Under Pressure: On the relationship between creativity and emotional/mental health

face to face

“I am not so sure that things get done in meetings”

Ha. You may have a point there! :slight_smile:

I would say, though, that in my experience face-to-face meetings certainly produce different kinds of outcomes than just connecting online - there is a certain kind of trust, enthusiasm, or motivation to collaborate on projects that can suddenly emerge when a group who has only been connecting through screens suddenly share the same real-world space.

fully agree with that sentiment. face-to-face produces something tangibly different but equally as powerful as shared ‘head space’ online

Sry for late comment

@Alberto s mention slipped the radar there. Funny enough I was just procrastinating by listening to a video on procastination. I think it is long and general enough that various people could get something out of it. Just to address the “getting things done” angle. :slight_smile:

On face vs screen, etc. I think you are right that certain methods work better (or just more comfortably?) with some people (on some topics). You’ll get different discussions and different outcomes. I think face to face helps my mirror neurons fire up fully. I often feel I can only really fully develop many aspects of a thought in a discussion. On the other hand I also like to listen to a recorded discussion afterwards and focus my thought much more on certain aspects without being afraid I have to answer some question or lose track of a discussion. I can be fully in observer mode and my thinking is much more like if I am editing someone else’s text and want examine and fix every little bit of imprecision.

Another thing that could make face to face meetings different is that you can smell the person and the environment. Also a LOT of our nervous system is connected to the stomach/digestive tract (the face and brain came way later!) so I would not be surprised if there is more purpose to business/conference dinners than to knock out the prefrontal cortex a little (althought that can also help).

here is the comment

Alberto was referring to https://edgeryders.eu/en/comment/18173#comment-18173

That one

Yes, that’s the document that @steelweaver might be interested in reading. I certainly found it illuminating.

HI @noemi, sorry it took me so long to answer you, I’ve been traveling. I was trained as an sculptor in Madrid in the '90s and I found artistical education to be deeply rooted in a tradition of irrationality that can be traced to the romantic movement in the 18th century, what is generally presented as the reaction to the enlightenment. I knew I had had enough when a very dear person to me committed suicide. I’ve had the chance to study and live in the states and in Canada and my experiences in those cultural environments helped me understand other ways to address artistical activities, in a more positive and balanced way. While in Boston I had the great luck to find a sumi-e master that introduced me to the practice of Japanese brush painting, yet another approach to art that includes irrational thought without the angst. I have never developed a theory on all this, but my observations on how the individual artist relates to the society in the different cultures, what is expected of the creative role and how we teach art leads me to think that we in Europe need to overcome this tragical tradition. I wish I could give you more to pull the thead, I really am no expert!

I’m less of an expert than you, but

Maybe @HKaplinsky or @iamkat might be able to add to whether there is an overdose of angst in European artistic thought, practice, socialization.

I’ve also invited an art curator friend of mine to join the discussion, and see what she makes of this.

I’m sorry about your dear one. I wonder: if this is so generalized, what support systems are out there for artists then? do artistic collectives or platforms have a contribution to make here or rather more diverse social environments?

view of a psychotraumatologist :wink:

What an interesting discussion, thx to you all. I agree that stress and suffering are part of life @noemi @odin @Alberto, that stress to some degree even make us thrive, grow @steelweaver. But in the end stress should not become bigger than our coping skills, it should not be overwhelmingly disturbing.

In general, I think of art and creativity as an expression of oneself, an expression of our inner world, our ‘being’ in the world, our being ‘me’. Being authentic is by definition being different from others and thus coping with judgment,  the others , the outer world goes along with it.

But I also think that feeling different, an outsider, more sensitive than others, etc etc … is often a ‘symptom’ of trauma, a result of not having our needs met in the past f.ex, wich often results in losing our own connection with our needs, our connection with ourself.  This disconnection is trauma, the residu of pain. In my vision many artists are trying to ‘heal’ themselves through their art - redefine themselves, trying to find a way to become ‘whole’ again - integrate pain and trauma. Artists are often ‘self-healers’, they are their own therapists.

When the self-healing fails, they might consider exploring the pain and trauma trough different glasses - those of a therapist. Thinking out of the box could help them cope better :slight_smile:

This is the more or less classic, freudian, psychological explanation for ‘artistic pain’.

There is another explanation though, one that is defended by one of the founding fathers of expressive arts therapy S.K. Levine : that art is the expression of our soul, our ‘acorn’, that we are born with a ‘mission’, something we want to express, and that the struggle to discover and express this acorn, this individual mission causes pain. Levine thinks we overfocus on pain and trauma caused by environment/youth/parents… We should instead in therapy look more for ‘the inborn authenticity, the inborn self’.

(If interesetd in this latter explanation: See Stephen K. Levine: Trauma, Tragedy, Therapy: the Arts of human suffering (quite a philosophical, demanding book - but very interesting out of the box view for therapists ;-))

Hope this helsp as a theoretical frame @Pauline


The traumatized self healing artist myth

The theory @ybe has contributted is a very accurate example of the destructive narrative I was talking about in the first place.

If it’s not too late to join the discussion

Hi everyone.

I can only speak for the contemporary art scene, which is the one I’m part of and not for theatre or other subdomains of the creative field. I see two main directions in the discussion so far.

First, there’s the question of creativity and anxiety being intertwined, and how to identify the moment when this anxiety crosses over to a dangerous zone for the artist; also, if this link is a given, how would we go about trying to keep an artist in the safety zone without hindering the creative dimension. Going back to what has been noted so far, the idea of the artist as troubled soul is rooted in the romantic definition of the artist, which I think has long been overcome within contemporary art (and made room for other sources of angst). Nevertheless, apart from this dated, unhealthy perspective, there might be an actual connection between the artistic predisposition and emotional volatility. I haven’t read any studies on this topic, though I suppose this is a strong area of research and only after making sense of the results we might be able to think of strategies for improvement. These might be seen as issues concerning the psychology of arts, which I’m not at all familiar with.

Then, there is the layer of high (or higher?) anxiety levels within the art world as a result of the pressures of the specific field. Here I’m referring to aspects that could be integrated within the sociology of arts (which I have more understanding of) like rampant competition, status issues (the art world is strongly hierarchical), precarious living/working conditions, high levels of uncertainty (not only of day to day life but the artist’s own sense of identity as an artist), market/ commercialization contamination and so on.

At one point in his article The Curatorial Muse, Michael J. Kowalski writes: “It is acknowledged, though not often discussed in polite company until the third drink, that the arts are defined by the same Darwinian savagery as any another profession. It is also acknowledged that the aspiration of art to beauty and truth is a pious fiction, but in the best possible sense of the word. Finally, and crucially, it’s acknowledged that these two characteristics of art are seriously and permanently at odds with one another”. - (http://www.contempaesthetics.org)

One important idea here is to note that these are not concerning artists only, but art workers in general. It’s difficult for me to say if the levels of anxiety are higher in art that in other professions. A good point was made earlier that these might be found in any other field. My impression is, though, that fields in which creativity is profoundly linked with identity will always make for a more stressful environment. And for those that already identify with the psichological pressures of creativity, this later layer might be just too much to handle.

Just a few more personal notes: in my discussions with artists I found that many drop out from University because they can’t take the pressure. It might be helpful to note that the myth of the emergent artist will bring the issues I identified before as pertaining to the sociology of art very early on in an artist’s life – from the first years of university. This young age, one that is related to learning, experimenting, trial and error, finding one’s path etc., has become a battlefield for launching careers. (My one experience brings this even earlier in life, being a child and a teenager trying to become a professional musician. I am one of those who could not handle the difficulties of a musical career at such an early stage in my life and lacking a good support system, so I quit. At present I work as a passionate art professional - curating, arts management, teaching, cultural PR - and I find the field highly demanding, but I feel I have more resources in myself to work my way through, than I did when I was a young musician.)

Another key point in artists’ lives that my friends who are painters pointed out to me is finishing their studies and trying to make a living through their art and not make compromises. The attention to each decision is overwhelming for most young artists: they need to make a living but most of the times their options put them in a compromising position they know they might not recover from, the art world being so much about reputation management and legitimation. Whenever I think of the contemporary art world I have in my mind the picture of a chess board. One needs to learn the rules of the game by playing, and you only get one round.

The other day I was listening to Sarah Thornton, a sociologist of art who was pointing out that ever since Duchamp, the freedom of the artist to fashion herself as an artist is a demigod position that puts a lot of pressure especially on artists finishing studies, whom are very much aware of the responsibility of designating themselves as artists. Many would not use the word artist, Thornton notes, and when asked what they do, they say “I do work…”

Of course, older age comes with its own anxieties within the arts, namely the obsession with youth…

But to conclude, I’d say that once clarified what aspects you guys are more interested in working with, there would be specific/ specialized ways to enable care and help. It might be that it is not even relevant if the creative field is more prone to anxiety than others, but wanting to reduce these big emotional costs would require a particular approach, one that suits the idiosyncrasies of the field. I’d be very interested to contribute within my own area of knowledge and experience - I say there’s a strong need for open care structures here.

Patterns of competition

Hello, @Georgiana_B.  , and welcome. I don’t think I have read anything by you before. You make some excellent points, particularly that of artists sharing some of those stress-inducing working conditions with non-artists. You mention art workers; where I come from (Italy) there is similar talk around freelancers.

Trained as an economist, having been a professional musician for several years in the 1990s, I looked up economic literature about the arts. The intuition most relevant to your point (and the whole thread) is this: art is defined by economies of scale in consumption. It works like this. Imagine you like classic two guitars-bass-drums rock music. Well, that technology scales really well: you can enjoy a rock concert in a bar with an audience of 30 people, or in a football stadium with an audience of 80,000. The costs of giving a concert increases in the size of the audience, but much slower than the ticket revenues. If you double your audience, your profit does not double: it goes up fourfold, or even tenfold, depends on where you start. Markets with these characteristics are called winner-takes-it-all: they produce few superstars, with everyone else doing badly (Rosen’s classic 1981 paper). While stars tend to be very talented people, it is simple to build a model that takes performers with identical characteristics, and then makes one or a few of them superstars, and discards the others. Initial lucky breaks are reinforced by the success-breeds-success dynamics. We need a hairdresser every ten blocks, because people go to different hairdressers. But very few stars, because we all watch/listen to/read the same ones.

Now, you really do not want to work in a labour market that makes superstars. Whoever you are, probability says that you are almost certainly a loser in the race. That’s extremely stress inducing. But artists do work there. And so do others, as you point out.

Tentative conclusion. Maybe it’s not creativity that is stressful: it’s the characteristics of winner-takes-it-all labor markets, including the one for artists. Implications: hard call. I fully appreciate that being creative in your spare time is limiting. But so is being poor, scared and stressed out. My own choice was relatively easy, given that I was obviously no artistic genius, and other things interested me just as much as music: I got the hell out of it after making it to midlevel (gold record in a secondary market such as Italy), but not to stardom :-)


Georgi, here is Alberto’s story as an economist turned musician turned policy expert. Pretty savory :slight_smile:

I don’t know if market skewness explains it all - it certainly makes sense. But from what people are saying here, it also has to do with professional identity and some ideas attached to it telling you what you should do as an artist or how to carry yourself in the world -which creates anxiety.

costly naivety

Hi, @Alberto

Thank you. I’m new to the platform, indeed. I was kindly introduced to the thread by Noemi, my dear friend.

You pointed out so well that being poor, scared and stressed out is as limiting as not practicing one’s art as their profession! It’s curious what makes people choose one or the other. One theory I heard recently at a sociology of arts conference was that people in these fields keep thinking that the next gig/exhibition etc. will be the big break. Costly naivety/ self-deceit  :)

So, the theory you mentioned and the article you recommended are new to me and I find they describe aspects of the arts-market relationship, amongst others, very accurately. Thank you for sharing this with me! Before reading these, I was thinking about how creative fields and other professions, like sports, have some similar stress sources, and this was confirmed and explained by the superstar economy theory.

As useful and valid this is, I think it explains things only in part. One idea that comes to mind is the notoriously anxiety-inducing profession of writing. There seems to be something intrinsic about the creative craft that makes people doubt themselves completely. The tyranny of the white page could be well found in the white canvas …

Besides this intrinsic source of anxiety, which, again, I’m quite uninformed about, I see a few more layers. As you were saying, Alberto, a strong one would be the characteristics of the winner-takes-it-all labor markets, and others might hover between the two, like self-belief, identity issues etc. I imagine a tension, a dynamic.

Noemi, you phrased it wonderfully talking about the pressures of “how to carry yourself in the world” as an artist. In particular, the fact that the distinction or the separation between art and life, professional and personal evaporate within the arts (from creators to art professionals) would be a generous source of tension.

One question that crosses my mind: how much of this is penetrating within the non-creative spheres as side-effect of the creative turn, the requirement for creativity, the curated self, etc.?

By way of conclusion - I’m 30 now and I’ve been practicing self-deceit and strategic thinking, in turns, for more than 5 years now. Reading your story, Alberto (thanks a lot @Noemi for the introduction, that was quite a read!), worries me that I have some time left for at least one shift :wink:

You have time :slight_smile:

Oh, you have plenty of time. I left professional music at 34. It was a struggle to get back to being a freelance economist, but it could be done. After a few lean years, I got a breakthrough at the age of 41. When I turned 45, I took on an international job and left the country. Another two years later I co-founded Edgeryders, and this year, at 50, the transition from freelance economist to working full time for my own company seems complete. 30 years, you’ll probably change your professional identity not one, but twice. In fact, Edgeryders exists in part to provide a ramp to people that want to do this stuff. I took it head on, but it does not have to be lke that. Noemi will tell you more about this if you are interested. :-)

In our current line of work there is some of the persistent, low-level panic of the artist’s work, because there are fads in consultancy, and people hustle, and it’s important to be seen in the right places. But the market is NOT winner-takes-it-all. Companies need help, and they can’t all get the top ten guys in the business, because those guys can only sell 100% of their time.

The notoriously anxiety-inducing profession of writing

Regarding "There seems to be something intrinsic about the creative craft that makes people doubt themselves completely. The tyranny of the white page could be well found in the white canvas … "

I am not someone who enjoys writing a whole lot, but let me share two items. The Dunning-Kruger effect probably explains some of this. It works indirectly though: Literacy is something that tends to draw an intelligent crowd. Those people tend to read material produced by other relatively intelligent people. If you decide you also have something to contribute, you will often feel like you’d better not be one of the worst of authors (even though for mere mortals there may not be a realistic way around that - as most people just need the practice). That means people who actually decide to write are a tiny minority and probably quite far from the average. So in short: writing does not produce (particularly much) anxiety, but it tends to draw an anxiety plagued crowd. When I read how fairly prolific writers approach the task (journalists on reddit, or academics for scientific proposals) I was shocked by the lack of rigor and decorum.

The other item I fould almost universally helpful and reconiling is a list of cognitive biases. For me it very much drives home the point that the mind really is a very messy thing that is quite dismal at some tasks and quite impressive at others. And we are probably very lucky there is a good deal of variation between people.

Only 1 shift?!

Here is a vid from a person from a very different milieu I think, and still there are many parallels. He’s more expecting 7 shifts though:

You can just watch 7 or so minutes, but perhaps @dfko would be interested in the whole thing - I could imagine there could be some mutual benefit in that approach as well.

Changing professional paths

The thing that is pretty scary to me is this idea of arriving at an end of it, figuring out where your path is gonna take you, or worse, like this guy in the video you shared says, discovering “what you’ve been put on earth do do”. I think starting off with that mindset is freakish…

long tail?

Interesting economic analysis, @Alberto. Is there any evidence that the ‘long tail’ effect is changing things in artistic ‘markets’?

There were a lot of promises a few years back that the internet would make many more people able to be sustainable successful at a smaller scale [curating a fanbase of a few thousand fanatically-loyal people, say, while presumably supplementing income from art with other jobs and roles], and I know of a few anecdotal examples of artists doing just that, but my general impression is that those promises were not delivered on.

Don’t know much

There seems to be some interesting stuff happening in fringe genres, like erotica and my favourite, hard sci-fi. But yes, that’s anecdotal. I have dropped out of studying that stuff since, and moved onto greener pastures. Which itself is a kind of anecdotal analysis.

“Long tail” markets would feature many niches, each one with the economies of scale in consumption aforementioned, but making space for more artists just by virtue of being many. So your question is theoretically valid, but I do not know the answer.

This thread is becoming immensely resourceful.

I’d like to explicitly, out loud, acknowledge the super ideas and contributions people have been bringing to this conversation. What months ago started as a shy question by Pauline about the relationship between creativity and mental illness became slowly a rich discussion on artistic education, creative angst and vulnerability in various professions and particularly how personal attributes like introvertedness, autism, ambition, self-deceit, psychological resourcefullness at large influence the wellbeing of our professional self. What depth!

Re-reading it all makes for some pretty deep reflection points on a Sunday afternoon.

Thank you @Pauline | @Alex_Levene | @Maria@Patrick_Andrews | @Altamirula | @steelweaver | @ybe |  @trythis@Georgiana_B. | @Alberto.