Weren’t all the great artists messy?

Sheila Chandra - Monday, July 10, 2017

Myth vs magic

 Many artists fear the loss of their creative ‘magic’ if they become organized. And who can blame them? From our cradles onwards we’re all fed the myth of the ‘dysfunctional genius’, and great artists such as Michelangelo and Van Gogh haven’t helped. What most people don’t realise is that these artists were the exception rather than the rule. But still, reinforced by novels and films, the myth of the tortured genius living in squalor as the only ‘true’ artist abounds. It gets into our collective heads and makes us fear that if we ever did find a way to be organized, despite our schedules, that we’d lose the very thing that drives our whole careers.


Were all the great artists messy? Really?

Our image of the ‘true’ artist is drawn from a very narrow perspective. We usually think of a Renaissance white able-bodied male working in either painting, sculpture or classical music. In reality, since the beginning of time, ‘true’ art and artists have existed across cultures, continents, genres, materials, genders and abilities – even if some of them haven’t been given proper credit as ‘high art’ until very recently. And you only have to look at female writers and artists right up until the 1950s, balancing social duties and the demands of running a household with their creative projects, to realise that they had to be very, very organized to get anything done.In short, chaos is an expensive indulgence. And with the vast majority of artists, the myth simply doesn’t hold water.


So how did those ‘organized’ great artists preserve their creative ‘spark’?

Please don’t mistake ‘chaos’ for inspiration. The good news is that the two are entirely separate. If you find you’ve got an insecurity about where your best work ‘comes from’ and whether it will even show up to a brief and a deadline, then I’d encourage you to deal with it directly, instead of allowing your mess to provide the comforting illusion that you’re a ‘true’ artist. The best artists with the longest careers are usually highly organized. They can’t afford to be anything else. That’s the ‘wrong side of the tapestry’ that you seldom see.


How to get rid of the messy artist myth but keep the magic

There are two ways to do this. First, I recommend keeping a creative diary. Note when you felt ‘inspired’ or created well. How were you feeling? Had you just had a nap or a good night’s sleep? A good meal or a long walk? What time of day was it? How pressured were you feeling about finishing? Did you have no brief at all? Or a new ‘toy’ such as a brush or pen, to play with? Once you start noting your patterns you’ll be able to provide the conditions you need to create more consistently.

The other cure is time, particularly if you find your craft difficult. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of strategic practice’ study proved that within stable fields such as music, people can and do reach a level of ‘mastery’ after this amount of time. Once you have this under your belt, you’ll feel far more relaxed about being able to ‘create to a deadline’.


The good news is that artists don’t have to be messy to cultivate creative magic

Do both of these things and you’ll be able to stay organized without any fears about inspiration drying up. You’ll find you’re better able to direct your career and win bigger and better opportunities, because you’ll be well’ prepared to grow. If all else fails, develop confidence in the fact that often, showing up is what’s needed, whether you feel inspired or not. It’s no more ‘magic’ a process than that. You may not enjoy it as much as when you’re on fire with a great idea, but you will get the essential work done.

If you want to understand more about how to cultivate good creativity habits, read more in ‘Organizing for Creative People’.


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