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.