Sunday, January 20, 2008

Art When Upset?

On my walk to the store I'd been wondering where to find questions for this column. Quick response: in the check-out line, an artist asked me, "Do you think it's a good idea to do art when you're emotionally distraught?" There was only time to answer, "Sure--you'd know best." Here's more.

Dear Distraught,

"Take a sad song and make it better....And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain."
--Hey Jude, Lennon/McCartney

Some courageously truthful art and helpful art-therapy can come from art-ing under emotional duress. So can creative dead-ends that mainly serve self-dramatizing. But there are surely worse things to do with the energy of a bad mood.

An emotional upset usually wants to be heard. A friend's compassionate listening helps by reminding you to hear yourself as kindly: ultimately, you're the one who really serves as an effective witness for yourself.

Art actively engages and strengthens that witnessing presence. And art made in Presence can offer the viewer a deepened connection with the power and nuance of their own emotional currents.

Byron Katie sometimes invites someone to go, in memory, to the place where they were the most distressed, at maximum freak-out point, in a total tantrum against some unaccepted facet of reality.

Then she'll ask if they can find the part of themselves unaffected by the storm. A part that may have been quietly wondering what's for dinner in the midst of the sobs, an aspect who has time to notice the pattern of the parquet they're puddled out on.

That's the same essential aspect of you that picks purple next, sails into a particular arc of line, clocks the galloping rhythm of your written rant. It has a detached engagement, a spacious acceptance that includes any passing state of mind and feeling. It can use whatever's going on, or not. But it can't be used, controlled, dominated or captured. It is free, and real.

You serve that Essence when you deeply give yourself to art-making, whatever your emotional condition.
A lightening-up comes through practicing the craft of observation and the simple pleasure of mark making--just noticing and taking dictation from present reality.

There's a humility in that active meditation of art that refreshes,
bringing honesty and humor and relief, pulling you out of your narrowed focus on the problem that upset you. (And anything you give this kind of attention to will turn out to be a kind of self-portrait--you don't have to literally stare at your own sad mug).

Personally, I've been interested in studying in the mirror the kinds of expressions we're warned as kids might make your face freeze that way (luckily my visage is still more or less mobile). I see some wisdom in that caution, though; there is a risk of getting more frozen or stuck by making art from suffering states.

The story of the problem that created your hard feeling often demands validation. It makes its case, again and again. Deep brain grooves may identify with the story, tiers of unquestioned beliefs back it up, casting you as a victim of your circumstances, or of your emotion itself. A victim identity freezes itself: it stops movement. And sometimes it tries to hijack art. This winds up being boring.

It may be seductive to experience and express the dramatic intensity of your emotion. A self-image of specialness and passion that goes with being "artistic" gets reinforced that way. You can become entranced by that self-image and pour your resources of energy, time and talent into bolstering it, perpetuating and even glorifying suffering with the (usually unconscious) motive of trying to get something out of it. You may believe that this is the price of your artistic gifts, that you must suffer in order to create. Can you find a part of you that actually revels in the drama, the importance, the lonely heroism of this role?

It may be the spiritual work of a lifetime to inquire into this kind of identification and to risk letting it go. In my experience, working with The Enneagram can help tremendously to map the territory of the false or ego self, revealing it to inquiry. Discovering the limiting habits of attention described by your type in the Enneagram can wake you out of the trance, for instance, of identifying with suffering--which is home turf especially for Enneagram type four--the Tragic/Romantic Artist. (Much more on this another time).

If you recognize that you do have some secret tricks of indulging and milking pain in attempts to juice up your artwork and the self-image you derive from it, you'll gain more freedom of choice to refrain, if you wish to. What might then express through you that is even deeper than any emotional state?

1 comment:

Square-Peg Karen said...

Jude, there's SO much here! I'm going to print this and really ponder it - this is so deep...i'm sounding trite here because i can't even find the much to think about much to gain from this. and the drawings (and the song quote - that was perfect) so great mixed with the thoughts!