This week I am working on a large 30 x 48 inch panoramic painting of the three main peaks of Pusch Ridge, in the Catalina Mountains. I've painted fragments of this scene before, and I'm happy to have finally gotten an image that encompasses the entire mass of the mountain ridge, with all its rocky outcrops and escarpments.
As I was just finishing the brilliant book "The Yellow House, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence", I found myself thinking yet again on this image that so many people have of the artist in desperate struggle in his or her own mind. This book detailed the brief and stormy period that the painters Van Gogh and Gauguin lived and worked together in Van Gogh's famous "Yellow House" in Arles, France in 1888. This clash of very volitile artistic personalities was one of the contributing factors in Van Gogh's breakdown and infamous slashing off of his own ear. It got me to thinking about how, especially in America, the artist is so often viewed as someone outside of society - and on many occasions, a good-for-nothing or self indulgent person. In Henry Miller's book "The Air Conditioned Nightmare" he said that a "corn fed hog has a better life than an artist in America."
Van Gogh was not the only artist to suffer from mental illness, countless other artists have battled addiction and all kinds of other excesses. Jackson Pollock, the celebrated American Abstract Expressionist struggled for years with alcoholism and after bouts of being on and off the bottle, finally died in a car crash after drinking. The more one learns about Pollock the more it becomes evident that he was deeply disturbed, and it is very likely that he drank as he did to calm the doubts he had in his mind, about himself and his place in the world. The artist Modigliani, who also had a short life, had been weekend physically by childhood illnesses, yet still deeply indulged in drinking and drugs. His brief life ended in Paris at the age of 35. Van Gogh died in Auvers at the age of 37. Pollock died at 44. Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, after a brief but highly successful art career. If we look across at the sad musical extinctions of 1970 and 1971, we see the legendary names of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all dead at the age of 27. In 1994 Kurt Cobain, front man of the hugely popular band Nirvana, died of a self inflicted gunshot wound. He was also 27.
Of course many artists lead long, productive lives - and our culture in arts and music is all the more better for the experiences and creativity of our venerated elders. But I find myself wondering, what is it really about - for those people who find the act of creating to be both soothing, and too much - at the same time?
I suspect that most of it has to do with the innate inwardness of an artist. I've often told people that the difficult part of being an artist is the fact that there exists no mould on your own creativity. Unlike working in an office, or most any job - there is no set format for being an artist. What is created is created out of the artist himself. It is wrenched out, sometimes with great difficulty, and brought into being with no prior existing format. So for an artist it is something like giving birth, hundreds and hundreds of times over again, but pulling out of your soul images, songs, poems, and books. You are the catalyst. You are also the person to blame if it doesn't work, or if the results are weak. The artistic equivalent of workplace accountability is nothing more than a good, hard look in the mirror.
I think that when artists become self destructive and prone to drink and drugs, what is usually happening is that the person simply can't bear the weight of doubt that results from this 'good, hard look in the mirror'. That the only way that the pain of not accomplishing great acts of creation can be dulled is through a temporary dulling of the senses. For some artists, or for some addictive personalities in general, the dulling of the senses becomes more important than the act of working and creating, and it is perhaps that kind of self destructive artist that sees his or her life shortened, and the world robbed of their contributions. (I exempt Van Gogh from this distinction, as it is apparent that he suffered from a grave mental illness.)
Therein lies the irony, I think. That even artists like myself understand why it is that the act of creating is both exhilarating and crushing at the same time - and that it is probably true that the only way to calm doubts is by numbing the senses. But even as much as I have sympathy for those artists who died in a martyr-like fashion - I also realize that at some point, self control and reasonableness must kick in. That if you love your work, you must preserve the body and mind that MUST be healthy to create it. Ultimately, for all but the most seriously mentally ill artists -the abandonment of work in the whiteout of drugs and alcohol is just that - the choice of numbness over the sensation of work.
So if we love our work, we must resolve to stick around to make it. And the longer I live, the less I believe in the vision of a young, dead artistic martyr. I think there is dignity in a long life of creation, such as have been lived by figures such as Monet, Renoir, and DeKooning. Dignity in the challenges of continually confronting the act of making paintings as you get older. Then, at least, when your time does come to check out - you will have, in fact, made a long and fruitful contribution to the younger artists that come after - in the hopes that they too will keep their senses, and live long and create beautifully.