Romanticism’s disservice to creative minds

Image: Salvador Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’, featuring various clocks draped over a surreal shoreline landscape.

CW: alcohol and drug abuse

Before June 1967, the world was preoccupied with what one presumes was the world’s preoccupation in the 60s: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Motown, miniskirts, Vietnam. But at the festival that signified the notorious ‘Summer of Love’, one Janis Joplin appeared as part of the Big Brother Holding Company band. You can still find videos of this moment online (just look for “Monterey Pop 1967” and marvel).

If you do scour the internet for videos of a then 24-year-old Janis Joplin, prepare yourself. Watch her performance – if one could even call it that – of ‘Ball and Chain’. Watching it feels like witnessing a seance with some sort of musical spirit. Eyes closed, neck periodically snapping, feet stamping, a grimace across her face, she is near tears, heels springing up from her kitten shoes, screaming, smiling in ecstasy. The video cuts to Mama Cass Elliott whose mouth is agape in amazement: she is sure she is watching history, and she is right. Joplin continues to writhe and, at the 4:29 mark, her entire body constricts, and she utters a warbled cry, red-faced and frantic. The song ends. She runs, smiling, giddy like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, I sit in my bedroom in South-East England,.5,435 miles and 54 years separate me from this moment. Yet I am transfixed, unsure of what I have just seen, covered in goosebumps. 

What was she channelling? It’s hard to come across something like that now, someone so present to such an extent that they appear to transcend whatever stage they’re on, so powerful they are rendered inhuman — or superhuman. You get the sense she wasn’t at Monterey Pop for anyone but herself. Maybe there was something in the American water supply network of the 60s: one cannot help but notice her peers who also seem to isolate themselves from their audience with some sort of mystical veil: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Baby Huey, John Coltrane.

Why do we so often relate artistic genius to emotional strife? What is in creative genius that weighs so heavily on those that have it?

All of these artists are known to have had suffered profound unhappiness in their lifetimes, in many cases leading to personal and cultural tragedies. This is in no way an attempt to engage in conspiracy theories or even scientific debates about that macabre circle we call the ‘27 Club’. Just as many artists have passed young, many have lived long lives. But why are their narratives so frequently wrought with inner turmoil? Why do we so often relate artistic genius to emotional strife? What is in creative genius that weighs so heavily on those that have it?

The ‘27 Club’ is the epitome of our folkloric attitude towards the lives and deaths of artists. We hear stories of these tragedies taking place in mansions, hotel suites, penthouses and private jets. Because these settings are so different from our own, because they lend themselves so well to our acquisitive culture that obsesses over wealth and fame, the artists appear less real to us, their deaths more glamourous. We believe they will be missed in a way we never will. We miss the opportunity to acknowledge the devastating impact of drug abuse and mental illness to individuals; we decide instead to make these afflictions the root and cause of their creative genius, to present negative emotion as a kind of star that makes one burn bright, but only for a short while. As much as artists are victims of these harmful narratives, many do perpetuate it: see Tom Waits’ character of a heavy-drinking blues singer; Kanye West’s use of a picture of Whitney Houston’s bathroom post drug binge in 2006 for Pusha T’s DAYTONA album; even Baudelaire’s poem ‘Une Martyre’. There is already a dense visual culture of beautiful, talented, creative minds meeting their ends too soon.

The term “genius” hadn’t always been synonymous to a talented person. The 14th-century definition of genius was more along the lines of a spirit that guides one through life — much like a genie, it was something distinctly separate from the individual (see: Aladdin). Famous Classical sources of artistic inspiration were also exterior to the so-called artist, such as the fountains of Hippocrene, Pireine and Aganippe. These fountains were divine: they were considered sacred to the Muses, formed by Pegasus striking his foot into the ground. Inspiration was endowed upon humans; it was divine, beyond humanity. This meant that genius was inhuman, channelled through individuals, but, ultimately, never belonging to them. The weight of their creative power did not lie at their feet.

Genius was inhuman, channelled through individuals, but, ultimately, never belonging to them. The weight of their creative power did not lie at their feet.

Ours may be a secular society but I don’t think it’s so incredulous to believe that something transcendent is at play when we witness creative genius in action. In fact, many masterpieces are a product of some sort of transcendence from human experience. Nolan’s Inception, Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory and Stephen King’s Misery are all products of dreams, not to mention the entirety of the Surrealist movement. Further, artists as a demographic are more likely to experience a psychological sensation known as “the flow state”. In this state, the individual is so fully immersed in an activity that their experience of time is warped — they enter a mode of experience radically different to the average person’s. In great art, there always seems to be a commingling between the human experience and the Beyond.

However, if there was ever a group of individuals to have lofty ideas of their own work, it was the Romantics. The Romantics dismantled this idea of genius. Now, its origins were not found in the beyond, in another spirit, in a divine entity, but rather from within. Shelley once said of the poet’s role in society: “They measure the circumference and sound the depths of human nature with a comprehensive and all-penetrating spirit,” — quite the expectation of the poet. Creative genius was rendered back unto the artist. The poet ceased to be a writer: the poet was now an oracle for humanity who could somehow distil the human experience into however many stanzas. 

Now, creative genius is not the only genius that exists. But why are scientific geniuses far less prone to the romanticisation of their misery, their lives, and their deaths? It could be down to how we venerate artists as saints in the Church of Pop Culture. But I do believe it speaks to a special relationship that we as human beings have with the arts. Creative genius is exceptional because it affects us so profoundly: it can give us goosebumps, make us cry, take us back to better days, or give us hope that they will soon come. I don’t know, maybe mathematicians feel this way with a problem sheet — it’s really not for me to say. However, there is an innateness and a primitivity that comes of creative genius. It appears to us as unintelligible and imperceptible. It can seem radically new to us. Innovations in science, as exceptional as they are, can be explained. They use previous innovations to create new ones, you can prove it: we can see the working-out, as it were.

There is a newfound desire, even necessity, to create art from the artist’s lived experience.

By diminishing the gap between art and artist, an artist’s creations become akin to their progeny. An attack on their art is a personal attack. And there is a newfound desire, even necessity, to create art from the artist’s lived experience. And because of the corrosive and visceral effects of negative emotion and experience, artists are liable to ruminate in this state. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that genies make great friends, and not-so-great flatmates.

So, to those lucky enough to be creative geniuses: maybe it’s time to relinquish your ownership of your art, an amicable separation if you will. Your art is just as authentic and just as real at an arm’s distance. Let your genie in for a cuppa, just don’t let it stay the night. You don’t have to tear yourself apart for creation’s sake; a criticism of your work is not a criticism of you. Treat your work with irony, with levity and see where it gets you. Create art for the artist’s sake.

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