Drawn to Art

The artist belongs to his work, not the work to the artist.
– Novalis

If you’re going to be an artist, be prepared to be slightly unhappy for the rest of your life.
– Something I read or heard recently

My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.
– Diane Arbus

I watched the movie Girl, Interrupted yesterday. The story follows a depressed but aspiring young writer through her life in a mental institution. I haven’t read the book, but its themes about upper middle-class women, art and mental health reminded me of some of my writing I’d discovered the day before. It was a months-old response to an article my boyfriend was writing about Revelations, the powerful Diane Arbus retrospective we’d seen in Houston. In the exhibition’s design, Arbus’ journal notes fused poignantly with her photography, revealing a woman on an endless mission to find herself in other people. As a middle-class, white female who has been drawing since I could grip a crayon, I can relate to both the protagonist in Girl, Interrupted and Arbus in their struggles to breathe meaning into their work and life.



I understand where Arbus is coming from, with her suicide and her choice for not getting treated for her depression. If you remember what she wrote about her childhood, she said she felt cheated out of life. She was comfortable, never wanted for anything, had a stable family, and what a stark contrast it seemed like from everyone else’s life, especially during the Great Depression. When your growing up does not have much hardship, and if you are a very self-aware and observant person, you feel like you haven’t really lived. You feel like you have to have some conflict to be creative, to really suffer along with everyone else. I think this is why Arbus was drawn to art, and drawn to her subjects. This talk about suffering for one’s art is true. When you feel called to be an artist, you feel like suffering is necessary for the success of what you do, to legitimize it for yourself. I’m saying an artist, if they have not really experienced any difficult conditions that were out of their control, can’t help but feel a little jealous of people who have undergone some real suffering, as children or as adults. Those are the people that have a right to art; it’s not a privilege. Maybe it’s not jealousy most of the time, but definitely an extreme fascination, an obsession to observe. She had been empathizing with the people in her photographs for decades. Through her mental anguish over the years and eventual suicide, she hoped to join their “aristocracy” and perhaps legitimize her work to herself. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic other people are over what you produce, all that ultimately counts is your own opinion.

I empathize with her choices because I feel the same way a lot of time. I had a pretty easy childhood: intact happy family, good student, went to good schools, enough money for a nice place to live, most of the time. I really didn’t worry about anything, but I always wanted to be different, to make things hard. When I was 9, I remember that I really wanted to wear glasses, but I had perfect vision. So I pretended to not to see very well for a few days and my mom took me to the eye doctor, even though she knew I was lying. Of course, I did not need them. A lot of external things have changed me, but they didn’t have to. I let them, and did nothing about it, because as my mind has really grown up over the last few years, I can see how much art is about hardship and suffering. Practically any story is: exposition, climax, anticlimax. That’s why I don’t write stories; I don’t have anything from experience I can write about.

Someone like you, on the other hand (and I’m only using you as an example), you have an indisputable right to create art, to write, because from what I can surmise, your childhood was not very easy. Changing schools every 2 months, moving around, living wherever you could, working hard, learning English, having a large, crazy family, being cocoa in a vanilla land. There’s thousands of stories right there. You have a right to tell them and be heard.

Arbus is saying that freaks are beyond even that.

But this is why art is a calling. To use a cliché: you don’t choose it, it chooses you. First you have to decide whether or not to answer the call. Then, it’s how you deal with the calling that’s important, and that is where your choice comes in. Arbus dealt with it in her own way, and I can understand why she did it. She wrote that she felt stymied in her last few years. What am I going to do next? she wondered. How can I move to the next thing? What will it be? Perhaps this is why the deformed mentally retarded patients were her last project. They were the final aristocracy because unlike circus freaks, they were totally shut out from society. I think for an artist to commit suicide, the scariest thing would not be dying, but to end your creative process. You would really have to feel stuck, maybe more than a normal non-artist depressed person, in order to go through with it. I’m not saying her choice was right either, but from her standpoint, I can see how she might’ve felt it was necessary.

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