Faith, for the Creatives

The Tortured Artist Mythology: A Christian Artist’s Dilemma

This is part 3 of the Tortured Artist series: you can check out Identity Crisis and Difficult to Love here.

The story of Christian singer/songwriter Rich Mullins, “Ragamuffin,” was recently released on DVD. A great movie that exemplifies the tortured artist stereotype. And I think it brings up two of the most difficult problems with being both Christian and artist.

The first is seen when Rich Mullins shows up to a seminary class right after his song “Awesome God” becomes a radio hit. It comes up in class and the teacher is befuddled as to why such a famous worship leader would be taking his class. It seems like Rich should know enough about God at this point with such anointed music to be leading the class himself, certainly not needing to learn more from others. Right? Right????

One problem that Christian creatives have is that they are assumed to be an authority on all spiritual topics. They can seek counsel and learning only to be greeted with a responsibility they never signed up for. We need to learn. We aren’t necessarily asking for authority when we put pen to paper or lyrics to music or paint to canvas. We’re just asking to express our hearts. Don’t take it too seriously. Every Christian has an audience, whether in artwork or another workplace; we all hold the same responsibility for our actions.

The second problem is equal and opposite. Rich Mullins is seen cussing, smoking, and drinking. (See, tortured artist.) Because a story of someone’s life will emphasize the highs and lows with no middle ground, it’s difficult to say how much of his life this more negative portrayal encapsulates. Yet multiple people get upset at his Christian platform when he struggled so. Some even question if he really knew God.

Sometimes I think the church is more forgiving of Christians from the Bible than of those Christians around today. Men and women who knew God in the Bible were messed up too. Liars, cheaters, drunkards, fornicators, murderers. This often after they knew God. But they weren’t defined by it. They’re considered heroes of the faith, with sin disregarded, ignored, or used as a lesson of God’s great mercy. And contemporary Christians should be given the same chance.

Somehow there is little grace for spiritual or theological error in creatives’ artwork. Because somehow we’ve accidentally taken up a mantle we’ve never intended, an authority we never deserved or asked for. Blasphemy. Leading others astray. An entire work worth being burned, instead of just taking the time to seek the truth yourself. Artistic expression is not the Bible (unless it is, of course.) We’ll get it wrong. Correct us where we’re wrong, but don’t write us off.

Let me tell you a secret: if we’re an artist for any length of time, we are open to criticism, even welcome it. For our work to be any good, it’s critical. We are prone to bouts of disagreement and tears over critique, while at the same time developing a backbone to eventually accept the life-giving truth after some good ol’ analyzing and ego-killing. So if you see something we believe or behave wrongly in, give it a shot. We may consider you our best friend after we take the time to set aside our pride. Just try to be gentle and gracious, because like I said, we our prone to bouts of disagreement and tears 🙂

Faith, for the Creatives

The Tortured Artist Mythology: Difficult to Love

This is part 2 of the Tortured Artist series: Check out part 1 “Identity Crisis” and part 3 “A Christian Artist’s Dilemma.”

Reading last week’s post, you may have thought I hate all that “I have problems but it’s cool” music. You know what I mean.

But actually all of these are on my Spotify favs playlist. I’m all about it, probably embarrassingly so.

Because to some extent, there is some truth to the idea of the tortured artist. (Google it: You’ll find that there are studies crediting and discrediting the idea.) Yes, some of it is confirmation bias….I know there are those who are dramatic nuisances who are not artistic and I know there are those who embody artistic expression yet I can’t imagine having a problem with (I’m looking at you, Maggie Schoepke! Don’t burst my bubble now.) But let’s be real: artists are in general particular about so much. There are non-artistic types that I can see being easy to love – no really, their laid-back temperament and cheery disposition make it so. And if you’ve seen just one portrayal of a tortured artist, well, we’re difficult to love. There are countless tragic stories created from that truth.

Can you spot the mess-up in this picture?
Can you spot the mess-up in this picture?

Above is the picture I did during worship this Sunday. (I know, even if you think I’m a bad writer, you can’t argue that I write better than I draw.) And it actually all started with me spilling coffee on the paper. A mistake. But finding the coffee stain is a trick because really, with my skills, it’s all a mistake, all of the splotches should have been more splotchy, all the lines should have been more defined, the squares would be more symmetrical and the squiggles shouldn’t have angles. One big oops. And that’s kinda life. And that’s kinda church. And that’s kinda people. (Not their creation, but their actions and relationships.) In some ways, the coffee stain is the most exactly right part of the whole thing. Oops!

Confession: I’m a little bit of a Sheldon. From Big Bang Theory. I actually watch the show and want to yell at Leonard and crew for not understanding him. I have a “my spot” too, that (though I don’t react as much as Sheldon) no one else can sit in or I’ll be uncomfortable the entire evening.

My roommates were talking about my “Roommate Contract” if I formed one like Sheldon did. It entailed the following:

  • Don’t let my bananas touch your bananas
  • Don’t let my toothbrush touch your toothbrush
  • Don’t move away from the sink while brushing your teeth
  • Don’t reorganize the communal areas without apt time for mental preparation
  • Don’t feed me sauce without first informing me of its exact ingredients or I will assume you poisoned me with Sriracha

Here’s a near-exact conversation from this week:

Courtney: Amy doesn’t like spicy food

Me: Yes I do, some. I get Medium spicy at Indian restaurants. I just don’t like the taste of most spicy sauces. Because they’re a sauce.

Lexi: And you don’t like most sauces.

Me: Right.

Courtney: But you don’t like it so spicy that your nose runs.

Me: No. Because that’s wetness. And I don’t like getting wet.

Courtney: Yeah, that’s a different problem.

It’s kinda hilarious and kinda pathetic that while at the grocery store I told Courtney that I can’t walk out of the store without a cart, even if I had no groceries. I was joking, but she thought I was serious.

(Side note: My roommates are moving out – who’s ready to be my roomie now? Haha 🙂 )

I’m very particular about certain things, but then I’m fed up with people who are very particular about other things. I’m scared of change and slow to trust, and I know I should be more flexible, more adapatable, just more than I am. But the shoulds can’t own me just like the faults can’t. And where’s the balance in this?

The lie of easy relationships can stifle the artist’s ability to engage in true relationship. Because it’s destined to failure or great pain at the very least, according to all of the Hollywood portrayals. And even if we’d risk ourselves, if we truly loved the other person, would we expose them to the toxicity of relationship with madness?

This is the dilemma artists face, the paradox we love and we hate. Because the tortured artist mythology is true. But it is also false. It’s only part of the story.

I’m difficult to love.

But I’m lovable.

And I can’t forget that part as I try to get rid of character flaws while holding on to my personality.

What About You?

Do you consider yourself an artist or no?
What quirks do you have?
What do you think of the tortured artist – true, false, both?

Come back next week for Part 3: The Christian Artist’s Dilemma

Faith, for the Creatives

The Tortured Artist Mythology: Identity Crisis

Hello, my name is Amy, and I’m a tortured artist.

Or am I?

There’s a problem with the “tortured artist” cliché in popular culture. It’s everywhere. It creates this community of “I’m crazy, but I’m not the only one.” Which is nice. But it’s also an indisputable excuse to continue on with unhealthy habits and relationships. Sometimes it’s hard to determine what parts of me are my artistic quirks, what parts of me are my personality irrelevant to creativity, and what parts of me are character flaws I need to battle. And the “tortured artist” can mesh all of those into one clump and escalate the necessity for madness.

Nowadays, this need to be weird, to own up to quirks or faults, to accept them because I was “born this way” or have self esteem or am genuine (all important concepts) seems to have created this competition to be crazier, louder, even bitchier, with no accountability or ownership of legitimate need for growth and change. Either it’s all accepted as a part of the personality, or it’s all blamed on past sufferings.

In Ted Dekker’s book “Outlaw,” the angel Shaka says, “The insane secretly crave suffering. It gives them an identity, however absurd.” And it seems like that’s the idea of the tortured artist, that my problems are my identity. But that’s not truth. I am not my sin, my flesh, my past, or even my quirks.

Oh, I’m a little mad. But I don’t want to succumb to what I should not. I want to learn and grow and not be held captive to the artistic stereotype. An easy one for me to bring up, because I  am already so not this way, is punctuality and reliability (or lack thereof.) The stereotype of creatives is that they’ll show up when they show up, have no regard for others’ time, and are not reliable for their commitments. And it drives me crazy!!!! Because I’m not naturally that way. But other problems are more difficult for me to bring up, specifically because I am prone to those quirks – or even faults.

On the flip side, I think there is some truth to the idea of the tortured artist. Artists in general possess (or are possessed by) quirks, vices, elusive behaviors, simultaneously inflated and self-destructive egos, and temperamental tendencies. To name a few.

It’s a paradox, difficult to grasp both sides at once. In a Huffington Post article on the legitimacy of the tortured artist idea, Christopher Zara says, “In speaking publicly about tortured artists, I’ve been accused of suggesting that drug addicts are better off high and the mentally ill should not seek help, if only because such impediments, by my estimation, help them produce better art….So why, then, are so many artists still turned off by the tortured-artist concept? For some, I suspect, it simply hits too close to home. Consider the wedge it creates between two fundamental desires: the desire to be happy versus the desire to produce great art. The stereotype of the tortured artist as a long-suffering creative genius suggests that those two states are mutually exclusive — and that’s an unsettling thought for anyone who practices a creative craft.”

And this is the dilemma I have now. Who am I really, and what is the imposter inside of me to let go of?

What About You?

Any other creatives have this feeling? What do you think of the Tortured Artist? To what extent is it actuality and to what extent do we perpetuate the needless cycle?

Just for fun:

Wiki-How’s “How to Act Like a Tortured Artist” – for anyone still learning 🙂

This is part 1 of the Tortured Artist Series: you can also check out Difficult to Love and A Christian Artist’s Dilemma.