I listened to John Cleese’s Google talk a while ago. There are a whole lot of profound ideas in there, but the most important thought for me personally comes up around 45 minutes in, during the Q&A session. I want to talk about anxiety and why I suck at art, and in the process misrepresent Mr. Cleese’s point.
As you might or might not know, I sometimes dabble in generative art and poetry. I also play the guitar, although not that often anymore. I am not very good at any of them1. It doesn’t matter, though, because it is purely recreational, and I enjoy it.
But sometimes I do wonder why my art isn’t very good, and I get anxious when I look at other people’s portfolios. I have no right to do that, though, because, as I wrote above, my artistic dabblings are supposed to be for recreation. This obviously doesn’t work, because I like to be good at the things I do, but I’d like to write about that at length some other time.
What matters is that I end up feeling anxious. And to counter that I often double down, and program an artwork or write a poem. The results are unequivocally terrible, and not unexpectedly so.
Anxiety can be a good motivator, but not for the creative process. If I want to get stuff done in a field where I don’t have to be creative—write a program I’ve mostly written before, for instance—, that’s perfectly fine, though of course not ideal. When working creatively, on the other hand, anxiety corners you. You get something mediocre, something you’ve done before. Your mind flows through the path of least resistance.
But even when starting from a more healthy place, say creative hunger that possesses you during a long relaxed weekend, I will find a way to make myself feel anxious. I will think about all of the people I admire, but couldn’t possibly ever compare to. I will think about the peace of mind with which I assume they approached the artworks that I look up to, and how simple it was for these masters to create them2. And I will feel a crippling angst that holds my creative mind hostage.
However, in some cases anxiety can be channeled into art. Truly masterful comedians can even make people laugh at their dread. But: it won’t ever guide you into a space your mind has never been in before, and you won’t have any revolutionary ideas. I say that as if it was a fact, but of course it is mere opinion. More talented, more hardworking, and more accomplished creatives might feel differently about this. Even John Cleese himself doesn’t seem to be entirely unconflicted about this, as seen in this interview at around 42 minutes in, and in his book3.
I know, however, what works for me and what doesn’t. And feeling anxious, although it is ever present in my life, doesn’t work for me.
1. I’d like to point out that I’m not fishing for compliments here. I know my art very intimately, and I know that it doesn’t work in a variety of ways. And sometimes a little gem comes along.
2. That’s another one of these little lies that anxiety tells us. There is not a single revered creative I’ve ever heard of who wasn’t always full of existential dread about their work. It is a kind of fuel, but channeling it is hard.
3. I think he makes a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic anxiety, but that would completely devastate my point, and so I will gloss over it. Didn’t I tell you I wanted to misrepresent his argument?