General Art

Re: Superstitious Musings

It occurs to me that my previous post where I rebuffed Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk, I wasn’t pushing skepticism as far as perhaps it should have been.

In brief, Gilbert says ‘believing’ in spiritual outside motivations for creativity is less damaging to the ego of the artist than a purely material outlook. I argued that not only was there no evidence that this was true, but also superstitions are damaging themselves.

One point if feel I left unquestioned was that doing art is damaging, that Gilbert is correct, that it is the pressure to create and succeed which drives great artists to insanity.

Is it the act of creativity mentally damaging? I have found no proof to justify this. In fact, many respected therapies alongside woo woo meetings, incorporate creative practices like painting, crafts and performance in the treatment of mentally and physically disadvantaged people. Why would they do this if being creative is so stressful?

Is it then the pressure to succeed that drives artists into madness? Well, art isn’t the only profession that suffers career pressure.  So why are artists associated with mental illness, depression, suicide, addiction and general glumness and not doctors, bankers, carpenters or mechanics?

I think we have to consider that dirty word: lifestyle.

For unrecognised struggling artists like myself (and presumably yourself) quality of life isn’t that great. Art, as an income, is either feast or famine. Some months I earn barely enough to make rent. Other months I have more income than I would working as a secretary. There is no financial stability, making it impossible to plan for the future, or afford luxuries enjoyed by many of my desk-based counterparts.

But then what about the minority of artists who are acclaimed? I referenced Peter Cook, a hugely respected, well off comedian who suffered from addiction and depression. I made the claim that comedy attracts the sick, it doesn’t make people sick. And certainly I stand by this in some cases. However, I missed a very important point.

When we see success in art we often equate it to fame. Fame, can in itself be destructive. In the papers there are as many sportsmen, models and politicians who suffer from mental illness as there are musicians, comedians, writers and artists. The lifestyle of being in the public eye, being judged, being recognised is not unique to art as anyone who follows the exploits of Katie Price understands.

I think the combined stress of instability and the precarious position illusive success brings has far more to do with the sufferings of artists than the act of creativity.

Creativity itself is fun, it is therapeutic. It is why we saddle ourselves with an unstable, difficult lifestyle. It is why the famous put up with the press attention, the daft commissions, public appearances and BS.

The idea that we need to make up muses, goblins and elves to justify our ability to explore our own humanity is disgusting. Creativity is the only part that makes crappy last-minute economy travel around Europe, buying discount sandwiches, being unable to afford to repair a dying laptop, driving a creaking car, reading disparaging fan-mail or trying to command attention from a drunken hen party, worthwhile.


Iszi Lawrence is an English comedian and paid doodler. Iszi helps run skeptics in the pub Oxford and performs throughout Europe. Listen to her free weekly podcast She has up to ten toes at any one time.

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