November 03, 2012
Artists seek to express deep emotions, and to capture what feels alive and vivid to them. And even without mania, much of art’s energy is sexual. Or, as the quotation attributed to Renoir succinctly put it, “I paint with my penis”. One rarely hears women exclaiming anatomical equivalencies, but there’s little doubt that the silence does not negate the sensation. Aroused sexuality may stimulate creativity; intellectual and creative excitement may expand into seductive excitement, and both may boil over in messy ways. Furthermore, highly energetic, ambitious artists may possess large egos and large sexual appetites that want feeding.
People are sexual, so why focus on artists? Not because they are more sexual than other people. But because it would appear that sexuality gets engaged and named in particular ways around their work. More broadly, the 19th and 20th century Anglo/European truism was that artists had to separate themselves from bourgeois society. They sometimes had to deny family expectation. Henri Matisse’s decision, so disappointing to his father, to paint instead of practicing law; Charles Baudelaire’s rebellion against his step father; Robert Louis Stevenson’s refusal to become an engineer; Wordsworths shirking his familial assignment to join the church, to name a few examples. (A contemporary instance is described in the Vietnamese-Australian writer, Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, ” in which a protagonist named Nam has seemingly defied his father’s fierce insistence that he practice law, and instead devotes himself to writing stories. ) And, whether experiencing family support or not, the space in which these artists made art was often portrayed as a space of resistance. To see clearly, you had to stand back from the crowd.
So once they determined to shake off conventional expectations and place themselves outside of the common “life path” with work, why not with marriage and/or sex, too? Some of their choices may have been based in necessity: without steady employ a young male artist was deemed a poor catch. And female art makers who attempted to go public, however rare, seemed to have been confused in the collective mind with courtesans or other women of the night. (The decadent, prostitute loving poet Baudelaire castigated his contemporary, the female novelist George Sands as a “janitress” “kept woman” and “slut.”)
But why accept an identity of being someone without something when you could define yourself as possessing a variety of wealth that, in the form of freedom from convention, the bourgeoisie lacked? Whether true or not, the popular generalization that held, and may still quietly hold for some, was that artists construed the artist’s life as superior for being freed of petty conventions, less materially focused, and sometimes guided by more flexible sexual mores. As Edna St. Vincent Millay’s husband Eugen Jan Boissevain disdainfully summed up the fidelity of the more staid “other,” “A completely faithful marriage is like an icebox with always some cold chicken in it.” (16) He and Millay had a very open marriage. Millay famously claimed the worth of burning one’s candle at both ends; meanwhile, her sonnets gorgeously recounted the aching losses which ensued.
Opposite truths co-exist, generalizations are always iffy: there are as many ways to live as there are artists, and plenty live mundane, predictable lives and make fine art. I suspect a portion of the conceit of artists’ who believe their lives are noticeably different from most people’s is a combination of vanity and ignorance. The vanity is an expression of a wish to support the strenuous efforts of art making by feeling special. The ignorance is of the complexity of most people’s lives. (It’s hard to tease apart what behaviors are more shared than not, and which might particularly flow from talent, or ambition, from achievement or fame.)
At the same time, something about the kinds of sacrifices art-making entails, and the way serious artists often really do have to place themselves apart from the group in order to say something (whether in words or otherwise) with more accuracy than is typically permitted in social discourse, may lead them to live lives which cluster around a different set of conventions. Perhaps, too, the awareness of their own creative energy, their sense of needing to express themselves through art, makes them feel different from early on. And possessing talent may itself be destabilizing, especially when accompanied by emotional conflict pressing for creative outlet.
So where does sexuality come into it? Obviously, everywhere. But particularly in some places. In his usual ironic, convoluted, and sneakily true way, Proust opined that writers chose sexual liaisons as a way both to improve their work, and to detach themselves from other social pleasures they are compelled to give up in order to make space for their work. Writing about his fictional novelist, Bergotte, Proust’s narrator M observes: [H]e knew that he could never produce such good work as in an atmosphere of amorous feelings. Love is too strong a word, but pleasure that is at all rooted in the flesh is helpful to literary work because it cancels all other pleasures, for instance the pleasures of society, those which are the same for everyone. And even if this love leads to disillusionment, it does at least stir, even by so doing, the surface of the soul which otherwise would be in danger of becoming stagnant.
Proust says, first, that an atmosphere of amorous feelings produces good work; second, that sexual desire is a way for an artist to detach himself from his fellow men and therefore from feeling that he ought to conform to their standards. We don’t know here exactly to which standards he refers, but we might guess that he means any which push artists to play the social game more than observe it, or that detract from their ability to see – to position themselves, really – in the between space (between desire and loss, past and future, real and unreal) they need to occupy in order to make art. And, as we’ve noted elsewhere, amorous feelings allow the artist to separate from his surround because the feelings keep him company and make him feel less alone.
His third claim is that sexual desire and liaisons enliven artists. It’s not difficult to grasp what he means by the soul stirring nature of eroticism, and fresh love. Of equal interest are his words “stagnant” and “disillusionment.” Proust implies here that you draw energy from, the cycle of desire and disillusionment (a form of loss) in order to help you stay in the fantasy “between” so useful for art making; and you choose this cycle it in order to avoid stagnation. Whether the sexuality is the overt serial seductions that Proust assigns to Bergotte, or the mostly more sublimated feelings that Lowell holds for Bishop, the different styles both are used psychologically to support the creative space.
But the larger notion to which Proust alludes, and which I keep trying to capture, is the psychological connection between creativity and eroticism, and what I would call “severed intimacy” (borrowing here a term Alfred Habegger uses in a different context in his biography of Emily Dickenson.) (18) Often great creative energy seems either to be generated by, or at least to feed on, cycles wherein intimacy is psychologically or actually severed and then re-found. One partial, mundane, explanation for this phenomenon is that artists often disappear emotionally into their work and then, eventually, emerge; so the oscillation is dependent on a simple need for absence and then reconnection upon return. But likely this literal pattern is minor. Rather, I’m trying to capture something larger and less concrete.
An archetypal illustration of severed intimacy, is Orpheus’s trip to the underworld to win back Eurydice. As Bulfinch recounts the mythic tale, Orpheus, son of Apollo and the muse Calliope, is a musician who plays the lyre exquisitely. He marries Eurydice. But the young lovers are prematurely separated when Eurydice, fleeing a shepherd’s advances, steps on a serpent and dies. Orpheus, bereft, and desperate to see her again, travels to the underworld. There, accompanying his story with a melody from his lyre, he begs Hades and Persephone for the return of his bride. The beauty of his music is so extraordinary, so haunting, that the Underworld comes to a standstill. As Bulfinch tells it, Sisyphus sits upon his rock, the eagle pauses before the splayed Prometheus.
Using the lyre to voice his desolation, Orpheus successfully pleads his case: the premature death has been too harsh to bear. Hades agrees to return Eurydice to life and to Orpheus. Eurydice will follow him as he climbs back into the world of the living. However, Hades admonishes, Orpheus must obey a single injunction: he must not glance back at her. If he does, she will die and be lost to him forever. Orpheus sets forth resolutely but, of course, he fails. He cannot resist the fierce pull to know if she is really as she was, not dead and really back. His need to look, to re-establish contact with his beloved, is as overwhelming to him as his music had been to the underworld. The artist’s urgency is to restore what has been severed.
But would that it were so straight forward. The tale re-presents a more complex psychological template: The other is lost to us; we go in search. We are filled with longing, with desire, with a willingness to do anything to win back the loving gaze – the source of psychological life and light. Our art-making is the embodiment of that profound distress, and, at the same time, it is the vehicle of our plea. And while this urgency to reconnect is emphasized, one cannot overlook the centrality of the unstated “minor chord”, the disillusionment to which Proust refers – the knowledge that time has passed, and the original and particular opportunity offered by the lost other person can never be re-found, or fully recreated. One turns back at once to reassure oneself that the other is following – and yet, also, to send her away before she proves that the past is truly, irrevocably past.
Perhaps the artist’s core psychological question is “Maybe fantasy – dreaming about you, longing for you in your absence, and transforming you into the symbolic representation of art – is ultimately the more bearable way to live in the world?” That question is to some degree every person’s. Artists may just have it bad. Or maybe artists are people who are hyperaware of this human circumstance, and eager to capture it and represent it for all to share.
Loss and the severing of intimacy is the human given. At times, nothing is more relieving than to be free of the “other”. But often, nothing is more crucial to the psyche than the moments of waiting for return. For a child, that return is life and death; and the adult artist, though he departs so as to create space to work, retains and expresses the child’s dire question through his art. The threat of psychological death and the concomitant longing contribute to the impetus for heightened creativity. You learn to finger your lyre exquisitely as a way to woo the gods who will decide your fate.
Perhaps for people who become artists there’s something sharply traumatic about the particular experience of loss: Eurydice is taken from Orpheus suddenly, prematurely, while their love is young. The severing itself is ruthless. And the pain and grief that ensue may provoke the creative expression initially as an effort to make sense of the absurd horror, or to take control of one’s aloneness, as an effort of undoing, to provide balm, or to woo the other to return.
In this sense, the creative impulse is like the oyster’s pearl making, where the severed intimacy functions as an irritant of sand. The creativity flows forth first as a response to the stress created by the wound, then by the release of the imaginative restitution –of restoring the lost love. Eroticism gets stirred up in part because one is excited by the upsurge of energy in the fantasies, and because sexuality naturally joins the reconnecting urgency. The imaginative act is an undoing of the unbearable loss, and a restoration of one’s sense of personal power together with the anticipated strength which will result from the reconnection. It restores, as well, the fantasy of another person who will deeply – almost magically – appreciate us and our production
Whether or not you resonate with this psychological template, the larger point is that each person who stays with art making needs to create an emotional space where the creative work can occur, which is psychologically neither too close nor too far away from others. And during that time, you must find a way not just continually to rebalance privacy and solitude and intimacy as needed, but also to maintain your own sense of the value of your effort, and to maintain your identity as artist – which in turn grants your more authority with which to keep working.
JANNA MALAMUD SMITH is the author of three books, My Father is a Book: A Memoir of Bernard Malamud, A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear, and Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. Her titles have been New York Times Notable Books, and A Potent Spell was a Barnes & Noble “Discover New Writers” pick. She has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, and the Threepenny Review, among other publications. A practicing psychotherapist, she lives with her husband and two children in Massachusetts. Her new book, An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, explores the psychological obstacles and emotions that prevent aspiring as well as established artists from staying with, and relishing, the process of art-making.