Passion, pain, art and money: In defense of suffering artists

Suffering for art: An actress speaks

4 minute read
Detail from 'The Last Judgment': Michelangelo managed just fine without air conditioning.
Detail from 'The Last Judgment': Michelangelo managed just fine without air conditioning.
Dear Jackie Atkins:

I recently stumbled across "The La Bohème syndrome," in which you attack what you call the romantic but masochistic notion that great art requires suffering. (BSR, January 2011; click here.)

It was very kind of you to recommend an accountant to that writer-friend, who, as you describe him, "lives in a row home on the outer edge of Center City with no central air or refrigerator." But your kindness ends there.

Perhaps, like Blanche DuBois, your writer-gentleman-friend learned to depend on the kindness of strangers, because he has only has friends like you, who use the Broad Street Review to critique his life choices. Your friend wasn't able to defend himself in your article. You say: "Give me a break." I say: Give him a break.

Isn't your friend's life horrible enough? He's living without an air conditioner or a refrigerator, and the temperature, as I write, is 100 degrees outside my row home in South Philadelphia.

As an actress, I greatly appreciated your perceptive BSR essay entitled "Philadelphia's aging theater audience" (October 2011). But I don't appreciate your referring to your friend as "lazy, and self-indulgent." Young artists like me don't measure our success by the amount of money we make. And we shouldn't.

Raising a family

You mention a friend of yours who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and had to take a day job at the Franklin Mint, because he had children. Of course he did: When you have children, your life is no longer about you; your life becomes your children. But if a single writer chooses to live in poverty so he can devote himself to his craft, why shouldn't he? Whom is he hurting by opting out of the rat race?

In 1919, at the age of 23, F. Scott Fitzgerald quit his advertising job in New York and moved back in with his parents in Minnesota to write his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. "Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all," he wrote later (in The Great Gatsby). But had he taken your advice, the world would have missed out on that masterpiece.

Many if not most artists do ultimately manage to find a lifestyle somewhere between the extremes of abject poverty and conspicuous consumption. My mother, Beth Foley, graduated from Pennsylvania Academy in 1983 and raised a family but still manages to paint all day, every day. She has been lucky enough to live on grants and support from her husband. She's represented by galleries in Chicago, San Francisco and Nashville, and she sells her work as fast as she can produce it.

Rebeck's smug understudy

Jackie, you mention a hard-working artist who now owns a beach house in Florida, as if that signifies success. My mother doesn't own a beach house in Florida, because she can live without one. Your writer friend lives without air conditioning or a refrigerator. So did Dickens and Michelangelo, without apparent adverse affect on their work. Every artist chooses a different lifestyle path toward achieving his or her vision.

In your discussion of the Wilma's production of Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy in the same essay, you similarly dismiss Harry, the title character, because "this understudy smugly looks down upon Jake, the actor he must stand behind, because the star of the play "'has sold out for money.'"

Yet as an actress myself, I perceived something very different beneath Harry's seemingly smug exterior: pain. Harry is an actor being paid not to act. His job involves being forced to watch as another man performs his part.

I can tell you from my own firsthand stage experience: It's like having to watch your lover on a date with someone else.

Your poverty-stricken writer friend, like Harry, could be living in a world of pain, too. So please be kind. Perhaps you could invite him for a weekend in Cape May?

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