The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me. – Oscar Wilde (De Profundis )
In the recent past I faced disillusionment as a playwright and creator of therapeutic theater. This experience has been instrumental in understanding the abuse artists are frequently subjected to, the traumatic wounds awakened, and the process of recovery. Essentially when the naivete and idealism of my artist collided with avarice and duplicity, I was challenged to grapple with and move through metabolic stress and bitter cynicism. This process catalyzed critical shifts creatively and emotionally, which consequently infiltrated the therapy sessions I facilitate with a multitude of diverse artists in NYC. Hence, my experience compels me to share about the painful hurdles the artist encounters, and the psychic toll and resultant wounds incurred. Likewise, I also want to identify ways to champion the artist, so that these struggles and wounds can ultimately morph into wisdom, power, and success.
Author of “The Artist’s Way” Julia Cameron, said to create is to surrender and align with a higher will. Cameron expounds that art is a mystical transaction, which unearths within the artist his purest essence. To risk bringing to life ideas of personal beauty and meaning and to bravely share one’s artistic work is to reveal vulnerable aspects of what humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as the real self.
Yet often we are stymied by our simultaneous quest to actualize ourselves, and the pull towards safety. Our formative experiences influence where we find ourselves on this spectrum of safety and actualization, as do myriad extraneous factors that can discourage the expression of innate creative gifts and obstruct artistic expression. We see this conflict personified in the archetypal reality of the wounded struggling artist.
In NYC artists are often lacking resources to create their work. The cost of real estate, labor and materials, make it exceedingly challenging for artists to thrive. Variable forms of treachery encountered in the dark underbelly of the art world injure the artist’s soul. The rigors of public humiliation, copyright infringement, transitory acclaim, theft of intellectual property, and corporate theft of one’s work where higher ups regularly usurp and take credit for the work of the peon artist are common occurrences. Hence, high-minded goals and creative ambitions are typically dwarfed by these difficult challenges. To survive, working artists may cobble together sundry art related jobs or take on a day job in a completely different sector. Balancing work with familial responsibilities may require relocating and/or giving up on artistic pursuits that require touring or long hours in a studio.
Artistic agency and idealism may need to be subordinated to accommodate those who finance artistic expression. This may take the form of private collectors, angel investors, producers, directors or corporate organizations. Endeavors to exercise entrepreneurial aims may reveal unethical narcissistic motives infiltrating these collaborations. Successfully navigating this complex social and political terrain requires savvy, healthy pride and formidable humility.
However, many artists are not equipped to withstand these challenges. A foundation of healthy narcissism is needed in order to develop the capacity for valuing one’s unique creative gifts and to withstand the onslaught of public scrutiny, duplicity and rejection. If throughout one’s life one is inadequately cared for, rejected and inconsistently supported, it is likely there are narcissistic wounds that hinder one from successfully navigating these difficulties and fully owning and manifesting aspirations. Under these conditions, the injuries incurred by showing or merchandising one’s art can catalyze creative stagnation, blocks, and traumatic enactments rooted in one’s history. Moreover, vulnerable to having revealed personal truths through one’s artistic work, the artist can be swept up by primal needs for admiration and approval. Deep-seated longings to be ‘special’, perhaps to compensate for and master unresolved betrayal and rejection, can set the artist up for a proverbial fall.
Artists who are victims of disordered parents may carry an insidious inescapable shame, which enforces the edict that one’s gifts are a threat, responsible for instigating feelings of resentment, inadequacy and envy. Envied and perceived as a threat the artistic child may be forbidden by the disordered parent to play music, draw, perform, or express his creative gifts in any capacity. Parental prohibitions and shaming of children sends an implicit message about actualizing potentials. Having learned that any indication of happiness, accomplishment or admiration results in contempt and myriad forms of emotional violence, these latent artists may hide in the shadows, having lost sight of their innate endowments or simply too fearful to expose those essential parts of themselves.
Alternatively, unable to tolerate human flaws and thus driven by perfection, the wounded artist may identify with the aggressor and perpetrate the cycle of abuse they endured by deriding and diminishing others. Like their parental abusers they may abide by self-defeating perfectionistic ideals as a defense against perceived inadequacy. While personality disordered parents are notorious for perpetrating continuous sabotage and deprecation, their egomaniacal fixation on status and personae may result in maligning the artistic child for his gifts while concomitantly vicariously exploiting him for narcissistic supply, so as to aggrandize the disordered parent’s stature and self-importance. Henceforth, when these artists have their creative work usurped, repackaged, and exploited with no recognition or accreditation memories of dehumanizing parental abuse are triggered. For the artist who acquires fame, being a narcissistic extension for industry moguls in the guise of caring and admiration and contending with the parasitical demands of a fan base, may replicate the trauma of being objectified and used by narcissistic parents.
Ultimately, in a subconscious effort to master psychological and emotional injuries traumatic patterns will be enacted with those who either embody the traits of one’s parental abusers and/or the scorned victimized child. To break free of these enactments the wounded artist will need to undertake an emotionally and psychologically taxing exploration of a painful history, so as to bring into consciousness destructive patterns and potent projections ignited by comparable dynamics encountered in the art industry. Only then can he mourn his losses and establish a grounded realistic commitment to his efforts to flourish creatively and financially as a professional artist.
Freud contended in his paper ‘On Narcissism’ that primary narcissism is an essential part in normal development and is critical to one’s survival. In order to engender healthy narcissism one needs to be fully seen and understood, be taken seriously, have feelings and needs respected. Self-promotion and actualizing ambitions and mature goals requires healthy narcissism. Likewise healthy narcissism forms a constant, realistic self-interest, principles, and an ability to form deep relationships. By healing core wounds and reclaiming a foundation of healthy narcissism, the artist equipped with a more formidable ego and perspective can more ably contend with the logistics of navigating the vicissitudes of the market and popular culture.
In order for ongoing life affirming choices and changes to prevail the wounded artist will need to modify logistical circumstances. Client centered psychologist Carl Rogers said we should create two conditions for people so that the creative process in therapy can unfold. Rogers conveyed that psychological safety and psychological freedom make room for acceptance, empathy and the room to think, feel and contribute fully. When one is free from judgment and criticism, the energy of inspiration and possibility becomes accessible. Ergo, by breaking free of toxic bonds and harmful collaborations that stifle creative energy the artist can empower himself and prioritize his wellbeing by rebuilding a network of trustworthy colleagues who inspire and encourage ingenuity and partnership so that healthy self esteem and self regard can ensue.
Dr. Robert Firestone wrote, “Personal power is based on strength, confidence, and competence that individuals gradually acquire in the course of their development. It is self-assertion and a natural, healthy striving for love, satisfaction and meaning in one’s interpersonal world.” The professional artist, aligned with his power and hence his birthright for love and fulfillment, will be prompted to protect his work and shield himself from unscrupulous dealings. He will recognize the need to acquire a basic understanding of legal rights and the necessity of procuring legal representation sensitive to the plights of artists when negotiating contracts and selling one’s work. He may come to realize that restoring one’s artistic integrity and authority may require taking legal action with those who exploit ideas and labor.
While protecting one’s work is an act of self-respect and a critical part of upholding one’s artistic integrity and aesthetic, it is also integral to strategic marketing. With renewed vigor the creatively driven energized artist will be galvanized to embrace visibility through sundry channels. Knowing who one is as an artist and how one’s artistic identity coincides with cultural and economic trends will influence the promotion of one’s art.
Branding and developing a viable customer base will require an on line presence through a personal website, social media, diverse online galleries and web publications. This will require crafting a meaningful artist’s statement so as to introduce one’s unique aesthetic and the inspiration and meaning supporting one’s work. Depending on the artist’s medium, garnering commissions, auditions, and assignments may involve artist representation such as agents, publicists, and curators. Additional outlets for merchandising one’s art may include online galleries and promotional sites for musicians and actors. To finance one’s art fiscal sponsorship can assist with fundraising capabilities and grant applications. Artist fellowships, residencies, advanced training/internships, and consistent networking with industry professionals, are also integral to achieving success.
To sum up, surviving the dark descent into historical betrayals, traumas and defeats and the parallel battlefield of promoting one’s art lends itself to cultivating a greater capacity for discernment and discrimination so as to create the space to boldly and fearlessly return to one’s artistic process, and wash away from the soul the dust of every day life (Picasso). A tenacious, dedicated and disciplined commitment to hard work and long hours is an indisputable reality for the artist, but for the artist who has plumbed the depths and sustains the necessary stamina and guts needed to create and promote his art, the rewards are substantial. The emboldened healed artist, able to face core injuries and attain a sensible and balanced outlook, can safely traverse a daunting art industry and fully engage with his gifts from that mystical place of surrender where his creative spirit resides.