Is creativity dangerous?

The process of creating artwork isn’t always a smooth one. Often, many destructions and reconstructions can occur whilst the artist struggles through difficult moments of engagement with their work. Here, Desy Safán-Gerard – an artist and psychoanalyst – discusses these difficulties, and how a therapist can help to re-establish a dialogue with creative work.

As an artist with forty years’ experience of painting and writing about art, as well as a psychoanalyst who works with creative people, I want to share my views about the difficulties inherent in both activities. I hope to be of help to insipient artists as well as to psychoanalysts who work with creative people.

Engaging in creative work means that the artist will have to tolerate long periods of disturbed and troubled activity arising from the work in progress - something hard for a beginner to understand and tolerate.

Karen - an artist/patient - was struggling while trying to paint with acrylic paints on a small canvas placed on a table in my studio. She was part of an “Expanding the Limits” programme where a small group of artists were confronting their difficulties under my guidance. She started developing this work as an abstract painting outlining small shapes in different colours and linking them in various ways. After a while, she complained in disgust that she didn’t like her painting at all, because, so far, there was no balance or harmony in it! Suggesting that she forget those requirements and simply focus on the smallest area that she liked, I encouraged her to devote herself completely to that small area. Only after she was able to do this for a while, was she able to extend her work to her whole painting. To make room for new shapes, Karen had to destroy some of the work she had done so far, but she didn’t mind doing this because she recognised the necessity of such destruction. My advice was geared to allow her small area to dictate to her how to proceed. I believe that those small areas have a life of their own which have requirements that artists simply need to follow.

In my current creative work, I am struggling to “translate” into a painting, an elaborate and powerful violin concerto by composer/conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, re-premiered this season after he originally premiered it ten years earlier in Los Angeles. Listening to a CD recording of it in my car while I drive, I imagine how the different sounds may need to be depicted visually on a very large canvas placed on my studio floor. I suspect that I will have many wrong turns when I finally work directly on that canvas. Like Karen, I anticipate the times when I won’t like at all what will be happening with that painting and will have to engage in destruction. But, I also trust that those difficulties will be overcome and that the ongoing work will then become - as most of my paintings in progress do - the most important thing in my life. 

The therapy session of a prospective artist is filled with the patient’s doubts about his or her creative work. While the role of the artist’s teacher typically involves encouraging him or her to persist in the face of such difficulties, a therapist will encourage the patient/artist to focus and explore the feelings underlying the difficult moments of his/her engagement with the work. This exploration is typically quite revealing about the patient’s conflicts and a source of rich material to be worked with by both patient and therapist. However, when it comes to creativity, sometimes a therapist may share the patient/artist’s misgivings about creative work and will subtly dissuade the patient from pursuing an art career in favour of something less taxing and more clearly rewarding. 

All of the above points to the fact that creative work can be quite dangerous, both for the artists who are so often tempted to abandon it, as well as for the therapists who are trying to help them. However, with the therapist’s insight, the artist can re-establish a dialogue with the work in progress when such contact is impaired. Like I did with Karen, the therapist can encourage the artist to let the work develop on its own, allowing it to become the guide. The therapist can also support the artist in facing the destruction of elements that are detrimental to the overall conception of the work. Perhaps therapists can only do this for their artists/patients if they have faced similar dilemmas in their own creative work. Experiencing the difficulties inherent in creative work, therapists who work with creative patients might come to recognise the value of following the lead of the work itself, and that the destruction of work in progress is as necessary as the ensuing control and reconstruction of its elements.

The idea that creative work is dangerous brings to mind my first live performance at L'Escalier in Montreuil – Paris, France in 2011, when I let myself improvise with watercolour pencils and acrylic paint on paper, the movements of a nude model responding slowly to the music of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3. In this case, I faced multiple dangers, as I had no idea of how a model I had just met, who was completely unfamiliar with Shostakovich, would respond to this unusual music. Would I be able to create worthwhile paintings out of such an unrehearsed, impromptu experience? I trusted that something of value could be made if I followed both her movements and Shostakovich’s music, but mostly trusting that the developing work would guide me.

As far as my feelings during these performances go, I experience a special thrill when I feel that the audience is caught up with what I am doing. We are all sharing the same response to the emergence of beauty through the music, the model and the coloured lines on the wet paper. It is magic again! The same magic of a psychoanalytic session when an interpretation hits the mark, the patient feels understood in a profound way and the analyst is moved by the depth of feelings experienced in response to the patient.

Below is a short video of the Montreuil – Paris performance: Desy paints Shostakovich, 2011 • Exhibition and Performance in Montreuil

Desy Safán-Gerard, Ph. D. Chaos and Control. A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Unfolding Creative Minds,  (Routledge, May 2018).

Desy Safán-Gerard, PhD in clinical psychology from UCLA, is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the Psychoanalytic Centre of California (PCC), Los Angeles. In addition to her psychoanalytic practice, she has led therapy groups for many years working with creative patients, individually and in groups. Her patients include painters, writers, musicians and scientists. She is currently co-leading a workshop on Creativity in Art and Management.

Desy Safán-Gerard is also a painter and has exhibited her work in the United States, Europe and South America. She has recently written a book, Chaos and Control – A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Unfolding Creative Minds published by Routledge of London.

Return to IPA Blog page