General ArtPerformance ArtSkepticism

Superstitious Musings

I’ve been pondering over Smashley’s latest post about Superstition of Creativity.

I’d watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk at TED before and found her insight into the creative process maddeningly interesting.

The key point that stuck out for me wasn’t about the idea of creativity feeling as though it is out of your control and the superstition surrounding it. It was the claimed psychological freeing that this notion provides.

Basically her argument is that artists who think that creativity comes only from within put themselves under enormous, and even damaging, pressure to succeed. The idea that being a genius rather than having a genius (playing host to a muse) is dangerous.

“I think that allowing somebody… to believe that he or she is like the… source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidgen too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. It is like asking someone to swallow the sun.”

She reasons that it is this pressure that has been killing-off artists, either literally in cases of suicide, or through harsh lives brought about by self destructive behaviour. The best way to avoid this is to go back to superstitious thinking, thereby taking the pressure off the artist.

Now, I am first to admit I am a lay psychologist. Ask Freud, I lay anything. But my main concern with this argument is that the illnesses Gilbert associates with creative minds such as manic depression cannot be cured by thinking differently. The idea that we can think ourselves happy is as damaging as the idea that we can cure cancer with hugs.

As a comedian, my ‘art’ is widely associated with mental illness. Lots of comedians have suffered and still suffer with it. Ruby Wax, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry etc etc. Most recently, my friend, the wonderful Mackenzie Taylor took his own life.

Perhaps Gilbert is right, that comedians suffer like all other artists from self induced pressure and it drives us potty.

Perhaps we have a bit of causation/correlation mix up. While I have no stats whatsoever of prevalence of mental illness in comedians compared to the rest of the population, I’d put money on it being higher.  There is something peculiar about wanting a job where the goal is to have a room full of complete strangers laugh at you.

Comedy attracts the sick, it doesn’t make us sick.

But equally, there are many sane, well adjusted comedians and artists. The only difference I can see between artists and the non-creatives (like there is such a thing) is that firstly, we have an innate desire to fail in front of everyone, and secondly, the idea of doing a real job leaves us feeling a bit peaky.

Real mental illness is real mental illness.  You can’t tackle that by lying to yourself.  It is the worst idea in the world to tell someone suffering delusions that their delusions are real.


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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  1. I’m with you. As I listened to the video, I enjoyed the ideas, but didn’t agree with any of them. If you do the work, then you get the credit/blame. All that external inspiration is happening inside your head, based on your knowledge and skills. Deal with it, get help and survive.

  2. I enjoyed her talk; she’s very smart and entertaining. But ultimately she’s offering up a big fat false dichotomy. ‘Either believe in fairies or artists will die.’ The internalization of stress/credit/blame is, I agree, a problem for artists (though not unique to them). But here’s another possibility, off the cuff: recognize that your work is not the result only of your work, but is also the result of your culture, and your family, your influences, other art that you like, other art that you don’t like, your neighbors, your lover, your cat…. I agree with her final thought, where she advises “show up, do your work, that’s what you’re responsible for,” but I don’t see how that implies we should go back to deluding ourselves with stories of daemons, fairies and muses.

  3. I’m curious if there is any truth in the health benefits, though.

    In general the idea of deferred responsibility is a terribly dangerous one, but I wonder if it actually can benefit artists. Could it clip off the highs and lows to help keep the psyche safe? Or would it just add another layer of madness the the artists already unbalanced mind?

  4. I have to be honest, like Temple Grandin says…the ability to “think differently” than other people is a plus. As an artist myself, and someone that once worked with many other artists (you try making sure someone times his illicit self medication of choice just right so he’s ready for the interview with the NY Times…) I knew that for many of them…what they created was worth the suffering. They GOT that their difference was what fueled their passion. In a way the product of the madness became often an excuse not to really address and treat it. But the beauty of the product…ahhh…also is our goal of this life to be “happy”? Is happiness realy attainable, and by making that the “goal” are we just setting ourselves up for failure? Why can’t a life well lived by one that is different. Progress is made by being uncomfortable. When you are comfortable, you just stay where you are.

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