By Miles Jaye
The cliché; “Starving Artist” applies in far too many cases.
Artists who succumb to substance abuse or in more extreme cases, suicide, are far too common.
I’d like to briefly explore the notion that the artistic mind or any open-thinking mind
for that matter may indeed be a dangerous mind.
British philosopher Bertrand Russell had this to say about thought: “Men fear thought as they
fear nothing else on earth… more than ruin… more than even death.” “Thought is subversive and
revolutionary… thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habit.”
“Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.”
As art celebrates life, it appears that it also claims or consumes some of the very lives it
celebrates – all for the sake of art itself. Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday and Jimi Hendrix
are just a few of the many who have paid the ultimate price to dare the darkness of art.
“The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly
side.” – James Baldwin
Bach went blind and Beethoven deaf but neither of them was deterred from the pursuit of artistic
brilliance. Edgar Allan Poe was drawn to drink himself into alter egos and often was barely able to make
ends meet but still he persisted. There were times when Picasso had to burn his paintings in order to keep his small room warm in the winter; but he persisted. The search for perfection is an unbearable burden.
Salvador Dali said this of perfection: “Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
The search for answers to unanswerable questions; the stretch of the imagination that all but
tempts the snapping point, leading to a spirit world where no boundaries exist is exhaustive.
To then return from the abyss to communicate, describe and document the experience in notes,
words, shapes, movements, and colors that others will receive in common terms and familiar
language is to risk it all.
In some instances it has proven to be a fatal quest once you’ve passed the point of no return.
Jimi Hendrix said: “You have to go on and be crazy. Craziness is like heaven.” Hendrix, who died
of a drug overdose, was a lightening flash across a rock and roll sky that changed the sound of
rock and the role of guitar in an irreverent music. He was proof that it’s the re-entry that is as
dangerous as the space shuttle’s return to the earth’s atmosphere--only the psyche travels much
more quickly and is much more likely to burn.
William Shakespeare said of madness: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in‘t.” (Hamlet)
If so, then what is the method? It’s important that I confess early in this piece that I do get lost even
in these simple words and wrestle to bend them back like tall grass and low branches to find a clearing
of daylight in order to offer a salient digestible or at least, accessible point. It is, in fact, the process – the
bringing back of the message that is maddening. How do artists describe the method if they don’t
understand it themselves? And how can they possibly understand it?
Elvis said: “I don’t understand anything about music. In my line, you don’t have to.”
Composer Aaron Copeland shared this insight: “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by
asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many
words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No’.”
In art you see, you think or process, then you feel. Or is it; see, feel, and then think? I can’t be sure.
Hendrix said this about feeling: “What’s good or bad doesn’t matter to me; what does matter is
feeling and not feeling.”
James Baldwin said: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the
And so we think. We think beyond all practical thought. We think our way into inspiration.
Aaron Copeland said this about inspiration: “Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness,
or perhaps of sub-consciousness - I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure it is the antithesis of selfconsciousness.”
We think in the abstract, in the dark, where there are no street lamps or road signs.
Answers come in frightening flashes or orgasmic moments of sheer pleasure. Ahhhh... or Ah ha… or Eureka!
We do the Tiger Woods fist pump and race to find someone to share it with. ‘Therein lies the rub;’ as they say.
We scream, shout and cry or laugh hysterically through our art as we try to convey just one small
fraction of what we see, or deeper, what we have become. Think of the last time you tried to describe an abstract dream to a loved one. Was it difficult to find the words to match the experience?
We play, paint, write, compose, sing and dance in order to speak our truth – in order to witness
our experience; but words, colors and notes betray us; they merely show us as minstrels or even
worse, as scoundrels and madmen.
The artist’s mind is potentially dangerous to others, as it is to self, but it is necessary in order to
grow as individuals or on a grander scale, to advance the human race. It is so necessary that God endowed each one of us with a mind so potent with free will and choice, a spirit to receive in-spiration, souls to search and brains to process and communicate the most compelling of prophecies or to share the most beautiful of notions like Maya’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”