At exam time in university I used to notice a curious burst of wild creativity. Due to the pressure — when I ought to be buckling down and attending to study — my mind somehow overflowed with inviting new projects. It was at that time I invented a method of applying paint to canvasses from great distances with the use of a hot-air balloon. Another time it was an idea for a series of paintings based on microscopic examination of a campus quad. I call this phenomenon “Anxiety creativity” or “AC.”
It’s particularly prevalent around show time — that time when an artist is preparing for the sudden-death experience of one-man shows or other exhibitions. The mind wanders every which way, perhaps as avoidance activity for that which truly needs to be done. That’s just one reason I like to call shows “Recent work.” There’s nothing worse than planning a show a year in advance called “An Examination of Worm Holes in Central Africa,” only to find that in the final few months the worm has turned and the real show is about aardvark teeth.
Even the pressure and anxiety that surrounds the mundane acts of daily living — economics, jobmanship, interpersonal relationships or child-rearing can induce AC. Brilliancy rattles her cage and the artist feels trapped in the fecundity of her imagination, in a place of no outlet, unable to find enough hours in the day to manifest her will.
What to do about it? It’s valuable to make notes and not necessarily go to work on the new in the heat of the moment. Life balances out and time eventually frees up for the great ideas that need to happen. Sundays, or other days of relative rest, are good days to take stock and prioritize. In my chronic and probably terminal case, I’m so glad that a percentage of my ideas have fatal flaws that are discovered in less hectic times. Consider putting your anxiety creativity in a plain brown envelope and tacking it to the wall of the studio. Its time will come. Consider crossing your AC ideas with others. For the aware artist, the brain-acid that goes with anxiety is there to be harvested. At this valuable time the spores are spread and ideas breed like crazed mink. It’s part of the business. Let ‘er rip.
PS: “Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation and everything that is finest in human history.” (Charles Frankel) “Creative people can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of ‘divine madness.’” (Rollo May)
Esoterica: There’s a simple reason for this type of behavior. Artists are often “contrary.” A contrary nature, made more bold by the success that rugged individualism often brings, promotes an “I know better” approach. The behavior is not suitable for those who work on an assembly line. In artists, it’s their secret weapon.
This letter was originally published as “Anxiety creativity” on September 19, 2003.
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“A work of art can only come from the interior of man. Art is the form of the image formed upon the nerves, heart, brain and eye of man.” (Edvard Munch)
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