The (Endlessly Annoying, Horribly Consuming, Creepily Off-Putting) Drive in Artists to Make Art

Michael Fallon ruminates on the origins of the artistic impulse and concludes that it's a mixed bag of wish fulfillment and vanity that, occasionally, includes a fruitful urge actually to make art

1Michael Fallon (photo courtesy of the artist)
2A Walk Into the Sea movie poster

Everyone at some time in life ends up with a friend like Mike. Mike wanted desperately to be a screenwriter. Or, to put it more accurately, he wanted you to think of him as a screenwriter.

Another friend of mine, G. (who wouldn’t care much whether or not you knew how accomplished an arts writer, artist, and craftsperson he actually is), first encountered Mike after a meeting which was initiated for the purposes of screenplay research. “Man,” G. said, “that’s a guy who’s just desperate for attention. Do me a favor and keep me out of the loop next time.” S., yet another friend and a self-taught artist who earned his skills by hard toil over band saw and workbench, after a few months’ acquaintance took to calling Mike an intellectual Baby Huey. You know Baby Huey, right? Always wanting attention, always bumbling into every situation like an attention-seeking whale in a wading pool. That’s Mike!”

Mike struggled constantly to foist an identity on himself –as a shiningly original creative person. You can’t blame him for that, everyone wants to be thought special; but with Mike this need for artistic identity became a kind of illness. Whenever Mike and I went out to grab a post-dayjob drink at the local watering hole, he dominated conversation with talk about the screenplay idea he’d been percolating all day. What’s more, Mike would repeat his ideas over and over, ever more emphatically, usually without much specific detail, in an effort to get you and anyone else who came around to agree that his ideas were scintillating. Unfortunately, his endlessly repeating “pitches” halted plenty of otherwise promising bar conversations.

Just as an example: One of Mike’s oft-rehashed ideas was to base a screenplay entirely around the song titles of Steely Dan. The height of his enthusiasm for this idea was a torturous time for all of us around him.” For months, he cornered us at parties, butted into others’ conversations, and generally made a nuisance of himself repeating the concept and the song titles and his conviction of the inventiveness of the idea (though not much of the actual story).

Thankfully, the Steely Dan screenplay phase ended at a local Democratic Party benefit event after the death of Paul Wellstone. Supposedly, Mike tried to interest Al Franken in the idea, upon which Franken brushed him off brusquely enough that, out of shame, Mike never talked about the idea again.

What’s craziest about all of this is, despite the ardent talk and earnest, dreamy-eyed plotting, there was seldom much evidence that Mike doing any actual writing related to these ideas. Whenever I asked him how far along he was on whatever project he was rambling on about, he’d answer with a vague wave of the hand, saying something about how ideas need time to percolate. “With screenplays,” he said with somber sagacity, “you have to know where it’s going before starting, otherwise, you waste a lot of effort.”

It’s also telling that each of Mike’s successive nascent screenplays was eventually replaced with a new idea –each deemed more brilliant than the last by its conceiver– leaving its once-promising predecessor dropped, usually never mentioned again. Mike talked about a sketchy past interaction with an agent and an aborted attempt to move to Los Angeles, but nothing (not one piece of writing, long or short) was ever produced. His lack of a single screen credit didn’t prevent Mike from teaching a screenwriting class for a local filmmaking nonprofit. He was a regular participant in panels at local screenwriting conferences. And he was always boasting about the time he’d had lunch with Barry Morrow, who just happened to be in town, or attended an event at Shawn Otto‘s house. And, if you looked nonplussed, he’d be sure to let you know exactly who these people were (screenwriters of, respectively, Rain Man and House of Sand and Fog).

Being an actual, producing writer was not that important to Mike, or at least it wasn’t as important as maintaining the appearance of being a key member of the country club of scribes. And despite his lack of screenwriterly accomplishment, Mike’s ardent self-promotion allowed him to work his way into a central position in the local “screenwriter community.”

I don’t mean to suggest that a compulsion to make art or to identify oneself as an artist, even if accomplishment is unrealized or long-delayed, is a bad thing. Such driven artists can be annoying to friends and bystanders, they can grow boring and repulsive to people in bars and at parties– but how else will art get made, if not by people compelled to do so?

I first met filmmaker Esther Robinson in 2002 for a story I was writing on artists who have left Minnesota to go to other, perhaps better, places. Robinson, a Minnesota native who worked at KTCA as a producer in the early ’90s and then moved to Brooklyn, spoke of an idea she had for a film. The story was to be based on her uncle, who had been for a time a denizen of Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York. “That sounds intriguing,” I said to her, and we bid farewell.

Some time passed. In 2005, I had an opportunity to work on a project related to the welfare of aging artists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; and, since Esther’s day job for all those years was as a program officer in the artist services industry, I sought out her advice in getting started. And though in the end she had no direct involvement in the project –merely offering generous amounts of guidance and advice– I recall that, in the course of conversation about one detail or another related to foundation funding, she mentioned that she was still, after nearly four years, working on the film project about her uncle.

In all, the film, eventually titled A Walk into the Sea, took Esther Robinson (and a team of collaborators) six years to complete. I imagine during that long stretch of years Esther’s friends and colleagues and other acquaintances might well have grown bored with hearing her talk, over and over, about this project that she never seemed to complete. In one stretch early on, after Esther had conceived of the film but before she really knew what scope it would take on, she had to wait eighteen months for the Museum of Modern Art in New York to release newly discovered films made by her uncle while he was at the Factory. I can only imagine how often she must have talked about this discovery, speculated what might be on the films, wondered if they showed signs of latent filmmaking talent in her uncle, and whether or not all this waiting would be worth it.

It’s quite possible that Esther, like any driven artist trying to see a big project through, was insufferable about it all. Perhaps several of her friends came to hope they’d never hear the words “Danny Williams” or “Andy Warhol” or “my film” ever again. I could be wrong about this, but I’ve known enough artists struggling in the middle of this or that extended project to know that their tight focus can be like dealing with a petulant five-year-old who’s just heard the jingle of an ice cream truck. Not a pretty thing.

Success, of course, is validation for all manner of neurotic impulses, even when it comes to desperately needy artists, and Esther Robinson’s six-year journey, in the end, was vindicated by its success. Upon its release, A Walk into the Sea won multiple awards (Best Documentary at the 2007 Berlinale Film Festival, the New York Love Film award at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize at the Chicago International Film Festival) and garnered almost universally positive reviews.

In writing about this artistic compulsion, it is not my intention to belittle the characters of artists, nor am I trying to say something particularly trenchant about the universal nature of homo artisticus based solely on these two opposing examples. But I am trying to explore why one artist, equally driven as the next, fails at what he sets out to do, while the other achieves success.

My starting point for this exploration was to wonder how an artist’s drive to create and eventual success (or lack thereof) is related to the origins of that artist’s creative impulses. That is, is an artist’s capacity for eventual success related in any way to why, when, or where an artist first decided to become an artist? In this regard, my own earliest artistic impulses, and their relationship to my lack of success as an artist, may be revealing. My earliest imaginings of myself as an artist sprang from a desire, when I was in eighth grade, to impress seventh-grader, Patricia Chapman. She was the sort of girl –cute, smart, down-to-earth (a lot like the woman I eventually married)– that a kid like me (eternally shy and self-conscious) would fall for. The problem was I never could even muster the nerve to talk to her.

The only exception to this long string of bashfulness, the only time I was able not only to talk with her, but even to elicit a smile, was when I won the district-wide poster contest, and she won the associated essay contest. I remember the topic had something to do with energy and the future (this was the 1970s, after all), and I had drawn a hopeful poster showing all the modern wonders (nuclear power, solar power, wind power, etc.) that I imagined soon might replace our dwindling oil supply. As winners, we were photographed together one day at school by the local newspaper. And while I, sadly, never got the nerve up to talk to Patricia again, it later dawned on me that it was through art-making that I was able to break the silence. Maybe making art would help me meet girls.

Of course, it did not turn out the way my inner thirteen-year-old hoped. Being an artist was all toil and often not very sexy; and while I eventually got over my shyness (mostly), it was not because I made art. Art, after all, meant lots of time alone. In the studio. With no one else around. Just you. Along with your paints. And your thoughts. And not much else. Had I known then what I know now, about the sacrifices and demands of the artist’s choice of career and the unvarying isolation of the practice of it, I would have likely stayed well away from the profession. Instead, I struggled for ten years or so after college before giving it up for a life of writing, organizing, teaching, opining, and administering. (Turns out, I’m much happier as a failed artist than I ever was as a working one.)

As for the frustrated screenwriter, I remember clearly a story Mike told once that shed some light on how and why his own artistic drive grew to be so insistent and cloying. In high school Mike was precociously literate, writing a column in the school newspaper and, on a dare from a fellow student, a full ennui-laden novella. Mike’s home-life, meanwhile, apparently was rather empty. He talked about sitting in his room in well-to-do Minnetonka, feeling disconnected from everyone around him, staring at the snowdrifts piling up outside. Mike’s dad was a hospital administrator who took little interest in artistic things and even less in Mike, except when it came to creating work for the kid to keep him “out of trouble.”

One day, Mike decided he wanted to write a letter to the editor for publication in the local community paper on some topic or another. I wish I remembered, though it’s probably not important, what the topic was, probably something political that was likely to conflict with his dad’s Nixon-Republicanism. What is important, though, is rather than just send the letter to the paper, Mike gave it to his dad so he could have his secretary type it up. When the letter was published, Mike discovered, much to his horror (but likely not to his surprise), that his dad had changed major portions of the text, drastically rewriting the main point. Recalling this story, Mike’s voice was still anguished about it, “He changed what I wanted to say almost to its opposite. And he never even had the decency to say anything to me about it. We never even fucking spoke about it. He just changed what I wanted to say, like I wouldn’t even notice. You just don’t do that to a writer.”

He paused, swallowing hard. “That was when I realized something important,” he said. “That was when I realized I was meant to be a writer.”

It’s my theory that most artists, if they thought on the matter, would trace the origins of their careers, not from a rational interest in working on art or an innate talent for doing so, but from a desire for approval, acceptance, and understanding, or to satisfy an interior, emotional lack. Maybe it’s a need to patch a rocky relationship with a family member, or to assuage a feeling of alienation from one’s fellow human beings (or just from those of the opposite sex), or just to work through a set of personal issues. This theory, of course, tracks well what we know scientifically about the creative urge. As long ago as 1908, in a paper called “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (1908), Sigmund Freud portrays creativity as neurotic day-dreaming and the artist as an egotist, who, in making his escapist visions, creates a fantasy world in which he can fulfill his unconscious wishes. Even today, a growing body of psychiatric research suggests that creativity and mood disorders may be related. While the mechanism connecting the two is still unclear, a 2005 study at the Stanford University School of Medicine revealed that a sample of children at risk for bipolar disorder scored markedly higher on a creativity index.

Interestingly, if you ask artists, as I have for the past few months, to talk about the locus of their artistic impulses, or to recall the exact moment when they realized their potential to become artists (to see what sort of wishes they sought to fulfill)—most cant, or won’t. Perhaps this is because most people don’t self-analyze as much as I do (it’s probably the critic in me), or maybe most people just don’t care to face up to their inner demons. Whatever the case, most artists I talked to seem to think they started making art simply as a kind of reflex. “I feel compelled to make art, can’t really do without it,” said one artist that I asked. “I went into art because I didn’t have any choice. It’s what I simply had to do,” said another. The notion of finding out you’re an artist almost by accident is actually rather common, so common that it appears in the recent novel The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse by Jonathan Selwood. In the book, artist Isabel Ravel, the main character, stumbles during the course of the novel’s events into her old grade school art classroom. “In a flash, it all comes back,” she thinks. “It dawns on me that this is the very room where I first decided that I wanted to be an artist. Not because I wanted to make a lot of money or to be famous or even to express some deep childhood angst, but simply because I enjoyed drawing.”

Many of the artists that I talked to, especially the younger ones, likened becoming an artist to surrendering to unknowable forces of the universe. That is, artistry is a natural force, and if you’re fortunate enough to have some of it then why fight it or even question it? This idea of art-making is akin to the contemporary notion of “creativity.” Both are more and more seen by overstressed and harried modern people as a natural force for good, an all-encompassing panacea for every human ill, a natural birthright for those lucky enough to possess them, and an ineffable (if cultish) enlightener of otherwise unenlightened souls.

Never mind that no other profession in this modern world –neither lawyers, doctors, teachers, nor any other job– is based on such a hopeful delusion. The problem only comes later, when the artist realizes he has staked his future livelihood on unrealistic ideas. These elevated notions of art-making, of course, amount to skewed expectations for what is often a rather mundane activity– creating artwork, at heart, is just scraping a brush across canvas. Is it any surprise, then, that artists so often suffer from all sorts of measurable dysfunction and unhappiness when it turns out that the heavens don’t open up for them just because they make art?

In the end, I never had a chance to ask Esther Robinson about the circumstances surrounding her decision to become a filmmaker. But in our first interview, she did talk about the resentment she sensed from much older television producers in Minnesota who thought she was brash and too young, and about her peers who were tight-lipped about sharing opportunities, about the rarity of getting a chance at a truly choice job. To hear her tell it, Esther ended up in New York simply because she was seeking more opportunities for herself and looking to meet people and to find the resources that would allow her to make her own films. Like most people in other professions, her move was a practical choice about her career and an effort to advance her work.

While A Walk into the Sea was making the rounds of the film festival circuit, another interviewer asked Esther about the origins of the film. She replied with a plain-spoken lack of sentiment: “My first preparation for the film was mustering up the bravery to interview my grandmother.” I’ll likely never know the details of Esther’s artistic origins, but I imagine they’d be based on decision-points as straightforward and rational as the decision points that lead people into fields like the law, medicine, tax accounting, lobbying, education– or any other field that’s not art. And this, no doubt, is among the core reasons for Esther Robinson’s artistic success.

About the author: Michael Fallon is an arts writer and arts administrator based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Since 1998, he has written more than 160 reviews, feature articles, essays, and profiles for publications like City Pages, Art Papers, The Orange County Weekly, Modernism, The Pittsburgh City Paper, Fiberarts, Public Art Review, Art in America, and Hope. Michael has been a member of the American chapter of the International Art Critic’s Association since 2000, and in 2002 he founded a local arts writers association, the Visual Art Critics Union of Minnesota (VACUM).