully happy mosses will be part of little tiny worlds.  Those little tiny bursts of aliveness will be scattered throughout the city, so those who need it most will find them.

Perhaps my experiences with depression are what drive me to reach out to  the work like this.  My whole heart is involved.  Apparently, the colour of the heart chakra is not only pink as I had previously thought; pink like a wound that is freshly healed, still sensitive, and easily re-opened.  The energetic colour of the heart is also green, the colour of new grass, the colour of bright moss opening up to drink in the water of the world.  Opening, breathing, reaching, growing taller, overcoming, slowly slowly at is own pace.

Perhaps  my ideas of what it means to be a successful artist in the world are in their necessary ferment, and are becoming the compost to nourish my opening heart.

Dare I dream that that is what the global economy is also undergoing?

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