Art and the Dread of Experience

Over the years, I’ve worked with a number of artists — musicians, a choreographer, several writers — and dealt with various types of artistic inhibition such as writer’s block.  In our work together, my clients and I  struggled with issues that might be familiar to you:  perfectionism, grandiosity of the type described in my post on self-criticism, as well as the self-envy that may lie behind fear of success. With several of my clients, I came to understand another such difficulty in making art, where the original inspiration or emotional charge behind the work of art is killed off in the process of creation.

In an earlier post on anxiety attacks and disorders, I introduced the concept of mind as a container for emotional experience; I discussed how people with “insufficient mind” — that is, an inability to contain and manage their emotional experience — often feel terrified that strong feelings will overwhelm and annihilate them.  Several of the artists in my practice fit this description.  One of them was prone to anxiety attacks and states of disintegration; another led a very controlled life, without much human emotional involvement; a third showed symptoms of autism and often tried to shut out a world that stirred up such terrifying emotions.  These difficulties also affected their creative processes.

Over time, we came to think of the work of art — be it a choreographic work, a song or a piece of fiction — as a sort of container for their emotional experience.  It’s how I think about art in general:  great works of art contain and express profound emotional experiences; optimally, the shape of that container (the individual and unique painting, novel, symphony, etc.) bears an organic relationship to what is contained, adapting its shape to the needs of authentic emotional expression.  I hope that doesn’t sound too abstract; as a clinician, I have found it an incredibly helpful way to think about my artist-clients.  The artist works upon his or her “insights” and tries to create a uniquely powerful work of art that will convey powerful emotion (basic human truths) to an audience.

With several of my clients, they started off with a powerful feeling or insight but in the process of creating their work of art, deadened it.  The art they produced (in their own view, not mine) lacked “depth” or “dimension”:  dance works felt “constipated”, their performers trapped in choreography with constricted movement and little emotion; songs seemed simplistic and boring, without true feeling; characters appeared “flat” and “two-dimensional”.  In our culture, we frequently use these exact critical terms:  lack of depth, flat characters, two-dimensional stories, etc.  A vital artistic container has three dimensions and its own sort of life force; it has an interior and a surface or “skin” with which we, as audience, can interact.

Unsuccessful works of art have little dimension.  Rather than containing and conveying powerful emotion, they stifle it.  The artist who is terrified of intense emotion may mis-use his or her art form, employing it to flatten feelings instead of expressing them.  For that reason, the works of art they produce will leave an audience feeling “cold”, indifferent or bored.  In short, rather than conveying profound and intense human truths, such art works seek to deny them.

Recently, one of my clients (an aspiring and frustrated writer) brought in a dream that perfectly illustrated this process.  She was treading water in a pond along with some “cowboys”.  The pond felt like a whirlpool and they were all in danger of being sucked down into it.  The only way to save themselves — that is, to keep from drowning — was to tell one another non-stop stories while treading water.  At the same time, each of them had to hold onto a piece of raw meat that had been vacuum-sealed in plastic.

The cowboys are linked to the Wild West, a frightening way of life without the restraining influence of law and civilization.  Raw meat connects to raw emotion.  The dream shows how my client is terrified of her own raw emotional experience; in order to save herself from being overwhelmed by that experience, she resorts to “art” (telling stories) as a defense.  In the process, she shrink-wraps her experience and makes it safe, no longer raw and vital but hygienically processed, like something you might find in a supermarket meat case.

Finding Your Own Way:

I know that a number of visitors to this site are artists; I’d welcome your input on this subject.  What sort of artistic inhibitions have you struggled with?  Does this description in any way resonate with your own experience?  What about your view of other artists and their work?

As for the rest of us, we might begin with our relation to different art forms and how they affect us.  Think of a movie you found boring and ask yourself why.  Was it because the characters were flat, the story lacking in dimension?  Movies that portray extremely black-and-white characters often leave me cold because they strike me as a denial of a basic truth, that humans are a mixture of good and bad, each of us struggling with unavoidable ambivalence. What about novels you put aside and never finished?  Was it because they failed to engage your emotions?  Did they seem flat and lacking in dimension?

Many of us have artistic urges and never manage to fulfill them.  Maybe it’s because we lack time and self-discipline; maybe it’s because we don’t have the patience to master the needed skill.  Another possible explanation, suggested by this post, is that we grow bored with the process, bored with our own creations, and abandon them.  Sometimes people take up a “hobby”, an artistic endeavor that holds meaning, and in the process somehow render the experience meaningless to them; often it’s because they simply can’t sustain intense emotional involvement with themselves and their art form.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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10 comments

    I have been following your post for a few months now and find them very helpful. This one especially catches my eye because I am a visual artist and I have had a “painting block” for a few years now. I was born with an artistic talent and have used it most of my life. I love painting but I am very critical of my own work even though other people compliment it. I want to start painting again for my own enjoyment and to help me manage some negative emotions that I sometimes deal with. I do have some feelings of shame and guilt. I never considered that those feeling might be contributing to my inability to start painting again. I buy canvases, art materials ect. and even put them out ready to begin, but then I will procrastinate by doing other things and never start painting. Do you think if I force myself to start and refuse to be distracted that this block will go away? Becky

    If you;re able to do that, force yourself to paint and refuse to be distracted, than you WILL have overcome your block. I don’t think that means the other feelings will go away, though. My guess is that the process of painting will stir up a lot of emotion and you’ll need to be brave and struggle through it. Given how much painting means to you, I expect it will be worth the effort.

    I’m a writer who has some productivity issues and I do suffer from some of the problems you initially mention: perfectionism, self-criticism and so forth. I also discovered I tend to repress intense emotions, but I never really connected that directly with my artistic inhibition. It’s an interesting idea and I’ve thought about it for a couple of days, but I’m still unsure what I feel about it.

    On the one hand, I think emotional repression can be an artistic stimulus: if one focuses on art to compensate for or investigate emotional blockages one has in everyday life. I think that one can be terrible at expressing emotions in everyday life, but a great artist (although probably not a collaborative one). I also think one can fear a certain range of emotional experience in everyday life but engage with it through art.

    On the other hand, your argument strikes a chord with me. If I can’t or won’t experience a certain emotional range, even in private, then I will probably not be able to express it, through art or otherwise. If I tend to defend against emotions and rigidly control my emotional landscape, probably I will not let my artistic creations live enough to see the light of day. These points ring true.

    George, I appreciate your comments. I think it can probably go either way. Some people, as you say, may live emotionally restricted lives and channel all that feeling into their art. Others find that their psychological defenses have a limiting affect on their art.

    Joe, I especially liked this post. The insights into art and personality are very intriguing. When an artist produces his or her art it’s like baring their souls to the world.

    Hi,
    Really good article. I found a lots of contact points
    To be three dimensional, sure it takes a lot. I have heard from others and experienced it myself as well, that for example songs, poems, paintings, choreographies etc., probably all forms of art, really “hit” when the expression is brought out into display from the deepest feelings of the artist. Notably the most beautiful art seems to originate from an anxiety, sorrow, a loss of some kind or from some other feeling that is typically considered as painful or depressive. A story told by the artist always finds its way to the heart of the perceiver when it is truthful to the life of the artist.

    After a traumatic incident in which I had a struggle with several friends in my sorority, we had a group pottery painting event. I remember starting off and my pottery looked nice like I expected it to, but by the end it was all brown-looking, without much color at all. I had covered all the color on it with dark colors. I remember the feelings that I felt during this experience as bleak and dismal; my artistic expression parallelled my experience of feeling like many of my friendships (color) were being covered with darkness.

    Hi, I’m 18 years old and i was born with the natural tallent in art. but i have always found that i’m very self critical of my drawings, paintings etc… they have to always be perfect or i just give up. I have so many emotions built up inside me, and i’m too scared to let them out other than through art… but to express my motions through my art i find hard to do.

    This is an interesting post because I almost feel and experience the opposite of what you have described in your post. I am a scientist by day, but most of my “hobbies” involve art of some sort. I am the child of an extremely artistic, but narcissistic and self absorbed mother. Because I want to be nothing like my mother, I have always denied any artistic tendencies that I might have and didn’t start exploring them until about 5 years ago. Now I made chain maille jewelry, tie dye and paint with water colors. I find that it is in times of calm (low anxiety) that I have the best artistic inspiration and seem to be able to flow in all of my arts and feel very satisfied with the end products. In my times of depression and high stress, I can barely force myself to craft, and if I can, I am NEVER satisfied with the results. I seem to hit my artistic block when I am the most “negatively emotional.” I am evidently not inspired by pain and angst. Given that, unfortunately, my times of low anxiety seem to be few and far between right now and depression has taken hold, I find it increasingly difficult to feel satisfied with or gain enjoyment from any of my art.

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