Notes from the back row: The artist's dilemma
By Charlotte B. Cerminaro
Just as there are numerous and strange misconceptions about different cultures and the people who belong to them, there are contrasting and even capricious assumptions about the public and private lives of artists. Some of these odd ideas are merely oversimplifications or stereotypes; some have been around for quite a long time and are possibly further reinforced by popular media.
The artist's life is often portrayed as glamorous, with almost mystical circumstances surrounding the discovery, development and maturation of their abilities. Sometimes the real-life experiences of performing onstage temporarily mimic this glamorous ideal, with thousands of adoring fans viewing their idol as an avatar-like being. This worship in no way equates with talent or character; it's a rather unrealistic view of a normal human being with musical training. These misrepresentations are unusual in that they confer an element of cosmic indifference and blind coincidence to skills that are innate, but not necessarily uncommon. By implication, this only compounds the expectations that others place on artists, and more so the ones they place on themselves.
One of the more peculiar, false and harmful ideas, propagated for centuries, is that virtuosic skill cannot be born of innate talent, personal drive and hard work alone. Musicologists, historians and script writers have often tried to endorse the notion that there is somehow a trade-off, that a prodigious quantity and quality of artistic output is associated with, and caused by, the torment of mental illness. The well-documented, high incidence of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and physical and mental collapse among artists and composers, is touted as evidence that their body of work is actually the result of an "accident"--a cruel twist of fate that simultaneously robs artists of their sanity and blesses the human race with the products of that insanity. This schadenfreude isn't peculiar to the 21st century, but attempting to neutralize individual strengths and differences while blurring all boundaries is a uniquely modern paradigm.
There is a basic precept, taught and demonstrated in scientific study and logic which states: Correlation does not prove causation. During their early years, young musicians develop technical skills in their chosen medium. Once these rudimentary skills are physically mastered, an entire world is opened up, one in which the burgeoning prodigy discovers a nascent artistic expression, along with individuality and creativity.
Stepping over this threshold, they get their first glimpse of a vast and unimaginable virtuosic potential. There is never an apotheosis, where one's abilities are complete--those who rest in their skills find only stagnation. Striving for more, it becomes clear that perfection cannot be attained, yet the compelling and continuing need to reach for something ever greater than themselves, an abstract and fleeting essence, is very real indeed. Nothing on this earth can define or contain such artistry. It remains inscrutable to those who only seek to grasp; those who persistently reach for the unattainable, have touched this elusive sublimity and are forever changed. The virtuoso is both haunted and humbled by the unsearchable mystery of their art.
Is this the essence of insanity? If the unsettling notion of perfection ever strains our sensibilities, surely a lifetime of pursuing such fleeting and transitory goals would likely be the cause, not the symptom, of mental despair and physical collapse. Despite this relatively simple algorithm, politically correct arguments and tenebritic irrationality devalue the most dynamic and powerful forces at play, denying the innate talents that are as unique to each individual as our genetic fingerprint, and a determination, almost as dear as life itself and as strong as survival.
This determination can be clearly seen in the light of reason, with examples of it throughout history. It is not a sign or result of mental illness but rather a sign of life, a will to survive. During the Renaissance and many other times, our survival depended on scientific and artistic archetypes, people with the talent and drive to punctuate the timeline of human history with enlightenment. There is a nexus of character traits, a result of the eternal struggle against entropy and disorder. These are fundamental laws of nature, scientific axioms which we have fought against long before our understanding of thermodynamics emerged during the age of enlightenment. Without these leaps in understanding and advancement, the almost superhuman energy and force of will necessary to break through a thousand years of darkness, our civilization would not have survived. The final frontier is the human mind. If we can finally begin to understand this marvelous, complex wonder of design, perhaps it will stop being the object of misplaced worship, and conversely, demonization. Perhaps it isn't too much to hope that our worship will finally be directed toward the only being who rightfully deserves such praise, in whose image we were so fearfully and wonderfully made.
Charlotte B. Cerminaro is a Juilliard-trained classical musician who, in addition to being a studio and orchestral musician, enjoys writing and has a degree in Molecular Biology. © 2021