The Taboo of the Unhappy Artist

Before you get started on the stereotype of the tortured artist genius, let me debunk that myth. Artists produce well when they are happy, not when they are intoxicated or suicidal. The Hemingways and Jopplins of this world created on their good days and they would have continued being just as talented if they had found a way to calm their demons and stay alive. Unhappiness does not make art. Side rant over.

Back to my main point: as artists, a lot is expected of us, which is not expected from members of other professions. We are expected to LOVE what we do, to love our lives.

We’ve chosen fields knowing the odds of financial and professional success were stacked against us. We were warned over and over by well-meaning elders, by family members, by other artists even, not to follow this path. And we fought hard against the sea of doubt, the urgings to consider a plan B, the advice to recycle our artistic skills toward more viable trades. We were stubborn. We were purists. We wanted art for art’s sake and we would prove the validity of our choice against the materialistic and utilitarian values of our society. We would follow our bliss, our calling, we would be true to ourselves and we would be rewarded for it. This reward would come in the form of a greater sense of purpose, a higher state of being and the bypassing of the fabled mid-life crisis. The mid-life crisis is the artist’s sweet revenge, when all those corporate folks realize how empty their lives are and they quit their stable, well paying jobs to do pottery in a hut, and we artists who have been poor this whole time feel vindicated in our life choices. That is the fantasy. It is also a pile of garbage.

A lot of us are miserable, as miserable as the corporate types. We can be unhappy, petty and brutally jealous of the success of our peers. We spend long hours doing our administrative and self-promotion tasks and dreaming of free time. Many of us work so many odd jobs, jobs that allow us the “freedom” to keep our artistic practice a priority, that we are exhausted from just managing the logistics of our double or triple lives. Because we quit any job that becomes a threat or competes with our personal artistic goals or projects, we never experience advancement. Because we work for ourselves most of the time and for no pay, we don’t experience being rewarded for our work (other than the personal rewards of creativity, of course). And most of the time, every job, every project, every audition feels like starting over and swimming upstream.

A lot of us have the brains and skills to do other things, some of us could have been doctors or lawyers or CEOs. (And yes, I realize how privileged that makes me sound and I don’t deny it, many members of the artistic community do, in fact, come from education and privilege.) We could have been in professions where careers follow an upward curve, where ten years of experience gets you to the next level, where those years are documented, respected, taken into account. There are professions where hard work translates into success, where the acquisition of skills makes you more valuable over time. As artists, we are only as valuable as we appear to be in the current market at any given second. I’ll speak for myself now. As an actor, the amount of work I put into my craft does not translate into me getting hired. I may not be the right type this year, or next year or the year after that.

So basically, I’ve given up financial success, stability, advancement and status (all superficial things you might say), for a profession that has had me work a total of 8 days in the past year, and this was a good year. Do you have any idea what that’s like? No, really. I want you to think about that. Really think about it.

The biggest taboo stems from the artistic community itself. Unhappiness is a secret we are not supposed to advertise. It makes the whole team look bad. Because we are enlightened, remember? Artists love new-agey positive quotes and success stories. You have to believe. You have to be positive or you will become a pariah, branding yourself against any potential work the Universe is saving for you. Smile and success will come. Give up your day job and take a leap of faith and an invisible net will catch you. The universe only takes care of those who are truly committed. I’ve watched the TED talks, I’ve read the books. I have quit the day job. I’ve created my own work. I don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. I’m making waves, I’m building a community, I’m making art and using my own funds to do it. I’m even working out. I’ve basically turned into a workaholic. And you know what? Workaholic artists are not happier than workaholic lawyers, but they are a whole lot poorer. Maybe I’m not doing it right. Maybe I need to breathe more, watch more TED talks, practice gratitude, plant a tree, make a mandala, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too “type A” and need to go with the flow.

And you know what the worst part is? I love acting. I actually love it. Those rare moments where I get to do it bring me into a state of eternity, of transcendent connection. And for a brief moment, I think: it was all worth it. This is where you realize how similar the acting profession is to an abusive relationship. It’s a neglectful husband who leaves you in a constant state of self-doubt and who comes home one night after 6 months and makes love to you in a way that lights up your soul. And you forgive him, of course. And you set yourself up, because you are a fool in love. And then he leaves again and you are just as miserable as you were before. Am I being overdramatic? Well.. what did you expect?

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of artists are perfectly happy people and I can be too some of the time. It’s possible I’m a narcissistic schmuck who is banging their head against the wall, making bad life choices, clinging to the misguided belief that this is what I’m meant to do, that this is why I’ve been put here. And maybe my rant is foolish and spoiled, and ever so “first world”. That’s probably true, but saying these things out loud makes me feel a little better and maybe, just maybe, reading this today will make a few other stubborn schmucks feel a little bit better too. Maybe it’s ok, for once, to put away the affirmations and to admit that you are an artist and that you are unhappy.