The Archetype of the Obsessed Artist

I am just not a very hard worker.

I’m not being self-deprecating. I feel like that’s one of the things you’re really not allowed to say, like, “I’m not very smart” or “I’m kind of plain-looking” – like when you say it it’s the obligation of whoever’s listening to argue with you, to try to convince you that no, you ARE attractive, you ARE brilliant, etc.

So not being a hard worker is kind of taboo, in a competitive, survival-of-the-fittest culture… probably not a good idea to put it on your resumé, your Match.com profile, to say it in a job interview. And it’s certainly not safe to advertise in an Art MFA program… only the hyper-productive will survive and thrive in the art world, kid!

But it’s true. And maybe it’s only due to pretty extreme privilege that I even feel that I can get away with saying it publicly, without (too much) fear that it’ll wreck my career prospects. It’s NOT OKAY to be lazy in this world. It’s NOT OKAY to prefer free time to productive labor. If you do, you’re clearly not committed (to your job, to your art form), and the quality of your work must be marginal.

When I traverse the University of Minnesota campus, I see the swarms of students – I believe there are like 50,000 of us just on this campus, at least 100,000 in the statewide system – and I think about how hard everyone is being taught and trained to work, I find it utterly exhausting.

I think it was an inarticulated part of my thought process when I left Los Angeles after graduating from USC, also – this vast city, 8 million strong, these literally dozens of schools churning out thousands of newly minted filmmakers every year… all set to compete tooth and claw with one another for a limited number of jobs, toiling their way up the pyramid of Industry with their heart set on the throne at the top… or is it a sacrificial altar? I digress.

So you have the people who stick with it and rise to the top (Jon Chu’s new film opened last weekend and grossed $130 million worldwide, maybe that’s why this is on my mind), those who find contentment and relative security somewhere in the middle, and those who exit the churn, gracefully or ungracefully, and find something else to do. The biggest rewards go to the most ardent, the hardest workers, the unceasingly cheerful and optimistic.

And like I said, I am definitely not one of the hardest workers. Not even close.

But what becomes more and more clear to me is that I’m not interested in art that’s created obsessively and frenetically. That archetype, of the obsessed artist, has been around for a long time, but it seems like it had a particular resonance with the second half of the 20th century – a resonance which is, I hope, fading. Sure, Stanley Kubrick made brilliant films, and Dostoevsky wrote powerful fiction – but I don’t really want to be them, or live in their world. I do not aspire to art as a form of martyrdom, and I think it’s dangerous to try to instill this value in our young people.

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