Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Case study: creative artists/viewers: victims

We all know someone who has experienced great abuse in their lives. For example, nearly everyone knows a woman who has been abused and battered by a man. Many people who read this blog are themselves victims. This is, needless to say, a situation that is getting worse and not better, for a number of reasons, and is outrageous and needs to be addressed.

Having said that, I need to gently question an assumption that has crept into the mindset of those who produce creative work, and those who view it, when the producer of the creative work is him or herself a victim of abuse. This mindset is that it is not only inevitable but desirable that the abuse or traumatic event inform not only one or two of their works, but all of their works. In other words, the assumption is that the person's art or creative expression is now irrevocably changed and fueled by the victimizing event.

This is actually a modern affectation, not a historic one by any stretch of the imagination. People who have gone through dreadful times in their lives have not necessarily revealed any of its effects in their creative output. In fact, what I want to help you to see in this case study is that there used to be a heritage and tradition of creative output where most (not all) but most who produce creative works extol the goodness of life and a positive outlook, never referencing their own victimization, as their reaction to having suffered.

The obvious classic example is an author who has been imprisoned. Often the author will not dwell on the imprisonment experience but, rather, experiences the familiar feeling of "the air is much sweeter than he or she had remembered," "the sun is brighter," and "the flowers are more beautiful" after their release. So in classic times creative artists who have suffered have often left no trace of their suffering in their works and, rather, have had a more finely honed sensitivity and appreciation of those parts of life that are not part of the suffering experienced.

In fact, especially you young people, I know that creative classes even promote and dig for the pain, teaching a "cathartic," "raising public awareness," and "source of dramatic material" set of roles for any victimizing experience you have had. While that is true if you are planning to write about that experience, I want you to question whether one should let one or more victimizing experiences inform ALL of your creative output. I would argue that is neither healthy and healing nor is it particularly of good intention for your creative art audience.

Here is an analogy to help you to discern this problem better and to resist the modern affectation that your victim experiences must be reflected throughout all of your creative output. As you sit at the computer doing your creative work, or at the easel, or using old fashioned paper and pencils you are using both of your hands with five fingers each (unless you are disabled, so please bear with me the limitation of the analogy). So under normal circumstances you have ten fingers that you can use to wield the technology tools or hold a paint brush. Think of your victimization as a sixth finger for one hand. If you are writing about your victimization, or creating art about those feelings, sure, you "put on" that sixth finger for those works. But would you leave it on forever?

When mentors and educators and those who promote your creative works push for constant reference in your entire ongoing body of works of your victimization (often disguised as the supposedly positive "you are showing how you have 'overcome' that dreadful experience") they are basically telling you to strap that "victim sixth finger" on one of your hands and never take it off. If you were suddenly given a sixth finger, a real one, you'd find it does not add to your talent or dexterity and would, in fact, hinder it. Likewise, strapping on the victim sixth finger and using it for all of your creative output is a great limitation to your creativity and a disservice to not only you yourself but also to your fans and hoped for audience.

Here is why. Someone who is able to compartmentalize their victim experience to only those works that directly address it, but then let go of it for other works can reach farther and in more directions as a result. Think of it this way. When you increase the contrast in a photograph, dark areas are darker and light areas are lighter and there is much more gradation in between, allowing finer detail to be seen (I have to use this processing a lot in my photographs, although not the ones I have displayed here on my blog, but the less talented ones, LOL). Now, as I said, the point of increasing contrast is to bring out more detail; the point of the contrast is not to make the darker parts darker and then stare only at the darkened parts. If that is the effect that you want with one photograph, then that is what you do. But you do not use the contrast feature exclusively to make the dark parts darker and minimize the rest of the photograph. Likewise, truly mature creative artists throughout human history have had more sensitivity and nuance for the normal parts of life, that is, the non victim event part of life because the darkness of their victim event has brought out the beauty of detail in the rest of the photograph through contrast, not through occultation.

Most mature victims of war, or abuse, crime, fire, or what have you, fervently wish that "no one should ever have to go through what I have." Thus they may write something about their experience to, yes, raise awareness, and to have some catharsis. Many victims join or found movements to remediate those who suffer from the same or similar victimization. However, these worthy reactions have diminished the talent and reach of many creative artists who continually "mine" their trauma rather than do the requisite amount of reference and then use the trauma's reverse shadowing to better illuminate the rest of life so, indeed, their fans and audience "don't have to go through what they have gone through."

Victim informed art is, to use another analogy, as damaging as second hand smoke. When the creative artist continually mines their victimization for material they are doing the same as blowing second hand trauma smoke on their fans and audience. This is a well known phenomenon among psychologists and counselors. Counselors who see patients with one form of trauma over and over start to show symptoms themselves of that trauma as if they themselves have suffered the actual same victimization. I saw this where I interned first hand and it is part of the warning for self monitoring and time outs that is explained to new counselors as their training. Continually revisited trauma is unhelpful for the sufferer and also operates as a contagion, a "second hand smoke" to those who consume creative product that is developed by those who are constantly referencing and "digging in the mines" of their own trauma.

So here is my case study exercise. Imagine that you have been falsely imprisoned for seven years. You have been released. Now, write a short story, or just an outline, extolling the wonderfulness of something that you missed while in prison and enjoy even more now that you have been released. Refuse to dwell on the unjustness of your imprisonment and deny yourself even a sentence of "poor me" or "but wow, am I 'strong' and I have 'overcome'" in this exercise, since that is the point. Pretend that your readers will not even know that you were in prison; your readers will think that the purpose of your writing is to extol the wonderfulness of some ordinary part of life. They will have no idea why you have such sensitivity and fervor for the item you select.

If you find that difficult and even more telling, if you are resentful that you are writing about something wonderful without your reader knowing that "you got that knowledge through unjust suffering," that is exactly the programming that I am trying to get you to recognize and challenge. It should not be the "new normal" that someone should extol let's say for example the smell of the hot pretzel carts in New York City (since that is what you missed and now appreciate) only if you can at the same time whine and bum out the reader about why you missed the smell of hot pretzels so much.

Someone who reads a very cool and interesting piece about how great the hot pretzels smell when you walk by will be inspired. Someone who reads the same piece but it is punctuated and bracketed by your story of suffering an unjust imprisonment is robbed of much of the new territory that your creative work would have opened for him or her because now his or her focus is in part on the sadness and futility of your false imprisonment and not on your creative virtuosity of bringing to life the mundane hot pretzel smells.

It is like if you are playing the violin in the orchestra and someone is hammering nails in the background and you claim that your violin playing is "even better" because you "overcame the distracting loud hammering sounds." Um, I guess, but is it really? And is that the CD that anyone would want to listen to, your overcoming the nailing sounds in the background versus your virtuosity at the violin in and of itself? Look, I guess another analogy just crept in, ha.

So do that exercise and I guarantee it will be a great self examination tool and helpful for expanding your creative expression.

I hope that you have found this thought provoking, interesting and helpful.