I have a theory. I think artists crave affection more than most people. They are affection sponges. I believe this because a lot of what they do calls for attention and positive attention at that, mostly. They really want you to like their work and hence to like them.
To attract the affection they desire, they pour much love and affection into their work, in the hope that some of it will be returned. The theory goes that if you put love into the work, then that will shine through and attract people to it. That’s the theory, but as Yogi Berra said (and I am fond of quoting), “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is”.
Artists, in my experience, shower people with love, too. They are some of the warmest, most generous, whole-hearted, effusive, tactile and embracing people I know. They don’t call some artists “luvvies” for nothing. It has been my experience that artists can be particularly loving and affectionate, in their daily lives.
Sadly, the affection that artists pour into their work and into their interpersonal relationships often isn’t returned. Instead of affection, they receive hostility, or worse, indifference to their creative outpourings, which are, after all, gifts of love. This hurts a lot. Artists have a tendency to take it very personally. It’s frequently not personal, but they take it that way, all the same. This can lead them to feel abandoned by the very people they wanted affection from.
Even popular artists are eventually abandoned, in truth. All artists seem to have their brief time in the sun and then they fade into oblivion, as their work loses popularity. The most popular, successful, established artists go through lean times, when there is not much love for them or for their work. Fashion can be cruel like that.
The feeling of abandonment is like a severe form of neglect, directly caused by the withdrawal of affection. Neglect, studies have shown, is an “adverse event” which can have lasting impacts on the well-being of the person on the receiving end of it. A person that feels an affection deficit, compared to the level they feel they need, to find comfort, becomes withdrawn and emotionally unavailable, after a time. There is increasing evidence that people subjected to prolonged or repeated adverse events have trouble with their weight, engage in risky behaviours, can become addicted to substances and find it difficult to maintain functional relationships. The scars on their souls are what lead to this.
Breaking young hearts, especially the hearts of sensitive, young artists, leads directly to poor adult health outcomes (especially mental health). Studies show that human beings are very highly sensitive to adverse childhood events; to an amazing degree, in fact. Abuse, neglect, family trauma and discord, household dysfunction, witnessing domestic violence (verbal, physical, sexual), isolation from peers and bullying all contribute to injuries to the psyche, which very seldom heal, over the span of an entire lifetime. Break a young person’s heart and you could condemn them to years of ill health, substance abuse, depression and ultimately an early death. No human body can withstand the sustained stresses of it all.
Another response to heartbreak, due to adverse childhood events (or at any time of life, actually) is that the sufferer may resort to dysfunctional attempts to achieve intimate interpersonal connections. Have you ever noticed how many artists have completely messed up personal relationships? A damaged person, from cumulative adverse childhood events, will seek abandonment because they feel abandoned.
Unfortunately, it carries on down the family tree. The damaged mental state of the parent is an adverse event for their children. If an artist’s family constantly sees him or her struggling fruitlessly, discouraged, depressed, unhappy, dejected and demoralised, that becomes a soul scar for the kids. The artist may also be hard to reach and thereby inadvertently deny affection to their own kids. It’s a terrible, viscous circle and downward spiral, across the generations.
Adverse childhood events are all different flavours of domestic violence, in essence. While we tend to classify physical and sexual violence as being notionally worse than psychological violence (such as controlling behaviour, neglect, denigration and so on), studies show that there is very little difference in the degree of harm they inflict on the psyche. All forms of adverse event contribute markedly to poor health outcomes in adulthood. Domestic violence (in all of its forms) and affection deficits are very hard cycles to break, sadly. Violent parents raise violent children who, in turn, become violent parents.
What has the government’s response been? It has been to comprehensively exacerbate the injuries and to mark out the afflicted, a vulnerable group of people, as spongers, wasters, weak, lazy and indolent, responsible for their own misery. Austerity, unemployment and inequality are slow, deliberate killers, because they cause families to experience severe financial stresses and thereby make them dysfunctional. Treating everybody with harshness and cruelty, not helping them when they need it most, isolating them to fight for their existence alone, making everything a fight-to-the-death, winner-takes-all competition, restricting opportunities, breaking down social mobility, failing to acknowledge and value different abilities, encouraging a culture of macho “bloke-iness”, and requiring the suppression of negative emotions – all add insult to the injuries.
Why are our leaders like this? Why do they uphold these things as “values”? It’s because they were schooled, by and large, in the privately-run education system, often as boarders, cut off from parental and fraternal support at a tender age, then subjected to these same adverse, traumatic, childhood events by the very school that was supposed to be taking care of them. It is a system of education perpetuated by damaged parents, who endured the same adverse childhood events in their own childhoods. Want to hear a tale of abuse, neglect, punishment, denial of affection, bullying, and bearing witness to all manner of unspeakable horrors? Ask a public school boy.
Today, we have a criminal justice system that takes people who are addicted, because they endured trauma, and we traumatise them some more. Rather than giving them the affection they so crave, we offer judgementalism, punishment, opprobrium, prejudice and exclusion. Addicts have been in car crashes of the soul. They’re victims, not perpetrators.
And they typically feel intense shame and self-loathing for their poor behaviour. Society places the blame and responsibility for their sometimes irrational, self-destructive acts squarely on their shoulders. They are told, in no uncertain terms, that they should feel ashamed of themselves.
Is all of this bad behaviour because artists (and others) are flawed or bad people? Not at all. To anyone struggling with the consequences of adverse childhood events, you’re not the one who should be ashamed. It’s the rest of us – because we failed to protect you when you were small, and because we treated you as a criminal when you tried to deal with the agony that resulted. You were no worse than anyone else. You were only more wounded.
Affection and abandonment are very serious issues; the latter causing lasting, devastating consequences. We could reduce the suffering by spending more on prevention, compassionate counselling and the delivery of genuine affection, where and when it is most needed. How could we pay for that? By spending less on punishment, sanctions and criminalisation of the afflicted.
Hug an artist today.