Channeling Emotional Intensity in the Creative Artist

Thanks to Cheryl Arutt for one of the best, most easily accessible articles I’ve seen on channeling pain in the artist, including some brief (albeit great) insight into the chemical process that stimulates fight-or-flight syndrome. Find it here.

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5 thoughts on “Channeling Emotional Intensity in the Creative Artist

  1. Here is a direct link to the article: http://talentdevelop.com/articlelive/articles/1189/1/Affect-Regulation-and-the-Creative-Artist/Page1.html

    I understand what Ms. Arutt is proposing in her article, but I think she has perhaps neglected the most important issue. Of course, it is desirable that when pain is the source of an artist’s inspiration, that artist not feel so obligated unto his art as to feel helpless to also pursue peace, tranquility, and happiness. Ms. Arutt’s proposition of regulating the experience of pain, of tapping into it, so to speak, without becoming obsessed or dependent upon it, makes sense. However, what she assumes is that all experience of pain is damaging to the psychic health of the individual, that there is no way to derive the desired inspiration from pain without also suffering during the process.

    I would disagree that this is the case. Sure, being able to mitigate the damage is better than having no resource with which to cope with the experience of pain, but I would posit that it is possible to experience pain without suffering psychic damage. The issue reminds me of this quote by Jung: “Only a genius or a madman could so disentangle himself from the bonds of reality as to see the world as his picture-book.” I think that when an artist can experience pain, and, during the moment of that experience, perceive the pain he feels as no different than its function in regard to his art–the progenitor, the life force, of his artistic process–that is the state in which he can truly immerse himself in his creative process, for he is then free altogether from the worry for his own well being. To “see the world as one’s picture-book,” to experience life as a series of crudely drawn portraits and scenes that one must then color in with one’s own imagination and inspiration in order to lend them beauty, meaning, and truth–that is the state of an artist riding upon the wings of inspiration, immune both from the affect of pain and from the dependence upon it.

    The issue reminds me of the film, which I’m sure you’ve seen, “Finding Neverland” with Johnny Depp. It is my opinion that most of the greatest artists in the world and throughout history have been just such a type of person. It is similar to the Buddhist teaching of nirvana, which is the act of permitting personal cares to “burn out,” to become extinguished: as a fire slowly dies, so too the artist’s concern for himself. The result is an individual who can directly translate the personal experience into the universal experience, who can effortlessly portray through the medium of art the poignancy and beauty of suffering.

    I suppose then that the only question remaining is, “Where does such a capacity originate?” Of course, I think part of it is psychological, and you know enough Jung for me to only briefly mention the assimilation of the collective unconscious: that is how one learns to recognize the syntax of experience so that he can more easily translate the personal into the universal. But, apart from that, I would say it is mostly derived from an intense desire unto the art itself. We all know what it is to love another person, to allow our love for that person to fill us with such satisfaction that we maintain no concern for our own small troubles in their regard. So too the artist permits his love of his art to overwhelm him, and to satisfy him completely, so that there is no need to seek satisfaction from other situations which return to him only suffering. His art is sufficient. This is the way it is with all true sacrifice, and it is the epitome of the hero/savior’s transcendence.

    So, I suppose to recapitulate and conclude: I am of the opinion that whenever suffering that serves as a source of artistic inspiration causes psychic damage to the artist, that artist should definitely either practice mitigation tactics as proposed by Ms. Arutt, or, in the case that he has become masochistic in his obsession with his suffering, abandon his pursuit of artistic endeavor entirely. However, I am also of the opinion that it is entirely possible, with the right psychological development, to experience suffering without sustaining psychic damage; that such a state is ideal for an artist; and thus, that should any artist be capable of being or becoming so developed psychologically, such a pursuit would be not only a worthwhile, but an essential endeavor.

  2. Just a correction: last paragraph, the third time ‘suffering’ is used it should be ‘pain,’ else I’m confusing my terms, ‘suffering’ being meant to indicate the actual psychic damage and ‘pain’ the raw experience.

  3. Daniel, my sincerest apology in my delay in getting back to you. Some family emergencies have ensued…I look forward to catching up during the weekend.

  4. Hi Daniel,
    I appreciate your comments above, however, I was puzzled by your take on my article “Affect Regulation and the Creative Artist”.

    More specifically, you write “However, what (Dr. Arutt) assumes is that all experience of pain is damaging to the psychic health of the individual, that there is no way to derive the desired inspiration from pain without also suffering during the process.”

    I would love to know where you thought I was saying that “all experience of pain is damaging . . ” ?

    On the contrary, I was saying that artists should not be afraid to experience pain, and to channel it in constructive ways (like making art, for example). When we have developed healthy ways of soothing ourselves, and shifting gears when needed, we no longer need to be afraid of pain, or avoid it,but can experience it without getting trapped there. The fetishizing of pain and suffering (and viewing poor mental health as “essential to being an artist”) was what I was challenging.

    In fact I believe my article is in harmony with your last sentence:

    “However, I am also of the opinion that it is entirely possible, with the right psychological development, to experience suffering without sustaining psychic damage; that such a state is ideal for an artist; and thus, that should any artist be capable of being or becoming so developed psychologically, such a pursuit would be not only a worthwhile, but an essential endeavor.”

    Please do help me understand where you got the impression I was somehow saying psychological pain is inherently damaging. . . or any other comments you may have.

    Warm regards,
    Dr. Cheryl Arutt

    • My apologies to you both, I had completely forgotten to reply on this one.

      Dr. Arutt,
      I firmly agree with your thoughts above. In fact, it’s exactly what I took from the article, and why it resonated with me in the first place. I did not notice Daniel’s reading that “all experience of pain is damaging to the psychic health of the individual.” I think you said it best here- “we no longer need to be afraid of pain, or avoid it, but can experience it without getting trapped there.”

      Daniel,
      I agree to a large extent as well with what you said, I just feel you may have possibly misunderstood the bigger picture of what Dr. Arutt was trying to convey, or maybe not, I just seemed to agree with the article from the first read. I simply didn’t pick up on any tones of “psychological pain being inherently damaging”…if I did, I’m sure I would disagree as well. It goes against everything we know is psychological resilience and neurological plasticity.

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