Depression, the Value of Art, the Responsibility of the Artist to Society, and the Responsibility of Society to the Artist.
By Eric Schumacher:
I've had several conversations with fellow artists lately who have expressed that they were becoming depressed. They wondered if there was any value to their lives, if anyone cared. In fact, this has been a topic of conversation with other artists with increasing frequency over the past year.
So first off, I’m writing this article to tell all of my fellow artists that it’s not just you. If you are feeling depressed and questioning your own value, you are not alone.
I understand where many of the folks who’ve reached out to me about this are coming from. We all want to feel valued, and we all want what we do to have meaning. Our work is the deepest expression of ourselves, and it is meant to be seen. We deeply hope that work will be valued by others, but understand that the recognition and financial success that can come with it is often elusive or unstable.
Arts careers are among the most difficult to start, among the most difficult to consistently make a living at, and among the most difficult to maintain. They tend to be expensive to pursue depending on the supplies and tools needed for one’s career. For many, it takes a herculean effort and total focus to create the art at all; yet the need for regular income in a field where jobs are not always consistent often means that the artist has to do any number of other, non-related things to keep a roof over their heads. Those other things take time and energy away from making the art and from building a career.
An artist must be extremely in touch with their emotions to do the work well, and that means that emotions can be right on the surface most of the time. All of this can lead to an unstable home life and long bouts of loneliness. To compound all that, getting an audience and the needed gatekeepers in the arts world to take one seriously can be an uphill battle too. The general public and the art-purchasing world often have trouble thinking of an artist as valuable and worthy of reasonable payment or consideration of any kind, unless the artist is famous for one reason or another.
The amount of work that goes into being a successful artist is so great and so complicated, with so many hurdles to leap over, it can be incredibly demoralizing. The kind of dedication it takes to have an arts career is such that I have huge respect for anyone else seriously giving a go at it.
So why on earth would you, or anyone, pursue an arts career for a minute longer than it takes to realize that how tough this path truly is?
Of course, you may have passion for it because of the way it makes you feel to create or perform—but there’s another reason. It’s necessary. It’s important. You may never really know exactly how important your work is, but whether you are an amateur or a professional, if you are called to create art, you must—for your own good and for the good of the whole world.
I was a little kid and my dad (who is also my primary acting teacher) had taken me to my first fan convention, where one of the featured speakers was the stunningly gorgeous, poised, charismatic Nichelle Nichols, best known for playing Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek TV Series and the ensuing hit films. Captivating a large room full of geeky fans like myself, Ms. Nichols told some terrific stories. One of those stories in particular had a profound effect on me. She’s told the story many times, but I’ll badly paraphrase it in the way that I remember hearing it on that particular occasion, since the way I heard it led to how it affected me:
Ms. Nichols said that while she was working on Star Trek, she received an offer to do a Broadway show. As a dancer and musical performer, she was aching to get back to her favorite form of performance, so she announced that she was leaving the series . . . that was until she was contacted by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was apparently a huge fan of Star Trek and had heard that she was leaving the series. He reminded her that she was playing a dark skinned African (not African-American—the character LT. Uhura was born in the fictional United States of Africa) female officer on the futuristic equivalent of a U.S. naval vessel on a major network show at a time when the 1960s civil rights movement was in full swing. He reminded her that (as I remember her specifically putting it) “all over the country, little black boys and little black girls and little white boys and little white girls were seeing that” and that she should think about the impact she was making. She decided not to quit the show. Star Trek went on to have a number of groundbreaking moments, including the first interracial kiss broadcast on American national television (in which Nichols participated).
It was at that moment that I think it gelled in me the kind of impact the arts can have in society, and that I needed to not only be an actor (my greatest passion) but also a filmmaker. I had to be able to have that kind of impact on society in a positive way and to make sure that I could tell stories that would really mean something.
While a lot of folks have said that the arts aren’t a “critical job” like medicine or scientific research or farming, if you actually pay attention to the arts and their true effect on society throughout history, you’d have to be pretty dense to argue that the arts are unnecessary for humanity. Most of what we know about history in fact, is intertwined with knowledge of the arts from different cultures, and most of what we know about literally everything has been expressed through art or has become important to people because of art. Art soothes the soul, stimulates every possible emotion, instructs, and gives us a common ground in which to relate to each other. It crosses borders that nothing else can; as work from one culture reaches, speaks to, and inspires other cultures. Without art, a society has no soul, and little to leave behind, because pretty much everything requires some form of design, some form of art. If you are reading this while sitting in a building, someone designed that building. Someone designed the screen you are looking at and its look and its feel and its logo. The language in which you are reading this article was largely defined by art. It is believed by many historians that William Shakespeare invented as many as 1,700 words used commonly in the English language today to allow him to express the concepts he was trying to get across through his dramatic works, and we now use those words to get our own ideas across.
The arts also create incredible amounts of revenue and prosperity globally. Up to the point where a populace is so poor that it simply cannot feed itself, people consistently and continuously value art and purchase it. In good times, people buy art when they feel that they have emotional space to consume something. In bad times, people buy art as a comfort or an escape. Art causes other industries to prosper. Ever been to a movie theater or a stage show theater or a museum? You probably went somewhere to eat before or after the show and took friends so you could discuss the performance. You might have purchased clothing for the event or, later, purchased clothing based on a character as a result. You might have travelled to see a special landmark or a museum, a fan convention or a famous movie location. In fact, artists have to buy things to make art, and other people buy that art and stimulate other industries in the process. Art creates in just about every other industry. A lot of them. Those jobs create prosperity.
Even the amateur artist can have a significant impact, if for a smaller crowd of people.
I remember in the last months of my brilliant friend and business partner, the late producer/director Don Dehm’s life, how he proudly showed me some paintings and other works made by his sister and other family members. These gorgeous works were not for public consumption or for sale, but they brought joy to his heart while he was suffering, battling cancer. They filled him with pride for the great artists he called family and how their work represented something about how and where he grew up, bringing back beautiful memories. He and I made great art together too, and that gelled a friendship that was more of a brotherhood.
Even when you’re in despair, you must make art. The art you make out of grief or pain or joy or anger or just plain silliness can help someone, can effect someone. A great example of art made through grief is “The Crow” comic book series, written by James O’Barr. O’Barr famously created the series as a way of dealing with the death of his fiancée at the hands of a drunk driver. That comic book, and the later movies and television series that were inspired by it, helped a lot of people to face their own grief and fears about death. Fans I’ve met at public appearances and engaged in conversation with have brought that particular work up to me as something that’s helped them. What if O’Barr had just internalized his pain? How many people has he helped deal with grief through his action/fantasy?
So to the artist, I say that you must create and share your creations somehow. But what about the consumer of the art? It’s time we remember that the act of creation and consumption is a circle, and that artists need fans, consumers to consume the art, so that the art can do its work. Artists also need to make money so that they can focus on the art, survive while making the art, and feel like they can have success commensurate with the effort and impact of the work. Therefore, I believe that the consumer (and we are all the consumer really) has a place in helping the artist to create the art and to survive and thrive, a responsibility, in fact, to help make sure that meaningful art is shared with the world. To anyone reading this, think about your life and what would be missing if you had never seen your favorite movie, the one that makes you cry or cheer every time. What if you had never heard your favorite song, perhaps that song that made you understand something you needed to do in life, or that song you shared with someone you really loved? What if you’d never read that book you’ve read so many times that you have to keep it in one piece with tape?
Reach out and find artists who are fighting the good fight to create and distribute art, and every once in a while, just do a little something to support them. Buy their works. Add some financial support to their various donation platforms, such as Patreon, Seed and Spark, Kickstarter, or Indigogo. Share social media posts about their work to your friends and family and colleagues. Introduce other like-minded fans to their work directly. Send a message to the artist and just tell them that you appreciate them. And not only those big, megalithic arts companies that have endless resources, but give a little love also to the small, indie artist who may yet be onto something the big guys can’t allow themselves to worry about.
I’m not exaggerating at all when I tell you that you could be the difference between an artist hitting their stride and creating a work that will be meaningful to millions of people for many generations, or giving up, throwing away their dreams and living a quiet life of despair.
You and the artist are one, you see, and without you everything they are doing has less meaning.
So get out there and create something: read a good book, watch a good movie, go see a local band, whatever. Create and consume and support art. The fabric of our whole society depends on it.
If this article was useful to you, please share it with others. Please do add comments to this page. I really want to hear from you, and I promise I’ll respond to meaningful comments and questions when I can—pinkie swear. Don’t forget to check out the other fascinating articles by my fellow authors (artists) on this site, each of whom is quite brilliant.
Now go do something amazing!
President, Seelie Studios, LLC
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Acting Website: https://ericschumacherfilm.com/
The text of this article © 2019 Eric Schumacher
Photos are the copyright of the photographers and are used under a creative commons license without attribute requested.