Artist Dilemma #24: The Curse of Creativity

People who do not use their imagination for a living often wonder what the “creative urge” feels like, and how creative people harness it. They also wonder why creative people even bother, when so much more money can be made doing just about anything else. There is a paradox here, one that causes creative people to think, “Why the hell am I doing this?” and non-creative people to wonder, “Why don’t those idiots just join a brokerage firm?”

The confusion is understandable. If you compare the average income of an investment banker to that of an artist, it’s clear that society values the activities of the investment banker over the artist by a factor of about 100,000 to 1. That means that every time an investment banker twitches his finger over a computer keyboard, it’s 100,000 times more valuable to culture and civilization than anything an artist does with their hands. By comparison, the value of an artist’s contribution to society is so miniscule that it’s basically meaningless.

Which leads us to the mysteries of the “creative urge.” Why create anything, after all, when you can be contributing to the social good by accumulating mountains of glorious cash?

Since they don’t have enough imagination to fathom an answer to this question, non-creative people have invented a bizarre mythology about the rewards of creativity. To wit: They believe that creating something—anything—must be so satisfying to the human soul—indeed so much fun—that people are willing to sacrifice the joys of money-making in order to experience it. Even more bizarre, non-creative people often convince themselves that creative people lead more “meaningful” lives because they are doing what they are “meant” to do, rather than suffering the dull drudgery of ridiculous wealth. At parties, after a few drinks, non-creatives can even be heard bemoaning their massive fortunes and wondering what their lives might have been like if they just had the courage to abandon the needs of society and follow their “bliss,” rather than commit their lives to the greater economic good. Just once in their lives they would like to feel “inspired” to do something artistic, they think, rather than sneer at it because the value proposition is so absurd.

It’s a sad spectacle—and a totally unnecessary one. Because if a fabulously wealthy non-creative person ever actually felt the “urge” to create something, they would be even more mystified than they already are.  

What non-creative people don’t understand is that artists don’t harness the urge to create—it harnesses them. It grabs the artist, binds their legs and hands, then snakes its way up around their throat and chokes them until they agree to its insane demands. There is terror involved, along with an involuntary loosening of the bowels and frequent cries for mercy. There is nothing fun about it. There is only the sickening realization that if you do not comply, if you struggle and fight—by becoming a lawyer, say, or graphic designer—you will doom yourself to a hellish purgatory of middle-class stability. Those who win the fight go on to drive Jettas and coach their child’s soccer team. Those who don’t make up a song, paint a picture, write a poem, put on a play, or otherwise waste their time, knowing full well that what they are doing has no social value whatsoever.

In their heart of hearts, of course, creative people wish they could make a more meaningful, seven-figure contribution to society. But they can’t, because the demon “urge” has them by the neck and will not let go. There is nothing enviable or romantic about it. Creativity is like cancer—if it infects you, you must deal with it, whether you want to or not, and it doesn’t really give a shit if you die in the process.

But try you must, because there is nothing else to do, since fate has not given you a choice. If it had, you would of course chosen a more socially productive path. But it didn’t, so you must resign yourself to the fact that you will never contribute as much to society as the world’s bankers, brokers, and venture capitalists. Compared to them, you are just a blood-sucking cultural parasite. But that’s okay. Maybe in your next life you’ll be lucky enough to have a private jet and a super-PAC, and do something with your life that has a quantifiable purpose and value.

In the meantime, you are cursed with the urge, and there is nothing else to do but create something, whether you want to or not.