Accepting his Bafta award for best film not in English, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame said, “I’m far too fat for this kind of excitement… I love England because I can get very drunk and very repressed, and I thank you for that.”
It’s possible that something was lost in translation there, but del Toro’s turned out to be a much better acceptance speech than most. It was also an anachronistic crosscultural moment, in which a foreigner made a joke based on a cultural cliché relating to the host country, and instead of getting the foreign affairs ministers of both nations involved, the audience merely laughed, and the show went on.
But then artists are like that, always getting away with non-traditional stuff, like being fat, yet happy. I was at dinner at an artist’s house the other night, and although he did perfectly normal host-like things such as show us around the place and chat entertainingly, and turn out a meal to die for, he also had a pressure cooker in his kitchen in which he boils hair. That’s the kind of thing you just have to expect. (I discovered to my disappointment that he boils hair not because he’s seriously disturbed, but because he’s also a hair and makeup artist.)
It’s not just a matter of being a little weird. The true artist’s core trait is his or her disregard for social conventions. You can’t push the envelope unless you overcome your fear of judgement, so you won’t be truly creative until you’re truly unfettered by other people’s opinions. And strangely, if you’re on the correct side of the fuzzy line between genius and madman, eccentric and misfit, soul in pain and chronic grump, then people are willing to overlook many things that they wouldn’t under ordinary circumstances. Artists are allowed—expected, even—to be eccentric, badly groomed, ill-mannered, scandalous and rude (not to be confused with losers, who are all of the above but produce no redeeming Art).
Getting drunk a lot, for instance, and/or high, is more or less de rigueur to lower whatever’s left of your inhibitions and get the creative juices flowing, but only if you’re serious about it. In college, where everyone thinks they’re an artist, I tried a joint but had a panic attack, and wanted to try magic mushrooms, but my friend couldn’t find them, and that was about as far as the doors of my pereception would open. That kind of thing isn’t going to cut it. But if you drink whiskey all night while standing on a lion skin and typing, you could be the next Hemingway.
There are risks, of course, as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Hemingway himself could have told you if they hadn’t all gone and killed themselves. There’s a reason that the phrase ‘doomed to be an artist’ exists. But on balance, it’s a pretty good gig, since you get to do what you naturally love, at whatever time of day or night you jolly well please, assuming you’re any good and do actually love it.
If you don’t love it, you can leave it. One fellow popped out for a smoke about two hours into his first day on an architectural job, and never came back. I did that once, one month into a job, but eventually had to come back for my paycheck and at that point was administered a terrible shouting.
And that is the basic difference between artists and freelancers—a money-grubbing freelancer will always come back for the check.