It's Hard to Make Art In a Messed-Up World

I originally posted this on Across the Board back in June, but it’s Black History Month, and we’re just getting over a second lockdown around here, so I thought I’d re-share it here.

I have a confession: I haven’t finished writing anything in months. During those same months, a pandemic has wreaked havoc across the globe, and marches to protect the lives of Black people have been met with inaction and/or police violence. It’s a bit of a mess out there.

But wait, wait, isn’t turmoil supposed to breed great art? So we should be in the middle of a perfect storm for creativity, right? There is so much to say, and we can say it with insightful art fuelled by the anxiety and dread that keeps every tortured artist going.

I remember when Bush Jr. became president of the U.S. in 2001, musicians explicitly said stuff like “at least there’s an upside, because great music is born out of rebellion.”

Yet I’ve gotten nothing done in the last few months. WTF.

I’m a brain scientist in my day job, so I usually seek answers in science first. A quick review of the literature shows that, actually, happy people tend to be the most creative. Depression, stress, and anxiety either have no effect, or actively harm creativity.

The tortured artist: fake news

More anecdotally, in hindsight we can see that Bush’s reign led to a lot of war and turmoil, but did musicians create their best work? Some of the top songs during the later part of his term:

  • Thnks fr th Mmrs
  • Buy U a Drank
  • SexyBack
  • This is Why I’m Hot
  • Crank That (Soulja Boy)

All perfectly fine songs, but not exactly a Renaissance for rebellion music that will be remembered for centuries (for centuriiies (sorry, I actually really like Fall Out Boy)).

Even individual artists don’t create their best work when grieving for unique personal reasons, according to this study.
As anyone who has completed a creative pursuit knows, it takes a lot of hard work. Anything that distracts from that work isn’t really helping—it’s not like complicated, tumultuous emotions can just pop out of your head and take form as a profound work of art. Turmoil may inform art, or inspire art, but you still have to put fingers to keyboard, pick to guitar, brush to canvas, whatever, and it’s difficult to do that when you’re curled in a ball with tears in your eyes and a pain in your gut from stress-eating another tub of ice cream to briefly distract yourself from the day’s latest round of Twitter-fueled fuckery.
Which is to say … we need to keep fighting. Worrying that your mom will die of a horrible respiratory disease won’t create the next Mona Lisa. Continued systemic racism won’t be responsible for the next Prince (after all, George Floyd was a musician). Let’s eradicate this virus and eradicate white supremacy, because there is no artistic upside to this shit.


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