Artistic Depression: There’s Nothing Romantic About It



What if artistic depression was a response to the existential experience of being an artist and not being paid for what you do? What if depression was unnecessary for the creation of art?

We like to think of our depressed artists as going through some romantic struggle to produce their art. Turns out, depression is not part of the creative process. There are plenty of creative geniuses that have never suffered from clinical depression. And there are plenty of our clinically depressed geniuses that might have lived A LOT LONGER had they not been struggling with the black beast of a dog.

I’m going to try to illuminate a few things about art and depression that might help further this discussion.

In his seminal book Against Depression, Dr. Kramer does a great job of bring to light two different ideas.

ONE: While he was traveling around presenting his first book, Talking to Prozac, Dr. Kramer started trying on this question. “If you could eliminate depression with a single pill, a new magic treatment, would you use it.”

He was surprised by the number of doctors who said they would not use the magic cure for depression. Fearing the loss of the creative, or romantic output of the struggling artist. Would we have Starry Starry Night if not for depression? The premise is false. Depression did not create those master pieces. It was depression that cut them off, that cut these artists down before their prime. Eliminating depression would not have prevented Starry Starry Night from happening, it might have allowed for version 2 and version 3. But we’ll never get to see those creations.

TWO: Depression, like an illness, actually makes physical changes in the human brain. This fact was important as the discussion about behavior vs. illness still runs rampant. The argument goes, if like an illness, we can see the changes in the physical body of the suffering patient, we can … Well, the point is to be able to claim depression as a traditional illness requiring treatment and perhaps insurance payments. But the point is this: as a person experiences massive depressions as a result of some traumatic event, the physical pathways in their brains, begin to lean towards depression. It’s as if the “depression neural pathways” get strengthened in the course of several depressions.

In my case this strengthening was a propensity towards giving up. Simply feeling like I could not go on, I could not be successful at my chosen endeavor, and therefore I should just give up. As I suffered, in my early teens, some major traumas, my brain learned to light up the helpless pathway. The give up pathway. I’m still unlearning this response. I am actively trying to strengthen the alternative responses. The good news is the brain can change. Plasticity means the brain can unlearn these greased depression tendencies.

Just like I go for a tangerine rather than a piece of pie, my brain can be trained to look at setbacks and stresses as a trigger for action rather than a slip into hopelessness and inaction. I have to be aware of what’s happening, I have to be very conscious and vigilant, but I can short-circuit the tendency towards folding. Instead, I’m learning to use my creativity (journaling) to write about the depressed feelings as they are occurring. Thus, I’m attempting to illuminate the old thinking and focus on the new options.

Now, part of being an artist is dealing with the fact that we also have to find a way (outside our art) to make a living. We could choose to be starving artist’s I suppose, but no one really sets out to be poor. More likely, if you commit the time required to become a great musician, for example, the opportunities to become famous, and thus rewarded for your musical talents and practice, you will still need a day job. And the future of creative economics is getting worse not better.

But this is not a reason to fall into habits of despair and hopelessness. Nope. To be an artist you first have to desire your art over everything else, occasionally even companionship and exercise.

The artistic challenge in life is not just to master your art and your self discipline, it’s to find a way to earn a living that does not crush the life out of you and your creative passion. A lot of this is in your mind. I go to a job everyday. The job is one of the paths towards securing the time in my life that I need to create my music or my writing. I can complain about the job, and the man getting me down, or the sorry state of selling recorded music online, or I could just stay focused on the act of creation.

If you believe in what you are creating, there is nothing that can stand between you and your work. The money will come. And until it does, the job is what you must have, that allows you to live a lifestyle of leisure, the time off you actually require to do your work. The first thing that goes when I’m under stress about money, or depressed, is my ability to create works of art.

I have to solve the survival needs first. Once I have begun to master food, clothing, and shelter, can I begin to actually write songs and poems to put in my house.

Depression is NOT a key or romantic partner of creativity. And money is not the root of all evil. But we have to come to terms with both our highs and lows. We have to find a way to make a living while we create our masterpiece.

Don’t give up just because you are not making money. Don’t give up because you might not be discovered in your lifetime. Don’t give up because you MUST create. If you have the burning desire to write, paint, sing, play, keep going. Put the poems in a folder. Put the songs in a collection and release them. Have an art opening, regardless if many people come or if you sell a single piece.

We’ve got romantic ideas about sadness or depression and it’s connection to the creative/artistic spirit. It’s a bullshit notion. And we’ve got the exact opposite impression when it comes to money. Working for a corporation is “always” working for the man. But what if working for the company gives you the house to live in, the insurance for the kids you want, and the ability to NOT work on the weekends, when you drink your cup of coffee and stay up late creating, even when no one is listening, watching, or buying your art.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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