Back in 1989 I saw an anthology film called “New York Stories” in which three directors took on different aspects of life in New York City. The only one that has stuck with me is Scorsese’s Life Lessons. It was the story of a middle-aged painter and his tumultuous relationship with his much younger apprentice/girl friend; it was full of drama and angst. What I immediately saw, before the story was a quarter told, was that this drama was what the painter needed to create. For his entire life, he would be wrecking the lives of the people who care about him in order to do his work.
This is a pretty common male artist myth – and let me be clear, by artist I mean any of the arts, not just painting. It is part of our foundational (and false) romantic myth of the tortured artist. We like this story because it argues that genius comes at a price, and that price is stability and happiness. While I sneer at the idea that to be a creative artist, and especially a truly great one, you must be a tragic figure, there is a tiny grain there worth looking at. You do need to be a monster.
What I mean by this is that you must be selfish. You have to be driven enough to do your work that you demand sacrifices not only of yourself, but the people around you. You may not trash and burn your relationships like Picasso and Hemingway, but you will make demands that more traditional lifestyles usually do not.
Creation needs time, so you will take time from your spouse and your children and your job. You will vacation at writing retreats instead of going to Disneyland with the family. You may sacrifice a high-paying career job for one that allows flexibility, or that you can walk away from if you need to. You may miss soccer practice and anniversaries. You may not listen to your spouse when they talk to you. You might not go with them to movies or parties or dinners.
Creation needs money. You need to go to workshops to learn your craft, buy materials, do research, drink beer with other artists to talk about your art, and did I mention buy materials? You may need a separate work space outside the home, and that’s a significant chunk of change. You may need to work in a coffee shop, and those lattes add up. You may quit your job, depending on a selfless partner to support you. Money needs to come from somewhere, so it comes from family vacations and a new car and a better house/apartment and extracurricular activities for the kids.
That is easier if you’re a man. Not only is it okay, it’s admirable for a man to pursue an artist’s life. There’s a wonderful mythology for men in pursuing their genius, their muse (always a woman), their passion fulfilled by their art in ways another person can not. Throughout centuries women have been honored and flattered to serve the artist, even at the cost of their own well-being and their children’s.
I’m not here to say it’s wrong; I’m just saying it is.
Women have no such mythology, and what shreds exist are inadequate. Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of Her Own” isn’t enough. To be an artist a woman needs the same space and time as a man, and it’s much harder. There are still expectations of what a woman owes to her family that don’t exist for a man. And cultural expectations run so deep we don’t even know we have them until some obscure twinge of guilt catches in our throats.
Woman or man, it is hard to believe utterly in yourself, to manifest the kind of selfishness art requires. You have to develop an ego of steel, and a will equally hard. When I was working full time, I got up at 4:00am to write. As a single mom, I maintained a separate studio even though I didn’t have the money, and sent my son to play at friend’s houses so I could paint. Vacations were a tent in the backyard. We scavenged yard sales for toys and clothes. I would not give up my studio because that was to give up who I was. Which has never been a mom, or a wife, or a girl friend, or whatever I happened to be doing for work at the time.
If you’re a single white woman, a person of color, a woman of color, you must put all your strength into getting what you need to create because the barriers are so much higher, and often have razor wire at the top. You must truly become a monster of selfishness to surmount the expectations and restrictions that seek to wall you in. You must not care what people say; you must bury your doubts; you must set aside the wounds of knowing you are just as good or better, and still not chosen; you must ignore every setback, and there will be so many of them, to move forward with your work. That’s exhausting. It’s not surprising many give up. And yet art should not belong to only the white and the wealthy. What an anemic world that is.
I sometimes feel the dirty secret of the creative world is the fact that to be an artist, you must have time, and to have time, you must have money. This is the thing that lies behind so many successful art workers. They have been able to find a way to have the money to afford the time. Maybe they have supportive parents. Maybe they are fortunate to have a partner who believes in them. Maybe they’ve learned to play the system and write the perfect grant proposal, the ideal residency request. Maybe they are exceptionally lucky to have enough money to make a life in art, even if that means living in Detroit or the middle of nowhere Oklahoma.
I look at Georgia O’Keefe, and I admire her determination. Her art was the most important thing in her life, beyond her relationship with Steiglitz, any desire she may have had for children, any attachment to friends and family. At 42 she abandoned what was for her an increasingly stifling relationship for the landscape that she made famous. I quote from one of her letters to her husband:
“There is much life in me — when it was always checked in moving toward you — I realized it would die if it could not move toward something … I chose coming away because here at least I feel good — and it makes me feel I am growing very tall and straight inside…I hope this letter carries no hurt to you — It is the last thing I want to do in the world.”
Of course she hurt him, but leaving him was what she needed to do to pursue her art. A woman who leaves her husband – not even for another man, but for herself – that is monstrous. And yet how glorious to be so focused, so centered that you become an arrow aimed at the heart of your work. According to the mythology of the artist, the rest of her life should have been tortured by regrets and guilt. It was not. She had friends, she had at least one (and possibly more) younger men in her life who may or may not have been her lovers (I’m voting yes). She died admired and yes, loved, and more importantly, having accomplished the work that burned within her.
Now that is success, and worth the price of being a monster.