Notes From the Studio: Swagger & Despair


Mark Rothko, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950
Oil on canvas,
(Private Collection)

Swagger and despair—two sides of the same coin permanently on deposit in an artist’s pocket.

To be an artist in search of an audience is to possess a deep unwavering belief in the uniqueness of one’s talent, or voice.  As it turns out, the mantra oft chanted in business circles—i.e. “Fake it ’til you make it”—is also at work in the world of art.

More often than we may admit, we artists talk a good game—we hit deadlines and speak as if our talent is undisputed—even in the face of deep feelings of doubt and insecurity.  That’s swagger.

But the private and elusive Holy Grail—the creative “AH-HA” moment—knows no deadline. And therein lies the essence of despair.

With alarming regularity we go into the studio bereft of inspiration. Despair slips in before the door shuts behind us.  Like an alien being it hovers over us, ever present, pulsating silently.  Often despair completely envelops us, greedily sucking the creative will from our bones.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Multiform), 1948
Oil on canvas,
(Collection of Kate Rothko Prizel)

The term “creative block” is a wholly-inadequate descriptor.  Who has not waited for days on end hoping for a divine spark? As days wear on without inspiration, who has not felt like a creative fraud—an interloper or, worse yet, a spy in the House of Art?

My nemesis appears in the form of a Canson Montval 9×12 inch sheet. I’ve managed to put a 3 1/2 inch square in the center of the paper. Good start, but what’s next?  It’s easy to get twisted in my knickers.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Seagram Mural sketch), 1959
Oil on canvas
(National Gallery of Art, Gift of The Mark Rothko Foundation, Inc.)

In disquieting times I find comfort in Allen Ginsberg’s advice:

The parts that embarrass you the most are usually the most interesting poetically, are usually the most naked of all, the rawest, the goofiest, the strangest, the most eccentric and at the same time, most representative, most universal. . . That was something I learned from Kerouac, which was that spontaneous writing could be embarrassing. . . The cure for that is to write things down which you will not publish and which you won’t show people. To write secretly. . . so you can actually be free to say anything you want. . .   —Allen Ginsberg, City Lights Anthology, 1974.

And, in the meantime, swagger on.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue, Green,  and Brown), 1952
Oil on canvas
(Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon)

Wider Connections

“Abstract Expessionism: When Art Became Larger Than Life”
John Lahr—“Escape Artist:Mark Rothko on Stage”

9 Responses to “Notes From the Studio: Swagger & Despair”

  1. This rings true for anyone in a creative field where often the pressure to perform is crushing. When I stopped trying to make money from my work, it opened a door to being true to myself and I have never looked back. No more soul crushing portrait commissions where my subjects want a plastic surgeon, and not an artist’s truth. Oddly enough, it enhanced my ability to sell, to not care about the money. Artists, I guess, have to zig when the rest of the world is zagging. In these perilous times, the artist-studio direct may be one of the ways people might still be able to at least survive. Look at the amazing success of Etsy! Right now I just have an onlne portfolio, but I believe online selling is the way to go, and I don’t turn my nose up at doing the occasional notecard or tshirt. If Leonardo didn’t think he was too good for designing the festival banners, then why did they keep teaching me in art school to consider that work a lowly CRAFT. I would be most interested in your views of our arts VS crafts mind set. It seemed like school deliberately prepared me to fail in the marketplace.

  2. Tess, I’m impressed by how quickly your comment appeared on this post. You must have been lying in wait for it!

    I hope this topic ignites our readers, for it would be a most interesting dialogue. I appreciate your perspective on making art for yourself. In a culture which uses money as the measurement of success, an artist’s biggest challenge is often to keep going in the face of middling sales.

    I found this (link below), posted on Deborah Fisher’s blog, extremely insightful for its discussion of the relationship between art, money and success.

  3. Thanks! I happened to be Googling maps on how to get out to the juggling convention at Pratt in Brooklyn when I saw there was a new post. I had a lot of issues about Mark Rothko’s depression and suicide because not long after, a guy I went to school with froze to death in Washington Square park. He was a gifted artist who was bipolar and abandoned by his family. This pressure to be a success on top of mental illness kills people. I ask myself how many Van Goghs never made it to anyone’s attention because they didn’t have a Theo. And pity the healthy graduates out there. In school, in the BFA program I was not allowed to take the “lowly money classes” like drafting and mechanical illustration, to have a money skill when I got out. There are myths propagated by the school system that simply aren’t true. Artists were not born to suffer (no human being was born to suffer). Great artists will continue to work no matter if they are starving and alone (well, maybe very ill obcessive/compulsive artists might). That sooner or later if you are really good, someone will “discover” you (like Lana Turner at the damned soda fountain?). The first thing that hurt my naive little soul in the real world was seeing that success is not about how good you are, though sometimes we are fortunate when it happens to be true.
    Am off to visit that link. Thanks!

  4. sharon beals Says:

    Liz, I am not sure if I will ever swagger, but I can empathize with despair.
    I have always envied people who can paint or draw their hearts out on a canvas or piece of paper, since new photographic ideas, material, subjects, can seem dauntingly elusive, if not impossible. And always, there is that little flickering question, often very hard to ignore, of whether we need, orwant, to please an audience other than ourselves. I a not sure this comment goes anywhere, other than to say, that I struggle with this often.

    Sharon Beals

  5. Maybe swagger and despair are two very conspicuous marks of our ego. Facing up to a deep fear with an exaggerated lively behaviour. And maybe we can find a redemption in being honest with all the creations of our ego : not important stuff at all..But so necessary to keep standing, and walking…
    Anyway, those two words, swagger and despair, fit so good to the emotion one can feel in front of a Rothko canvas! It’s like they would leak out of the picture.
    I hope this man got some happiness too, and some easy going moments during his tormented life, at least a little bit…
    Thanks for this post.

  6. What a graceful post today…haven’t we all felt the fear creep in under our studio’s closed doors…the self doubt…will it be valid? will it be good enough? Ginsberg had an almost magical way of exploring our frail spirits and at the same time recognition of the need to speak our truth. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

  7. I am passing this on to my husband who is finding his artistic way as a photographer and struggles with the idea of what will please a gallery vs what pleases him. So far, he’s going with what he likes and I don’t want him to abandon that.

  8. In my life, the risky behavior of making art might make it even more precious because it’s like jumping off a cliff and finding out you can fly. The fear of falling/failing makes it that much more special. The few times I have experienced serious despair, artwork was impossible. But when I decided to stay true to my own heart, I haven’t been badly depressed since. What we do for money can cause terrible conflict, so that if I am not selling I will not do anything art related for temporary money. Being in conflict is what really makes you doubt yourself and wonder if you are “authentic.” Every person is different. Some can do art related work and not feel conflict. I can’t even enjoy doing a portrait anymore because I tried to do it so long for money. It took all the joy out of working.

  9. This was a timely post for me as I struggle to complete a body of work for a solo show next month. There’s nothing like confronting the public to drive the seeds of self doubt into a spiraling jungle. The swagger stage seems to have escaped from my continuum of art actions in the last month but I now recognize these feelings a part of the creation continuum. I identify with Tess’s comment about painting for oneself. It was a truth that I came by inadvertently, but I soon recognized its power and moved with it. As soon as I gave myself permission to just create the quality of my work and my feelings of worth as an artist grew beyond my wildest expectations.

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