What drives creativity? Lots of things, of course. The driving force depends completely on the creative person. Some are insistent on birthing something new and notable into the world. Others are attempting to drill to the core of life, sometimes by drilling into their own psyches, to find out what spins at the center of it all. Others feel cut off from the rest of humanity. Their creative pursuits are like frantic hands reaching out through prison bars hoping someone will take ahold and pull them out of their lonely cells. Still others are like children playing unselfconsciously with whatever toys are at hand and then running into the living room to show their latest creation to whoever happens to be there. Some creativity is like the handkerchief in the magician’s other hand, waving about to distract you from seeing what the magician is really up to. This list isn’t exhaustive. There are as many reasons to create as there are people who create.
There is a myth that persists in our society about creativity, though, that seems especially difficult to dispense with – that creative genius and inner turmoil go hand in hand, that without some sort of fatal psychological flaw, true, transcendent creativity is impossible.
The example proofs of this theory are legion. It seems that every few months we hear of another beloved creative figure who has yielded to despair (often after a long battle) and taken their own life. The story that’s repeated in the emotional aftermath is, I think, a genuine attempt at narrative redemption. We try to reconcile the darkness and the light by making the former the price one must pay to access the later. We express our thanks for those willing to endure the pain to bring us pleasure. Worse, suicide is recast as self-sacrifice in service of some kind of artistic god, the noble destiny of those truly sanctified by the divine Arts.
It is true that the artistic spirit is often prone to melancholy, and melancholy is a mountain range with peaks and valleys. To those unfamiliar with the temperament, those heights and depths appear to be the places where creative types go to get their inspiration. This is not true.
Speaking as one with this temperament, the heights are too high for effective work. The air is too thin, the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen, and it’s nearly impossible to stay focused. The depths are too dark. The path is obscured, and all that’s possible is moving forward inch by inch, feeling the way forward with timid toes. Real work happens on the side of the mountain, far from both unfocused ecstasy and blind ennui. Maturity isn’t a matter of learning to better survive at the extremes. Artistic maturity is learning that “this too shall pass” whatever the elevation and working diligently in the majority time between the zeniths and nadirs.
Also, this kind of artistic maturity has nothing to do with “genius.” “Genius” is the idea that some artists are especially blessed and able to produce work that is so much better than everyone else’s, work that leaps beyond current notions of what is possible, that most can’t even appreciate the greatness of it. Though the word itself is very old—a Latin term referring to the spirits responsible for inspiring creativity—the modern concept dates to the Enlightenment, when it was appropriated to elevate the work of the individual in creative pursuits. Prior the Enlightenment, most creative work happened in workshops, and the products of those workshops were ascribed to the workshop as a whole in the name of the master craftsman who led the workshop, not to an individual. “Genius” became a way of separating the individual craftsperson from the hoard of other craftspeople. (For more on this, check out Richard Sennet’s excellent book The Craftsman.)
“Genius” is, at best, a way of communally recognizing achievement. At worst, it is a marketing term used both by producers and consumers to elevate certain work above all other work and therefore fetch a higher price for that work. “Genius” has everything to do with the end result of creative work and nothing to do with the work itself. “Genius” obscures the creative process for both the artist and the one who admires the artist’s work. “Genius” makes art mysterious and magical rather than the natural result of the patient application of honed skills. “Genius” sends artists off on a quest for mystical inspiration instead of encouraging them to get to work. The great artists of the past, whom we would now label “geniuses,” all produced astounding amounts of work. They didn’t wait for the angels to stir the waters. They stirred them themselves with the frenzy of their paintbrushes and pens as they got up and got to work.
Frank, a dark comedy starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, and Maggie Gyllenhall about a young keyboardist, Jon, traveling with a band headed by a man wearing a papier-mâché mask, the titular Frank, is very knowing on these issues of artistic temperaments and creative drives. Jon wants to be a great songwriter, and he takes up with Frank and his band to glean something from these obviously tortured and, therefore, “genius” musicians. Along the way he learns that mental illness is simply mental illness, perceived artistic quality is as much a product of market consensus as it is a product of anything else, some people are skilled artists, others aren’t, that’s okay, and you have to place your self-worth in something other than public opinion of their work.
That last lesson is especially difficult for artists, as they typically pour themselves into their work. It’s natural to take praise or criticism of an artwork personally. At times, this tendency can be paralyzing, because it’s terrifying to submit yourself via your art to masses of strangers to scrutinize. It’s the curse of the Enlightenment for artists. No longer able to shield themselves from criticism and make a communal living by folding themselves into a guild, they must both promote themselves to sell their work, thereby welcoming personal criticism for that work. Mix that with the already difficult job of navigating the highs and low of the typical artist temperament, and you’ve got a potentially lethal concoction on your hands.
That most of the characters in Frank come out of this ordeal alive is a bit of a miracle. Frank’s absolution is especially poignant as he finally abandons everything he has adopted to make himself stand-out, reconciles with his guild, and reenters the security of their communal sound. Jon’s resolution is more melancholy, but I believe he is in a better place psychologically than he is in when the film begins.
Frank isn’t the best movie I’ve seen this year. It isn’t my favorite movie either. But as a person who has nurtured creative ambitions throughout my life, and as a person who cares more deeply about artists and their struggles than I do about anything else (including movies), Frank proved remarkably affecting. I was uncomfortable watching Frank, because I recognized so many of my own issues and the issues of people I love. Eventually, I was heartened by the film as I watched the characters overcome some of those issues.
Frank isn’t the kind of movie that wants a sequel, but the story isn’t over when the movie ends. The characters are just beginning to find peace. There’s still a long road ahead, as there is for so many creative types, even those much more well-adjusted than Frank and his band. If there are artists in your life, love them as well as you can. Love them, not their masks, and be okay with not understanding them. Typically, they don’t want to be understood. Any person is more than any person can understand. They want to be loved regardless of whether you think you understand them or not.
(Frank is playing in select theaters and is also available via Video On Demand from a variety of providers.)
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