A is for Angst
It is often taken as a maxim, especially by the young who are still filled with the mystery of their own uniqueness, that Angst is a necessary component of great art. No angst–no soul. For the purposes of this discussion, let us define art using my personal definition, “a work in any medium that creates in the audience a feeling or perception beyond what exists on the canvas (whatever kind of canvas that maybe.)” While we are defining terms, Angst, with a capital A here, is defined by Webster as: “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” It came into general use from the German word in 1942–a time when certainly a vast portion of the world’s population had become all too familiar with the feeling of dread.
Today, the word carries a numinous shimmering cloud. In the steam rising from an Arty Angst Stewpot simmering on the Archetypal Fire we catch a meaty whiff of Van Gogh’s severed ear and Kafka’s cockroach; the semi-sweet spice of bi-polar visionaries like Cobain, Coleridge, Shelley, and Pollack (some throw Michelangelo in here too); a salty edge from Dickenson’s reclusiveness; a hint of acidity from Plath’s depression; and there is a sickly sweetness in the musky undertones from a truck load of artists enjoying their laudanaum, pot, or acid. It is easy to forget healthy and productive artists from Dickens to Spielberg – (gentlemen, I do not doubt y’all have had some bad moments and not to detract from your suffering, but you’ve lived pretty well, fully enjoying the fruits of your labors in the realms of imagination).
A is for Angst. Yes, well Angst runs in my family. Arising from good depressive Scandinavian stock, we have that Winter-On-The-Fjiord, Where-Have-All-The-Vikings-Gone, Lost-at-Sea-Lost-at-Sea gloom gene. From a great-grandmother mysteriously hospitalized for 40 years in an Oregon mental institution to the usual range of depressions, suicide attempts, self-medication, narcissism, and corrosive bitterness, we are an Angst-ridden little group.
My mother wrote her master’s theses on Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread; I guess the research stuck in her head because her motto when I was growing up went something like this: “Oh honey, if you think this is bad, it only gets worse from here.” That and “never kiss with your mouth open,” were her main bits of motherly advice. Pondering these two gems, I vowed to consider the suicide route if by thirty things had really gotten exponentially worse. I found, however, that it doesn’t always get worse, and kissing with your mouth open is very pleasant indeed.
It is true that some of my better poetry has come from despair.
i want a knife tonight
one that fits my hand
black, balanced, sharpened to a fate
made to slice fat and sinew
in something hungry and dead
from “The Oldest Verb: To Cleave“
My best photographic images are, on the other hand, invariably created out of pure joy and an addiction, not to meth or to french fries, but an addiction to light.
Those swimming in the bourbon-infused waters of my genetic pool do have a good basic understanding of the blues. Indeed, the geography inside our skulls is made up of dark streets in bad neighborhoods where one really shouldn’t venture alone. So did we raise a crop of brilliant, productive, scintillating artists? Um. No.
My family’s best “art” (in image, song, or word) has been produced by those of us who struggled toward some kind of mental health. There is a documented correlation between bi-polar disorder and creativity, however, the qualities that distinguish creative but ill people can also be found in relatively “normal” individuals with a strong creative bent. Artists in general, and successful ones in particular, share an ability to adopt idiosyncratic thinking patterns—the basis of most creative work. They are committed to and enthusiastic about their art and are able to produce new, strange, odd, or adaptive ideas, synthesizing apparently unrelated concepts and images. While those of us who battle depression and other mental illnesses may, as a result of our disease, have a predilection for these qualities, we often fall down in the other critical requirement for artistic success (however you define the latter).
We have trouble producing.
However sublime one’s vision, if something tangible is not created, one languishes in the purgatory of hope, awaiting release, but stuck in a wasted life. One thing is certain: without a product you will not join the ranks of major or minor artists in that sacred Vallhalla where Socrates and Pablo Picasso recline next to Artemisia Gentileschi. Sorry, dude.
Artemisia Gentileschi, The Penitent Magdalene, oil on canvas, c. 1615, Marc A. Seidner Collection
The problem with mental illness, substance abuse, and numinous Angst is obvious and tragic: wasted time. Moments that slipped through our feverish fingers, our tomorrows, and tomorrows and tomorrows “full of sound and fury/signifying nothing.”
So, is Angst needed to create art? Well, deep feeling and a sensitivity to the horrors of life and the suffering of others is certainly an asset to producing work that resonates. That kind of angst is, however, not enough. A spirit of adventure, indefatigable curiosity, a willingness to fail, those precious idiosyncratic thinking patterns, plain hard work, and an igniting passion come in pretty handy too. And never underestimate the inspiration that can be found in Gratitude.
Stacy Ericson is an editor, poet, and photographer addicted to imagery both in word and in art. Her work often reflects her roots in the western states and an abiding interest in other cultures, ancient languages and religions, and other visceral passions. She lives and works in Boise, Idaho. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and photos can be found at the old bouquet , while fine art and portrait work can be seen on her professional website Stacy Ericson Photography.