Born Under SaturnPosted: September 20, 2014
When I was in college, one of my art history professors assigned a book by Margot and Rudolf Wittkower called, “Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists.” I don’t really remember what the book was for, but at the time that I read it, it struck me as an interesting attempt to survey the artistic temperament by looking at the lives of famous artists and attempt to find out if creative artists had to be depressed or distressed in order to create. This book was also the first place I read about the fascinating sculptor, F.X. Messerschmitt. I’ve always been fascinated by ‘outsider’ types, and Messerschmitt (based on what little is known about him) is one of the most interesting of all.
I think the title, ‘Born Under Saturn,’ was supposed to be an astrological reference. The Wittkowers (if I remember right) concentrated mostly on artists of the Renaissance when belief in the Zodiac was probably pretty common and Saturn was supposedly a planet that would influence people to be serious minded, depressed and brooding. And that was one of the assumptions that I have always lived with; I aspire to creativity and I frequently find myself suffering from my own ‘Saturnine’ temperament. I thought it was inevitable that I, a person who identified himself as a drawer of pictures, should suffer from depression and anxiety.
Unfortunately, being depressed isn’t, in my experience, a great spur to creativity. I can’t imagine being an artist in the way that the few successful artists I have met seem go about their daily lives. They seem to love themselves and they seem to love being themselves and they seem to think that everyone else should love them too — and this seems like a good strategy because a good salesman believes in his or her product and maybe a big part of the product, as an artist, is you. And perhaps my stumbling, self-effacing, “ugh I would rather sink into the floor than talk to members of the public” makes me less approachable than someone with a smile on their face who is ready to enjoy the admiration of others and eager to fully embrace the idea that what they have (themselves) is worth having.
Frequently I will sit down to draw something and I will find that I love the process of drawing. I’m shit at drawing from life but sometimes can spend hours with a pen in hand, drawing anything that springs to mind, and for much of that time I manage to forget myself and my anxieties and insecurities. I’m less of a ‘fine artist’ and more of a doodler… which always caused me trouble in art school where many of the people you need to please have specific ideas of what successful art is or is not. And, considered objectively, the people who wanted me to give up doodling and start drawing were probably right — the kinds of drawings that my more successful classmates produced look like what most people would recognize as art. What I produced really looks more like what a bored office worker might produce with ballpoint and memo pad in an overlong meeting… or medieval marginalia… or the ‘Sergio Aragones’ drawings I remember seeing jammed into the margins of Mad Magazine. Sometimes I think my going to art school was both inevitable and a mistake.
As a high school student I had no idea what I would do with my life. I liked to draw — sit me down with pencil and paper and I was never bored — but what I drew (monsters, beheadings, rocket ships crashing into the sides of monsters that were as large as a moon, etc), was puerile and self-indulgent. Among my peers I had certain notoriety as ‘the artist’ and when someone needed something drawn they often came to me. In the sheltered environment of high school and junior high I was considered talented. Then I landed in college. With my horrible grades, I barely got in… and once I got in I discovered that I was just another middle/rear of the pack slogger with neither the raw talent nor the drive to pull ahead. I didn’t even have what a few of my classmates had – the charisma to do very little but be charming while doing it. Everyone else seemed to have some combination of greater reserves of talent, drive or moxie. In class I became painfully aware that most of my interactions with my teachers consisted of the instructor looking at my work and giving me advice on how I could perhaps ‘salvage’ it so it was not a complete failure. In one year I went from ‘the talented artist of high school’ to just another average to below-average student. And discovering this was a big blow to my already fragile ego. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I still feel like a fraud and a failure.
But while I make my drawings, I am distracted… at least for as long as I am drawing. Convincing myself to pick up the pencil and get to it is usually a struggle, but once I manage to start on a drawing I am usually OK, at least for as long as I am drawing. Unfortunately, afterwards I usually hate what I produce. There are occasional good bits. I’ll draw something and enjoy how it looks, sometimes for a day, sometimes longer… but after that the nagging doubts creep in and I find myself cursing my laziness, my lack of talent, the poor choices I made early in the composition or with the choice of subject matter, etc. I’m the anti-Midas because I feel like everything I touch turns to shit.
I know I’m not entirely right in the head. I feel that I don’t have any perspective when it comes to judging my own successes or failures – I can’t be objective. And at this point I realize that maybe that is just how it is. I think we all like to believe that change is possible, but the longer it goes on the more unlikely it becomes. I suppose it is possible that I could conquer my self-esteem issues and become a happy, motivated, well-adjusted artist. But I’ve been struggling with them for so long that think it is unlikely that I will.