- 09 Oct 18
Singer-songwriter Carol Keogh on the mental health challenges artists have to navigate in the current climate, and how some of the solutions – including the simple joy of everyday conversation – are applicable to us all.
It seems to me that any discussion about mental health in arts practice has to take into account the accounts - not to reduce art production to a balance sheet, but to examine how economic factors play into the quality of artistic experience for practitioners. And to underline how important that experience is to an artist’s quality of life. I would have to write a much longer piece to get under the skin of what prompts us to be artists in the first place, but some of us apparently have no choice in the matter.
For the greater percentage of people, part of maintaining mental health is figuring out what level of compromise they can sustainably live with. It’s a task that presents a particular problem for artists – how to maintain their practice while affording to live. Most artists I know are extremely resourceful, juggling numerous activities to generate income, but this kind of existence is increasingly precarious in a high-priced world that treats artists like hobbyists and expects to consume their output for free.
Sure, there’s a (not so) venerable tradition of artists living on subsistence in order to spend time at their practice for this reason, and I have had periods of doing this. But I’m a worrier and having an empty pocket book makes me terribly anxious, especially in the current climate. At the same time, not everyone is built for the rigidity of “nine-to-five”. Some of us feel our best assets are under-used in that life and our precious time is being wasted as the weeks roll by. For most artists, submitting to the blandness of that daily routine feels like a death sentence.
I can write, draw, paint, sing and compose music (by ear at least). I dream of developing a theatre piece around new songs I’ve been writing. It’s just damn hard to find the time to do any of it. It may sound bleak, but as an artistic human being, I feel I’ve always had to choose between different kinds of trapped existence. Artistic production is adversely affected by the constant interruption and practical delay of unrelated work, but it’s also stymied by economic struggle and (for me at least) the anxiety and depression that can result from same.
There’s a seriously overcrowded space between the proverbial rock and a hard place that is ever-widening to accommodate all of the artists living in it!
A lot has been written recently about the housing catastrophe affecting this country (a global phenomenon), and there’s no doubt that it has thrown a pall over life for much of the populace. Anxiety appears to be the order of the day. I recently moved to Wexford. I moved there because I wanted out of Dublin. Quite apart from the fact that the cost of renting within a 50-mile radius of the centre has become absurdly prohibitive, the gridlock, rising tempers, accelerating pace of life – the stress of it all – is definitely bad for my mental health these days.
But I also want to belong to a vibrant community that holds space for arts at its centre. Wexford is a great town and moving this far south meant I was able to find a rural place with a sea view that I could just about afford to rent alone (because at this stage in life, I don’t want to co-habit with someone unless they’re an intimate partner – that’s too much of a compromise). The house provides space to work, decent amenities and some room for guests. Happily, Wexford is a place that friends and family are keen to visit.
I’ve fallen in love with this place and its people, but it has been difficult to find adequately paying work (of any kind) in the locality, sufficient for me to keep on the house rental, run Gertie (my old reliable car) and have something left over for, you know, life. I don’t much care about disposable income (or I can adjust to life without it), but most kinds of artistic production require material investment, and the general cost of living is rising month-on-month in this neoliberal economy, regardless of where we choose to settle. All of which is to explain where I find myself right now – a happy exile from the city, but a not so happy commuter to a job I’d rather not have to do.
The main problem for me with the commuting life is its liminality. An inability to properly bed down, get stuck in and respond to my environment – like being in transit to a destination never reached. Far from operating in a vacuum, I think artists really need to feel that they belong to a community. And dispersal of practitioners for economic reasons breaks down the potential for artistic community-building, marginalising or extraditing the voices that would otherwise express the culture of a place.
There are other mental health concerns specific to working in music production. Touring musicians for hire struggle with financial ups and downs but also hormonal peaks and troughs – the post-tour adrenaline crash or slump is a real thing – and there are the well-documented “unhealthy living” pitfalls of the road to contend with. Conversely, artists who find themselves too tied down to successfully get on the road (or even in front of an audience) can suffer from adrenaline drought. I’m not being facetious when I say many of us are in dire need of an ego massage. (Actually, I think mine might need physiotherapy!)
I refer you to the above quotes from David Bowie. “Every artist will say that they don’t need validation, that we only ever need self-validation, but that’s not true.” Of course it’s not true. And, “I could never sit in a garret and say the audience didn’t matter”. Damn straight. I can’t even sit at my desk job and pretend the audience doesn’t matter.
Bowie prefaced the aforementioned quotes by saying, “Growing old in this business is a fascinating prospect because it’s never been done before.” He was referring to an industry model that in many ways no longer exists and Bowie was (as always) quick to presage that change – perhaps cynically – by being the first artist to sell “futures” investments in his back catalogue. (And how Bowie is that?)
But rock was traditionally a young man’s game anyway, with a few token women players allowed on the pitch occasionally, and there’s more to human music than that not-so-old mythology. It’s is as old as humans I reckon. Still, questions arise out of the end of the short-lived industry as we knew it – questions that go beyond the ones of licensing, copyright and remuneration currently echoing round the halls of the European Commission. They are questions that lie at the core of cultural value, affecting how artists view themselves and the relevance of the work that they make.
If we’re not going to venerate our musicians and elevate them to godlike status as we did David Jones in the 1970s, does that mean they have no value in our communities? Has art become “democratised” by technological innovation and social media to the extent that everyone and anyone is/can be an artist now? In the clamour of voices, is it only those who shout loudest that will be heard? What happens to the art of meaning when the dominant voices in the spheres of social influence are transactional? And all the while we’re faced with finding the answers to such questions, the kids gotta eat!
I’d like to say that making the work is enough to keep me sane, but it can also be the root of whatever madness is ailing us. It’s true that artists draw strength from their work, but the business of making it can be lonesome and troubling, and as we are mining the depths of ourselves we also need minding. We need connection so that we can – to quote myself from a recent song called ‘Being Human’ - “sit with stupid, be ok and laugh out loud”. And this brings us back to community – the place where connection happens.
What does keep me sane in all this is talking to people. Talking to people and doing dumb shit. Honest talk and honest laughter. And I have to say, Wexford is great for the chats. I spent more time today talking to a saleswoman in the phone shop where I left my mobile for repairs than I’ve spent talking to family members in a week.
What I find unhelpful and unhealthy is engaging too much in social media, which we are now advised will be the main tool in our success. I think we’re really just talking to ourselves in these fora – training our alienated gaze on other people’s existential shop windows. If I monitor my thoughts after spending time on Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter and Instagram, I find unhealthy patterns emerging and a discernible downward shift in my mood. So we should pay attention to that. And maybe, when we connect with people in the real world, quit bullshitting that everything is “grand” if it’s not.
Bearing in mind what Bowie had to say about validation, I try to give positive feedback to friends about their work. I know this is important because on any given day I may not know whether what I’m doing is great or godawful, and that kind of peer validation can put a heart back together. I’ve not offered much here to address serious mental health issues I know, but it’s often the little things that really count. Fact is, life gives us lemons and a whole lot of people experience dark periods that test the limits of their emotional endurance. It’s not uncommon but when you fall into that well, sometimes it’s so dark you can’t see the bucket (not to mention the people on the surface waving and calling your name). Having been down there myself, I can say that three things got me through:
1) Opening up (both to those close to me and a professional counsellor) – this was at times almost unbearably painful (as well as unexpectedly hilarious), while at the same time utterly necessary. There ARE people who will recognise your pain as real because they possess sufficient empathy and like as not, have experienced something similar themselves. They might be sitting next to you on the bus or lying next to you in bed. Which is not to suggest that if you’re feeling low you should get on a bus and seek out someone to talk to, but just that understanding can sometimes come from surprising quarters. And sometimes, sadly, the opposite is true. Sometimes people let you down. But pain is a leveller like that – it shows you who your true friends are.
2) Medication – I took prescription mood stabilisers until I felt stable enough to try being without them. In my case that was about a year but there should be no sense of stigma to longer, even lifelong, prescriptive use. If your GP is not helpful in this process – if they are not kindly and/or someone you feel you can trust – find another. It’s their job.
3) Self-care – you have to get to a better place before you can start into this kind of work (see above). You can’t care for yourself if you’re sundered by grief or immobilised with depression – you don’t yet have the tools. But it becomes a necessary means of self-maintenance and a big part of it is learning to value and respect yourself.
Regarding that last point, part of valuing and respecting yourself is not allowing yourself to be exploited and abused and guess what? Exploitation and abuse are rife in the arts and entertainment industries. And we have mental health issues? Go figure. It doesn’t have to be that way though, does it? Maybe we can come together and demand better conditions – I dunno, like a country standing up to its former religious overlords or something.
Right, better go to bed. I’m up and out early on the Good Ship Leo! But don’t mind me. Just keep talking.