Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Art and Suffering

Van Gogh -the quintessential tortured artist
Keith Humphreys feels that only an honest reckoning of Christopher Hitchens' alcoholism would truly honor his legacy. 
Hitchens’ prided himself on his honesty and his courage, so let’s honor his memory by facing up to the fact that his addictions to alcohol and tobacco are almost certainly why his life ended well before his time. The National Institutes of Health estimates that about 75% of esophageal cancers are caused by chronic heavy drinking. For people who are also addicted to tobacco (as Hitchens was) risk of this form of cancer is even higher than that grim statistic suggests.

Many alcoholics would like to believe that their problem in life is something — anything — other than alcohol. To wit, there is a joke among Alcoholics Anonymous members about the guy who gets drunk for the thousandth time and wrecks his car, leading him to solemnly swear off driving. When we put into cultural discourse the myth that an alcoholic’s problem really isn’t alcohol, whether we want to or not we are feeding the denial of people who need to face some unpleasant facts, including that among a thousand other risks they are greatly increasing their risk of dying from cancer.
He then makes the fair point that art can be a crutch for addiction:
People in the arts and culture line often buy into the idea that active addictions fuel creativity, and it keeps many of them from trying to change. But there is no evidence that this fear has a rational basis; indeed just the opposite may be true. Bonnie Raitt said that what gave her the courage to admit her alcohol problem and put the plug in the jug was seeing that Stevie Ray Vaughn was an even more soulful and dazzling musician in his recovery than he was when he was loaded. And for what it’s worth, all the people I alluded to above were more successful (in some cases, to their own surprise) after they stopped drinking. Of course whether Hitchens would have been more or less successful as a writer and social critic if he had sobered up is (tragically) not something any of us can know, but that uncertainty is all the more reason to stop spreading that myth that recovery from addiction will invariably sap a creative alcoholic’s mojo.
Society has always had a troubled relationship with artists.  One the one hand, we are inspired by their often unconventional and vivacious ways.  On the other, we turn our noses up at what often feels like their indulgent and juvenile behavior.  The idea of the "tortured artist" is a trope that gives expression to both impulses.  We want artists to bare their souls to us, but not as narcissists.  That can be a hard distinction to make.  Sometimes the former can only happen through the latter. 

For what it is worth, the artists I’ve known have had to be quite brave in sacrificing much for their art. Most have given up on careers or stability in the hope that what they must believe is a talent will turn into something beautiful and successful. As more of an art-hobbyist myself, I feel like I truly appreciate the courage it must take to roll the dice like that. I was much too afraid of failure to make more of myself through my art. After all, you could spend decades working minimum wage jobs, scrimping and saving, just to support an art that most artists can only doubt is something great.

And what then, if you fail? You’re nearly forty years old and have little to show for your life but a handful of poorly received gallery shows, one or two quietly successful record albums known only to a handful of faithful fans, a publishing deal that you felt never got the media attention it deserved, etc. Many artists are indeed “tortured”, but sacrificing so much for your art can also be torturous. It shouldn’t be seen as indulgent, but rather a noble endeavor.

Hitchens appears to have indeed been an alcoholic, as well as a nicotine addict.  But whether or not those vices were critical to his success is a counterfactual difficult to imagine.  But what can be appreciated in him was not his success or specific achievements as a writer, but for his tenacity to do what he loved, to follow his dreams.  Not all of us can say we've done as much.

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