Natalie Portman

Balancing Art and Life

Natalie Portman’s character Nina is obsessed with being perfect even as she literally dies for her art as a ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s  Black Swan  (2010).

Natalie Portman’s character Nina is obsessed with being perfect even as she literally dies for her art as a ballerina in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010).

I have wanted to write a blog post about the topic of balance in life for the last year. Finding balance has been an important topic for me as I have previously found myself caught in a spiral of procrastination due to my tendencies towards perfectionism, and admittedly still occasionally do.

To me, balance means finding ways to manage all the important categories of your life without plunging into one section so deeply that you leave the others high and dry. As an artist, this can be especially challenging as expectations are set very high in the ever narrowing field of professional artists, and because an artist’s work is so often intertwined with their personal self worth.

Trailer from Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982). Listen for the narrator’s description of filmmaker Werner Herzog’s extreme artistic actions.

”I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!”

It can be tempting as an artist to disregard your physical and mental health, to isolate yourself from family and friends, or to ignore your personal responsibilities all in the “name of your art”. We see this caricature of the genius artist in many forms of representations. We often idolize these characters for their singular focus and extreme dedication to their craft. I think about the cult status of film directors such as Orson Welles or Stanley Kubrick, and how their extreme nature was praised as genius and the key to their artistic craftsmanship. I absolutely hate this notion, as it is harmful to the artist and those surrounding them. Welles’ obsessive nature with his filmmaking basically killed him, and Kubrick was notoriously abusive to his actors, pushing them to extremes. I also would note that many of these so called genius artists, especially in filmmaking, are men, and that their often dangerous behaviour towards others is disregarded as unimportant for the sake of making their art. I think most good art about artists tries to subvert this idea in someway, either by problematizing these dangerous actions or the viewer’s ideation of such artists.

We have seen a variety of filmmakers attempting to examine the extreme pressures that can be put on artists, both by others and themselves, such as in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014). Additionally, there have been documentaries that call to question the ethics of artistic extremity, such as Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams (1982), which is about the notoriously outrageous director Werner Herzog and the questionable actions he undertakes in order to complete his epic film Fitzcarraldo.

Image from Ellen Forney’s graphic novel  Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir.

Image from Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir.


Do we Value Artists?

I personally struggle with this praising of singular focused artists who will do anything for their art. I recently collaborated with an artist who claimed that our work is different from other forms of work, comparing it to activists’ work, and that we need to dedicate all of ourselves to our art. I deeply disagree with this idea, both for artists and activists. I think they were coming from a place of highly valuing both forms of work, but this sentiment actually devalues our output. This idea says that artists should put everything, literally everything, into their art, regardless of their health, wellbeing or abilities. This undermines our work by monetarily devaluing us, as the insane amount of time, effort and skill is almost always underpaid or not paid at all.

Secondly, this attitude enforces the idea that work related to art isn’t measurable in the same way other work is. As in, artmaking isn’t work per se, but something we are “called to do,” something we would do even without pay, without concern for ourselves, because the work is so important. I disagree with this idea deeply. Though of course I believe art making is extremely important for society, I think that to treat our work differently from other forms hurts artists and thus hurts the art.

Mental Health and Artistic Balance

Another important point against the idea of basically killing yourself for your art is that this isn’t possible for so many types of people. The standards of living off next to nothing, putting in 12+ hour days constantly, or not allowing yourself to have pleasures in life — these attitudes hurts almost all types of humans, but especially marginalized people. I personally can speak to how harmful this attitude can be for someone with chronic physical and mental struggles, and how these attitudes can hurt extra as a woman.

A great book that touches on these ideas is Ellen Forney’s graphic novel Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir. In this autobiography, Forney reveals how she felt when she discovered her diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She explains: “even as the weight of this news sank in, the sense of heaviness was alleviated by a back-handed sense of cred.” She depicts herself holding up a “Club van Gogh” card that states, “The true artist is a crazy artist.”

I read this book for the first time when I was around 18 years old. It really spoke to me as an aspiring artist who was yet to discover her own diagnosis of major depressive disorder. The idea that my mental illness was inherently connected to my ability to produce good art was a toxic idea that I needed to see reflected back from another artist. In Forney’s case, she associated her manic episodes with bursts of creativity and dreamt of preparing for her depressive phases with preplanned ideas that just needed completion. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not work. Throughout the book, as she discovers more about herself, how she views artists, and her own mental health, she comes to realize that bipolar disorder is not the source of her creativity, but instead something that actually made it a lot harder for her to work. She even so blatantly states before this realization, “I don’t want balance, I want brilliance!”

Reading books like Marbles, or watching films like Black Swan, Whiplash, or Burden of Dreams, were helpful in evaluating my own personal expectations of myself and my art. I don’t want to push myself to extremes to create art, and I refuse to tolerate anyone that expects that of me. I value my art, and thus must value myself. I deserve to have a stable and balanced life. All artists deserve this balance.

I will finish this post with a lovely quote from the painter Jackson Pollock. Somehow, I feel his attitude towards his work mirrors what I hope to enact myself":

”Sometimes I lose a painting. But I have no fear of changes, of destroying the image, because a painting has a life of its own. I try to let it live.” — Jackson Pollock

The famous painting  Convergence  (1952) by Jackson Pollock.

The famous painting Convergence (1952) by Jackson Pollock.