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You want to be an artist? Are you crazy?

Posted Jan 31 2010 8:00pm

Artists are depicted in movies and media in ways that often promote myths about what it takes to be a “real” singer, writer, actor, painter or other creator.

Buying in to the negative aspects of those depictions and myths – often subconsciously – can distort our sense of identity and limit what we think we can do creatively.

Writer, poet, playwright and filmmaker Julia Cameron says she sometimes asks people to list ten traits they think artists have.

She reports they say things like “artists are broke,” “artists are crazy,” “artists are drug-addicted” and “artists are drunk.”

Cameron asks, “Doesn’t this make you want to rush right out and become an artist? We have a mythology in America around creativity that’s very, very negative.

“As a result, when young people tell their parents, ‘I’d love to be a writer,’ their parents respond, ‘Oh, darling, don’t you think you might need something to fall back on?’

“We’re also trained to believe that some people are born knowing they’re artists and that they are the ‘real’ artists, the ones who give us the Big C creativity.

“In other words, we have a mythology about artistry that tends to be very daunting.”

[From Let Your Creativity Soar, By Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American Mind, June/July, 2008.]

Highly sensitive and creative

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron PhD writes about some of the stereotypes of creative people: “It is part of the myth or archetype of the artist that any psychological help will destroy creativity by making the artist too normal.”

She continues, “But a highly sensitive artist in particular had better think deeply about the mythology surrounding the artist.

“The troubled, intense artist is one of the most romantic figures in our culture, now that saints, outlaws and explorers are on the wane. I recall a creative-writing teacher once listing nearly every famous author on the blackboard and asking us what they had in common.

“The answer was attempted suicide. I’m not sure the class saw it as a tragedy so much as a romantic aspect of their chosen career. But as a psychologist as well as an artist, I saw a deadly serious situation.”

She explains, “While the life of the artistic hero-adventurer especially calls to the young HSP [highly sensitive person], it can also be a trap quite unconsciously laid by those with mundane lives who allow no time for the artist within and want someone else to be the artist for them, displaying all the craziness they repress in themselves.”

The genius ideal

Most dramas featuring an artist are about major figures – such as Jackson Pollock, Virginia Woolf and Frida Kahlo – celebrities with extravagantly dramatic personalities and life stories.

But the majority of artists are not “names” who end up in art history books.

“As a culture, we have become increasingly addicted to the idea of genius, so we are dependent on it for a certain kind of emulative high, an intoxication with the superlative.” [From Our Genius Problem, by Marjorie Garber (Atlantic, Dec 2002)]

Ideas about creative genius and our identity can be very limiting

Director Jane Campion, praised for “Bright Star” and other films, commented earlier in her career, “I never have had the confidence to approach film making straight on. I just thought it was something done by geniuses, and I was very clear that I wasn’t one of those.”

[From my article Being Creative and Self-critical]

But she has also commented, “When I was in my late 20s and quite lost it suddenly occurred to me — I was at art school at the time — that instead of wondering whether I was talented, I would just try and see what I could do.” [She's happily unruly, by Manohla Dargis, LA Times, October 26 2003.]

If I’m not flaky or drunk or whatever, I must not be an artist

Another example of limiting concepts of what the creative person is like: Natalie Portman once admitted, “Sometimes I get scared that I’m not a creative person, because it seems creative people are really flaky…” (Esquire, Aug 2004)

[From my post Building self esteem and identity – what we tell ourselves about ourselves.]

These are examples of a stereotype effect. See the brief mention of the Scientific American Mind magazine article How Stereotyping Yourself Contributes to Your Success (or Failure), in my earlier post Believing and Hoping and Changing.


Video clips:

Artemisia (about seventeenth-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi)

Frida (Directed by Julie Taymor) – with Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan [docu by Martin Scorsese]

Pollock (Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock)

The Hours (Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf)

The Runaways (2010) (Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett; Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie.)

Adaptation (with Nicolas Cage as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman)


Julia Cameron is a poet, playwright and filmmaker. Her book The Artist’s Way has sold more than three million copies worldwide. Her other books include The Complete Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice, and The Artist’s Way Every Day: A Year of Creative Living.

Audiobook related to Scientific American Mind article quoted above:
Brainstorm: Using Science to Spark Maximum Creativity by Mariette DiChristina. Listen to excerpt below.

self concept as artist, artist stereotypes, developing creativity, creative potential, creative personality type, psychology of creativity

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