Identifying the Patterns of Artistic Self-Abuse
Søren Kierkegaard eloquently illustrates the alienating feeling of being misunderstood and the reason why creative types are commonly described as “tortured artists.”
What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music.
His fate is like that of the unfortunate victims whom the tyrant Phalaris imprisoned in a brazen bull and slowly tortured over a steady fire; their cries could not reach the tyrant’s ears so as to strike terror into his heart; when they reached his ears they sounded like sweet music. And men crowd about the poet and say to him: “Sing for us soon again”; that is as much as to say: “May new sufferings torment your soul, but may your lips be formed as before; for the cries would only frighten us, but the music is delicious.” And the critics come, too, and say: “Quite correct, and so it ought to be according to the rules of aesthetics.”
Now it is understood that a critic resembles a poet to a hair; he only lacks the suffering in his heart and the music upon his lips. Lo, therefore, I would rather be a swineherd from Amager, and be understood by the swine, than to be a poet and be misunderstood by men.
Art has always been prone to misunderstandings. Do you remember an early childhood moment where you proudly showed off a creation of your own design? What kind of feedback to did you receive? Was it positive or negative? Hostile or nurturing? I remember scribbling all the “right” colors on a picture of Superman and proudly presenting it to my father. To which he replied, “Try coloring in the lines next time.” Strangely enough, I didn’t interpret it as negative until my mother scolded him for it. In that moment, I was suddenly aware maybe I should care how he responds to it. And just like that, the artful expression of innocence and joy was clouded with guilt and shame. The melody that stirs the heart to sing is often mistaken as only having value if it matches up to the expectations of others. For many of us, this is where the voice of the critic is born within and over the years, is slowly accepted as our own voice with abusive and disastrous consequences.
It’s a deeply personal thing to create something that knows no other rules of aesthetic other than your own. You decided the composition, tone, color and texture all your own. Why did you make the choices you made? Only you know. Probably for no other reason than it moved you somehow–something inside you said that is beautiful. And that can be a great source of freedom and confidence. But once the expression has been made and laid out on paper, it’s now in a form for all the world to see, to be shared–and to be judged, as if its very existence invites the need for an opinion, “Do I like it or not?” The problem is judgement is diametrically opposed to art, at least the creation of it. For you cannot be a critic and a creator at the same time. One builds while the other tears down. I’m not saying that criticism can’t ever be positive or there’s no merit to growing in areas of our weaknesses. No, what I’m saying is that we often get it backwards and begin to think our finished work has to stand up to the criticisms of others even before it can be started. Calling this voice our own is the self-inflicted wound that essentially nails our feet to the ground.
COMMON PATTERNS of ARTISTIC SELF-ABUSE
- increasingly comparing yourself to others to see how you measure up
- being jealous or envious of others who appear to have “made it” or “arrived” somehow
- internally judging others even the most trivial of matters feeds that overly critical voice (ex. that idiot driver, he or she’s unattractive, the decision someone else is an #@!%).
- trying really hard to gain the approval of others and create something you think they will like, often at the expense of your own taste
- secretly wishing you were better at [anything and everything] by dreaming up elaborate fantasies that become way too big for you to move forward in one step
- unleashing all this frustration, disappointment and judgement on yourself is the start of a vicious cycle that resembles the self-destructive patterns of addiction
Part of the beauty of artistic expression is it just is–it’s an expression of life. It’s your voice. So what do you have to say? Down in the chambers of your heart, I believe there’s something unashamedly longing to get out into the world. Don’t worry if it’s good or bad because most of what is judged “good” art just boils down to honesty and authenticity. The magic and beauty of art is its ability to tell the truth — that’s what touches, moves, and inspires us. The paradox is we rarely can say something true if we are constantly editing and judging ourselves during the process.
So give it up.
You don’t need judgement — at least, not at this stage of the journey. After everything’s said and done, you can look back and ask yourself whether or not it still moves you. But don’t judge your work too soon. Work that resonates best in the future, is work that speaks truth now. So what are you waiting for? Go create something! If for nothing else than to recapture that child-like joy a simple crayon could bring.