The Dark Muse

Mark Rothko committed suicide, apparently slitting his wrists so deeply that bone showed through the cuts. Jackson Pollack drank himself to death, as did the poet Dylan Thomas. Vincent Van Gogh, prone to anxiety and mental illness, died at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Then there’s Sylvia Plath, the American poet, novelist and short story writer, who took her own life just six days before I was born, in 1963. And let’s not forget the countless musicians and actors whose stars have burned bright but briefly, leaving this world either through their own doing or the effects of drink or drugs.

There’s a pattern here – a pattern that often leads people to make an erroneous assumption. It’s generally thought that the greatest art is made by those who are consumed by inner demons and that it is only through their creativity that they find release, while we benefit from a purity of vision in their works. I wouldn’t deny that many of the greatest artistic, written or musical works have been driven by a deep rage at the world, or informed by personal tragedy, or raw emotion – still there’s an undeniably widespread belief that truly great art, of whatever form, can only be created through being afflicted in some way.

In recent weeks, my paintings have come to the fore rather than my writing. Many of those paintings have been informed by a certain measure of anger at the general stupidity that surrounds us. I have suffered from depression ever since my strike nearly fourteen years ago, and I am prone to it still, even though ostensibly I am extremely happy with my lot in life at present. One of the unfortunate side-effects of a rebalancing of brain chemistry, I believe. I have used my art as a form of therapy, a way of getting whatever I am feeling inside out there onto the canvas. Art, for me, is anything but a relaxing pastime – I have been known to throw things across the ‘studio’ and kick things and rant and rage – mainly because I am something of a perfectionist, a serious character flaw sometimes. I want everything to be exactly as I see it in my head and the thing is, it very rarely turns out like that. Hence the hissy-fits.

However, despite all that, I consider myself to be a relatively happy and well-rounded individual, not normally given to murderous thoughts or thunderous rages or bitter ranting, although I do harbour a slight shade of misanthropy (must be all that noisy and anti-social music I listen to). I’m quite sociable, and enjoy meeting up with my mates once in a while. And yet, when you look at my work (or at least some of it), there are hints in there of something less than palatable, less than wholesome. I do possess a darkness within me, that is for the most part deeply buried, if only because it’s not the kind of thing that’s encouraged to be shown publically. If I have need of expressing it, I either write or paint.

The point, however, is that no matter who we are, we all have that streak of negativity inside us. It isn’t the special preserve of the artist or the creative type. Most people learn to deal with it, as it’s considered to be a bad thing, not conducive to easy social cohesion or interpersonal relationships. Yet, when it comes to creativity in general, and artists of whatever stripe in particular, this brand of ‘darkness’ has been elevated into something almost spiritual. The inference is that without it, art has less meaning or, in more extreme cases, that it’s less pure, and therefore with less merit.

We all of us deal with negativity in ways peculiar to ourselves. Some just dismiss it, some take it out through sport or a gym session, still others just attempt to numb themselves to it by using drugs or alcohol. Those who possess a spark of creativity appear to have a need, or are driven, to let the world know just how pissed off they are by creating a piece of art, or writing a book or song. It’s only because, I think, that art (be it painting, sculpture, a novel, or a particularly vituperative three-minute song) is so visible that we notice the negativity. Additionally, the media appear to lionise and idolise those who are ‘suffering’ for their art (especially after they’ve left his world). I have often wondered whether the Hendrixes, Morrisons, Cobains and Joplins of this world would have achieved the level of (almost) deification they have had they not died. Sure, there’s no denying their talents, but has that talent been magnified by their deaths and the manner of it?

I also feel there’s a hypocrisy when it comes to rock stars, for instance, indulging in drink and illicit substances. For some people, there’s a synonymity between the two – if you’re a rock star then obviously you must be taking drugs and imbibing titanic amounts of alchohol. Yet, if I were to do the same thing, I’d be slammed for being such an idiot and become a pariah.

Having said that, I like confronting people with the images I create. When it comes to my own tastes, I generally tend to shy away from soporific art, as it does nothing for me – it doesn’t do anything, it just hangs there (that doesn’t mean to say, however, that I can’t appreciate mastery of technique). When I look at a painting, for instance, I would like it to take me by the lapels and shake me. Conversely, when I see someone reacting negatively to one of my images, I then know that it’s done its job. It’s shaken them in some way (and remember, the painting is static – it’s only the viewer’s reaction that gives it meaning, positively OR negatively). It’s simply an expression of an inner motivation I’ve felt. In just the same way that others disagree with what they see of the world around them, then so is mine a species of the same thing.

I am under no illusions, though – just because I have had a troubled life in many ways, and vestiges of that interior anger still colour my imagery, it does not automatically confer any greater merit upon it than some other artist who likes painting still-lives of fruit in bowls. There is no greater ‘truth’ to my personal  symbolism than any other, even if it is possessed of a modicum of deeper experience driving it forward. Others’ visions are no less valid than mine. The imagery symbolises MY truth, or my perception of it anyway – it just so happens that I visualise it and nail it to a canvas. It is there for the world to see – and for the viewer to either accept it for what it is, or reject it.

On a parallel note: it’s become apparent to me that painting is where my strength ultimately lies. My writing, whilst very much something I want to pursue still, contains less of a powerful punch when compared to the impact of one of my images. So, I feel like I am being gently nudged along a route that I hadn’t foreseen – but that’s not unwelcome. If this the road down which I should go for a while, then I may as well enjoy the scenery.


4 Responses to “The Dark Muse”

  1. Well written. Well said. This topic has been on my mind of late. How appropriate then that you would choose this subject to delve into. Thank you.


  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Walter Shuler, Simon Marshall-Jones. Simon Marshall-Jones said: The Dark Muse: […]

  3. A powerful and passionate post, Simon. Well done.

    I agree with you about how suicidal artists who struggled with mental illness are too often glorified for the wrong reasons. Many people (well-meaning and intelligent people, otherwise) believe there’s some kind of magical connection between mental illness and creativity. Specifically, they buy the myth is that mental illness allows people to “see beyond everyday reality,” etc.

    I used to believe that myself—then, four years ago, I started working with people—real, living people—who suffer from mental illness and struggle to express themselves in writing. Four years later, it’s totally clear to me that the myth of “madness = creativity” is just that—a myth, and a damn dangerous one at that.

    Mental illness—from what I’ve seen—is not a “key” or a “gateway” into a sort of “greater freedom.” The mental patients who I work with—those who consider themselves writers and those who simply want to write—are capable of writing things of great beauty, but do not produce their best work when they’re in the grip of their symptoms.

    When their illness has a hold on them, the writing they produce is usually repetitive tropes they’ve learned to use to keep their massive anxieties at bay; it’s the literary equivalent of drumming your fingers on a tabletop. It’s repetitive, derivative, incoherent, and completely uninspired. What’s more, they know it. Usually.

    Put simply, artists who suffer from mental illness (and substance abuse) produce strong and beautiful art in spite of their illness, not because of it.
    That’s a message that needs to be heard (especially among young writers, painters, and musicians, where this myth is strongest). Thanks for putting the message out there.

    • Glad you liked what I wrote David… it’s the sheer visibility of the artist that makes the connection such a powefully attractive one to vulnerable people… I have also a few people who consider their work better than their peers simply because they’ve led ‘troubled’ lives or have ‘issues’ – so have the rest of us buddy, doesn’t mean you’re special in any way…

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