“Troubled artistic genius” an unfortunate myth

By Kendra Johnson, Arts Editor   (Courtesy photo/The Bison)

It often seems as if the giftedness of an artist or entertain is directly related to poor choices and life troubles, but the arts do not have to be defined by troubled choices.

They can also be an opportunity to witness God’s redemptive power.

Sit in any arts themed class – whether it be Arts and Western Culture, Theatre History or Music History II – and you’ll soon notice challenged lives as a common thread between the artistic fi gures who are considered geniuses by academic scholars.

A survey of OBU theatre students reflects this impression of artists, as students described genius artists as creative and skilled but also “troubled” and “difficult.”

Whether students are studying music, literature, art or theatre, this same phenomenon persistently rears its ugly head throughout history.

In music, Franz Liszt was considered an almost unparalleled master of piano in the seventeenth century. His life is remembered not only for his music, but for his numerous affairs with married women. According to the Library of Congress, towards the end of his life “he began to suffer from bouts of depression and deteriorating physical health”.

His fellow musical genius, Ludwig Van Beethoven, was considered an incredibly difficult person. According to the Classic fm website, he had a major temper and his drinking habits may have led to the liver condition that contributed to his death. However, he is also known for his ninth symphony, which contains “Ode to Joy,” a piece that OBU students have probably heard variations of performed at Hanging of the Green or during Chapel services.

In art, according the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, some of Picasso’s most famous works were most likely inspired by his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. A “The New York Times” article points out that Picasso was married at the time of his relationship with Walter, and she was still in her teens. However, the relationship fueled Picasso’s creativity for several years.

Meanwhile, Edgar Allan Poe represents just one of many writers whose turbulent life inspired his work. According to the Poetry Foundation website, Poe’s writing showed a preoccupation with inner darkness, and laid part of the groundwork for the literary horror genre.

In all of these areas, and more, the correlation between artists’ lives and troubled lives is clearly present.

It is true that many famous – and not so famous – artists struggle with situations of poverty, mental illness, abuse and addiction. Some of these battles are a result of the artist’s own making.

In other instances, at least some of the circumstances might be far beyond the artist’s control, such as poverty.

However, although the arts seem to have gained a reputation for these kinds of struggles, the arts are no more a hotbed of difficult situations or poor choices than any other area of life.

Art reflects life. And life is messy – very, very messy. The beautiful and the well-done are not neatly separated from the garbage, but the beautiful can still shine through even the grimiest of situations.

All artists have this dichotomy of light and dark within them. As people placed here on earth by the Creator, they bear something of the Imago Dei – the image of God.

“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them,” Genesis 1:27 (ESV) says.

Although the image has now been blurred by sin, something of God’s image still persists.

Artists – even genius ones – are no more or less faultless than the entire rest of the human population.

Their artwork is made by creators bearing the image of the Creator, and yet like the artists, it has been damaged by sin.

OBU students who study these artists can see through their courses both the damage of sin, and the persistence of the Imago Dei, slipping out into view in the least likely of places.

Even the work and lives of Christian artists such as J.S. Bach or Chris Tomlin reflect both of these two aspects: the image of God and the damage from sin.

Art students can see the way God can use even the darkest places to bring light and the redemptive power of Christ to save humanity from its own depravity.

The depravity and the beauty of the arts are simply a reflection of the depravity of sin and the beauty of God’s image. This beauty points us toward a greater beauty – God himself and the redemption offered through his Son.

As students prepare for finals week in their art classes, it’s important to remember that the artists they study are just as human and broken as everyone else, but students can still seek to find the light in the darkness of these figures lives and work.

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