Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why Aren't You Depressed?

A friend suggested I read the book The Van Gogh Blues. It's an attempt to explain depression in artists - a perennial problem. While I appreciate the author's acknowledging that most analyses of artists' depression so varied they feel fabricated, contradictory and baseless. He says shrinks don't really have any clear idea why artists get depressed. Sadly, he has his own thesis that I don't buy either. His is that all artists search for meaning through their work. It's part of their job. And in so doing they come across a 'meaning crisis' as a professional hazard on occasion. That leads to a depression, whereas other fields which don't concentrate on creating meaning from life have a lower rate of depressions. The solution he proposes is to consciously "force meaning onto life."


I myself think artists get depressed for a very different reason. They fail. A lot. In fact, it's very hard to be successful. and people hate failing. It makes an artist feel incompetent, worthless and eventually powerless. And continual failure breeds depression. Artists deal with rejection and a feeling of powerlessness to make a difference more than most other fields. Who in their right mind would try to be a real estate broker for their entire lives regardless if they ever sold a house? No one. The very idea is absurd. You'd just stop eventually. Moreover, once you are a "successful" artist, it's still hard.  I'll define success for the moment as creating exactly what you like, having it well received by critics and the populace such that you make a comfortable living - enough to support your family. Yes, even once you're successful, not only are there always more successful people out there, it's just hard to maintain what success you have, continue to dig deep from that same well of creativity, satisfy your fans or even justify why you were successful while some others you know who are also talented are much less so.


Personally, I get depressed when I feel like no one gives a fuck about anything I create. I don't get depressed about the act of creation itself. It's not about that meaning. I get miserable about the reception of what I make. I'm not talking about bad reviews. I've never gotten one. But I've gotten very few. What I'm talking about indifference. I get depressed when I think about how only 30 people read each of these posts. How on average only 300 people ever saw any one of my many operas from Ecstatic Journey to Trippin'.  And how most of my work reaches so few people it may never have an impact I consider 'enough.' About 7 years ago I tried to figure out how much was 'enough.' The answer was elusive. But eventually I decided I dug the number 100,000. I wanted to make that much a year and reach that many people as well. That for me would be success. In truth, I'd have been thrilled with half that, but I was setting a high bar. Good luck doing that in the theatre. Hence my move out West. 


So why does the reception matter so much? Because I get depressed at the thought I'm wasting my life creating things that will never seen. It's like they don't exist. And if they don't, then I've wasted my time and my one life that could have been spent doing something more... useful. So I suppose Eric Maisel's right that I feel life can seem to lack meaning. Or more accurately, I create the meaning that what I do is worthless because not enough people experience my creation and it generates no income. More specifically, I've had a goal: create great work, then get many people to experience and love my work and get paid for doing so. If I accomplish part one, but not the other parts, I've simply failed to achieve a basic goal. I get depressed because of failure to achieve said goals. 


But isn't making great art enough? No. Imagine for a moment, my art is a product - one that serves a basic function. Perhaps it's a new bed that lets you sleep so well, you pop up the next morning feeling like a new person. It feels like that to me. But I haven't been able to sell any of these beds. I have just a few in my basement. And I've had a few dozen people try them out. And some love it. Others just don't know how I'll be able to sell it. It's expensive and everyone already has a bed. So I make just a few (they take a year to make) and almost no one experiences the joy of the thing I've devised. I failed in bringing my creation to market and I've invested my life working on this. I can "force all the meaning" I want to on my life, but I'd still be depressed. Wouldn't you? Isn't there good reason? Doesn't it says you think your life should make a difference?


In the end, life feels not meaningless, but wasted. Wasted because I've failed at accomplishing my objectives. So when I, at the age of 40 still have no idea how to make a living through my creative wiles, I get depressed. And when I consider that I haven't gotten married and had kids partially because I've scared off women when they considered my future financial ability to care for a family and because I've shared that fear, I get depressed. 


The bigger question is: Why SHOULDN'T I be depressed?


Why aren't you depressed? What keeps you hopeful and happy?

4 comments:

  1. I've actually had variations on this conversation with two separate people in the last three days--seems this is a topic in the zeitgeist, or at least amongst my friends. What both of them and I have come to is that there is no such thing as "enough" or "success" for artists, and if it does exist, it's a fleeting feeling at best. Even the most successful artists I've met feel as though they are not a success, despite the fact they've had a life in the public eye and are, in fact, celebrities. The very lack of existence of "enough" is sufficient to make one depressed in and of itself, but I think it's also a combination of what you mention - failure - with the fact that what we create is so personal, so essentially "ourselves" that when we inevitably fail, it is our very selves that are being rejected, which is much harder to take than say, an accountant entering a wrong number and messing up someone's taxes.

    As artists we are also constantly faced with the choice between stability and passion. Whereas people in other professions are often more able to successfully marry the two, it is rare that an artist is able to live a steady, financially stable life through their passion alone--which is also depressing.

    This also dances around the definition of happiness itself, as success does not guarantee happiness, or even always contribute to it. There's a great quote, and I forget the source (I think it was a movie) and the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of "Happy people just haven't thought about it enough." I think there is something to the notion of not ruminating on one's failures or lack of success, and changing one's perception to see the good and the progress that's been made, but it's easy to lose sight of that in the face of all of the above.

    Dude, you're right...why is ANY artist EVER happy?!

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  2. I think the feeling of accomplishment can generate if not happiness, at least satisfaction. But to do that you need to set a specific goal and I think many artists don't set specific milestones. They have an all or nothing attitude, like "I want to be a rock star." or "A famous actor". Sometimes it's even more 'realistic' and specfic, but still not 'enough' like: "I want to be in a Broadway show." A friend of mine had that goal and after 8 years of trying, succeeded. The show closed after a month. He hasn't been back on Broadway since. But at least he can say he completed that dream. The question is how to set measurable results on the path to something big so you can feel you're accomplishing something that's a path to somewhere. And how to improvise and revise when your life don't go according to plan.

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  3. I look at you and I see success because you live passionately. I very consciously chose the life of stability, if you would call it that. While I have achieved a small measure of success by society's yardstick, in doing so I sacrifice the very life essence that fuels the creative process. The mere act of choosing one path over another means we relinquish some other part of ourselves. For those of us with artists' passion, that longing for the other life is like mourning the passing of a beloved friend. Who among us wouldn't succumb to depression over that loss of our other self? I think we just need to burn the yardsticks, society's and our own and stop trying to quantify success. Stay open and honest and alive... this is key. Feel what you will, ride it like a wave and let it continue to fuel your passion.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I look at you and I see success because you live passionately. I very consciously chose the life of stability, if you would call it that. While I have achieved a small measure of success by society's yardstick, in doing so I sacrifice the very life essence that fuels the creative process. The mere act of choosing one path over another means we relinquish some other part of ourselves. For those of us with artists' passion, that longing for the other life is like mourning the passing of a beloved friend. Who among us wouldn't succumb to depression over that loss of our other self? I think we just need to burn the yardsticks, society's and our own and stop trying to quantify success. Stay open and honest and alive... this is the key. Feel what you will, ride it like a wave and let it continue to fuel your passion.

    ReplyDelete