At the heart of some artists is a need. A hunger. There is an emptiness that requires constant replenishment. Something almost indefinable is missing, so art becomes a means to find that lost piece. Is it psychological damage due to an unfortunate upbringing? Is it a genetic pre-disposition? Is it the result of a lifetime of messages and images promoting dissatisfaction with oneself and one’s place in the world? I don’t know. What I do know is that the hunger can consume the host. The deep seated need to fill the unfillable void, to negate the yawning chasm by throwing things into it, is ultimately an unwinnable battle and a destructive one.
Like a cosmic black hole, eventually all light is consumed. The aspects of an artist’s life that represent hope, achievement, appreciation, acknowledgement, love and adulation fall beyond the event horizon and all that is left is unimaginable bleakness and blackness. No light can escape, either. It’s a downward spiral that has cataclysmic consequences. It’s a destination of no return.
We see those artists as needy. They seek constant reaffirmation, yet distrust every affirmation they receive. The seeking seems to devalue the response. They love to be noticed and appreciated; yet find the attention intimidating and dangerous. All the while, there is no inner satisfaction arising from their own often spectacular achievements. There is just a bottomless hole waiting to be filled by who knows what.
I don’t think this insatiable void is rooted in rationality. It’s more intuitive and innate than that. As artists, we learn to appreciate the work and to enjoy the journey of discovery and learning. Self-improvement is its own reward. We are encouraged not to fixate on the destination. There is much to be grateful for, much to be mindful of and plenty of achievements to reflect upon. If all of that leaves you cold, though, you’re in a spot of trouble. You may be one of those people for whom too much love is all that will do, yet simultaneously the kind of person for whom too much love will kill you.
Some turn to excess to fill the void. Some try to desensitise themselves to the gnawing, constant hunger, if only temporarily, by misusing drugs – a path which, once taken, leads too often to disaster. We do not live in a society that understands the roots of the massive emptiness in the souls of artists, and as a consequence of that ignorance, it is calloused to the genuine pain and suffering that these artists attempt to assuage. It is little wonder that self medication seems a viable, if highly dangerous and desperate, solution.
It has to be acknowledged that much of what fuels the art of artists can be that need to fill the unfillable void. If it weren’t for that condition, perhaps many of the greatest works of art would never have come into being. That said, is it moral and humane to allow a sector of society, our most creative contributors, to suffer alone, just so that we can wrench beautiful works from them? It seems a little more than exploitative, doesn’t it?
We don’t know what it will take to make an individual that experiences this inner emptiness to feel it less, or to conquer the feeling altogether. As far as I can tell, it’s not a subject that has been much studied, at least not with the perspective of helping artists so afflicted to live healthy, viable lives, untroubled by addictions and excesses. We do nothing to relieve the pain of that emptiness. We just leave them to deal with it on their own, in any way they find works for them. It’s pretty heartless.
I wonder how many more creative creatures will need to be extinguished, their contributions suddenly ended, before we take that hunger and emptiness more seriously and address the issue as something worthy of remedy, rather than as a contemptible character flaw. Who among us has not experienced the same hunger, albeit temporarily, at vulnerable or low moments of their own lives?
Some people advocate giving them all the drugs they need to anaesthetise the pain, but legally. Others insist that it’s a symptom of their own inherent wickedness and throw them to the mercy of criminal, mobster vendors of those drugs. Still others think that abstinence, forever, is the answer. All of these solutions do nothing to address the root cause. Why is the void there at all? Can it be alleviated in ways other than ignoring it, either by numbing the feelings to it chemically, or by ascetic denial of any form of relief from it? It seems that the drug driven solution only seeks to deaden the soul, while the abstinence solution insists that the artist learns to live with the constant, incessant pain. As a society, we appear to treat backache with exactly those two same options.
My view is that something got broken. It needs to be mended, but it’s possible that once broken, it cannot be mended. That question is, I fear, still open. Taking the optimistic view, if there is a possibility of remedy and repair, then that should be pursued. It may turn out to be an excess of sensitivity that pre-disposes artists to the void, or a feeling that life lacks meaning. They might be unconsciously grappling with the fact that the world is far from being to their liking and that changing it in any meaningful way is too far beyond their human capacity. It might be that the problem is all of us, not them.
Artists, I think, need to feel the support of a kind, tolerant, benevolent, gentle society, which appreciates beauty and which intends no harm to anyone. Instead, they are confronted with a society that values brutality, ignorance, harsh boorishness, salaciousness, prurience, prejudice, judgementalism, crass stupidity, greed, manifest injustice, indifferent and indiscriminate organised murder in the name of patriotism, rampant consumerism, blatant propaganda, mind manipulation, ruthless competition, conniving dishonesty, domination and violence. Maybe that’s where the hole in the soul begins. Perhaps that’s why they feel they can’t fill the void. First, they would need to change society completely.
Until the roots of the problem are investigated and addressed in a serious, non judgemental manner, we are going to witness the continual and dismaying spectacle of a never ending series of dead artists, taken in their prime and long before their time, who succumb to misguided solutions to their unfillable, insatiable voids. Their deaths will be on our consciences, if we still have them.
We cannot let a population of sensitive souls perish, because we did nothing to make it possible for them to live and to thrive. It’s not acceptable or realistic to expect them to deal with the world as it is, when the world is demonstrably, pathologically, ubiquitously driven by maniacs, for maniacal ends. One should not be expected to adapt and accept that as the new normal.
Those that feel the most intensely shouldn’t be alone in the front lines of the confrontation between achieving meaningful, fulfilling lives for all of humanity and capitulation and abject surrender to the horror that we have concocted collectively. Their battle is not a personal one; it’s for all of us. The fact that we allow them to bear the brunt, internalising the suffering and pain, attempting to dull it with substance abuse or through endless adulation and applause, is not something we should be proud of.
The void will only ever be filled when we take it seriously.