Hollywood or the Artist Next Door

Listen up, Hollywood, because this is going to be news to you . . . there are many successful, influential, groundbreaking artists who do not fall under the description of the “tortured artist” trope. While it’s true that some genius artists have suffered from serious addictions, hardships, and mental health issues, that should not make them fodder for your content mill.

It’s time you stopped depicting all artists as either:

Starving artists

Tortured geniuses

Misunderstood prodigies

Obsessed artists bent on their own self-destruction

Neurotic outcasts

Complete jerks undeserving of their success

Manipulated or overly trusting fools

Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story, that’s true. And we can all cheer on artist heroes who overcame great obstacles or adversity in order to succeed. I particularly enjoy artist movies that set the record straight about who was really behind the creation of the art (especially when they show how women or people of color or those in marginalized groups had to sacrifice their names and identities in order to get their work into the world).

Okay, it’s true that a life in the arts is never easy. Interestingly, though, when Hollywood isn’t making us all out to be tortured geniuses, it’s spreading the illusion that if you do make it in the arts, you’re set for life. I’m thinking of a movie I watched again recently that depicted a male children’s book author who was so popular and successful he could afford numerous houses all over the world. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I don’t know many children’s book authors who can afford multiple houses. They make it look so easy in Hollywood.

I’ll concede that while it may be true that many, if not most, bestselling artists and writers lead pretty typical lives, stability doesn’t sell. Good movies need conflict, and that conflict often plays out in just a few ways on screen. For example, I’ve watched hundreds of movies over the years depicting debilitating writer’s block that leads the writer into all sorts of trouble. And just as many about artists of all kinds who’ve “lost” their art and must go on a quest to find it. Not to mention the hundreds of movies whose main character gave up on their art years ago and has led a mediocre life ever since.

I suppose it’s kind of nice to think that we artists are so eternally fascinating that the movies keep coming back to us time and again. But I wonder if all that attention just fuels the general public’s perception that artists are delicate and must be coddled. Or that we are entitled and must be occasionally put in our place (by society, or the universe, or even forces of nature). Or that we thrive on our own self-destruction. Or maybe worse yet, that we are “special,” because if we are uniquely gifted, doesn’t that require us to freely share those gifts with the world and to never disappoint? And doesn’t it require us to always be apart from, even above, the people we serve?

Despite what Hollywood depicts, most working artists are not rich or famous (there’s not enough room at the top for us all to share in that model) and most of us are not tortured geniuses. We are your neighbors. Our kids go to your schools. We volunteer in your communities. We love what we do, but like you, we don’t love all aspects of what we do. We have good financial years and bad ones. We make good decisions about life and poor ones. We create some works of art that sell and some that don’t.

Like you, we do sometimes despair about our art or the industries in which we work. Like you, we do sometimes walk away from our callings for reasons that serve us. Like your favorite local teachers or health care providers or baristas, we reach those of you who need us. Our murals brighten your drive, our local musicians give you space to let down after a long week at work, that writing class you took at the community center helped you process your grief.

Despite Hollywood’s focus on the individual artist, art is community. It is connection. It can raise the rafters in a stadium full of people or make one person cry at the local coffee shop. We artists are special, but no more so than you. It’s when the artist forgets that, and the public forgets that, that the real trouble begins. Never mind what Hollywood wants you to think.

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