Image of Miles Davis Biopic "Miles Ahead" trailer

Here’s the question: Is your “artistic temperament” flaring up?

It’s on my mind because of Don Cheadle’s mesmerizing portrayal of the great Miles Davis in the film Miles Ahead. An off-the-charts genius with a legendary short-fuzed temper, Miles Davis might just be the poster child for extreme artistic temperament displays.

The film is terrific and it got me wondering what an artistic temperament actually is and how it functions in our lives, even when we aren’t an off-the-chart genius.

Got “artistic temperament” symptoms?

Although no two artists are alike, there are some general characteristics that are known. In an article for Psychology Today, the Flow expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes the following 10 qualities that creatives share (here reduced to essentials). . .

  1. Alternates between imagination / fantasy and a rooted sense of reality
  2. Experiences extreme emotional highs and lows
  3. Doesn’t fall into rigid gender role stereotyping
  4. Humble and proud at the same time
  5. Has the ability to be both passionate and objective about their artistic work
  6. Is both rebellious and conservative
  7. Smart yet naïve
  8. Combines playfulness and discipline (or responsibility and irresponsibility)
  9. Able to work long hours with great concentration and then may need to crash for long periods of rest
  10. Exhibits both extroverted and introverted traits at the same time

I don’t know about you, but I read this list and it describes every musician I’ve ever met. And I find myself thinking, “Isn’t everybody like this?”

But then I consider my non-artist friends and I have to admit that no, they’re not.

OK, so if musicians are indeed like this, where does that leave us?

The fall out for artistic temperament may include relationship issues, assorted frustrations dealing with day jobs vs. art, and then there’s the therapy bills. So, let’s face it, having an artistic temperament is no picnic (I’d never wish it on anyone).

In considering what to do about having the symptoms, it can help to find out whether they are . . .

Cause or Effect

Of course, an artist’s volatility can be the natural expression of her or his emotional world, but it is also likely the by-product of that artist’s behavior, choices, and habits over time.

Years spent in practice rooms can leave many of us obsessed and overly aware of our own unhealthy inner dialogues. And the emotional sensitivity that’s necessary for artistic work can leave many feeling vulnerable or defensive when it comes to dealing with the outside world.

And so we act out, hurting ourselves or others in the process.

Beware the fall out

For some, early success mixed with drugs or alcohol, ego issues, sex, and/or violence, makes for unhappy lives that end far too soon (think Miles Davis, Judy Garland, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, and many other musicians).

But I don’t buy that having a turbulent lifestyle is the price an artist must pay for making great art. It’s too similar to saying that mental illness is the required side dish that comes with genius. Of course there are the Sylvia Plath and Van Gogh examples, but there are also plenty of centered and sane artists, think Peter Paul Reubens and Joan Tower.

Artists Behaving Badly?

Here’s my pet theory: extremely talented and accomplished musicians are at times granted leeway for poor social skills and erratic behavior that is chalked up as “artistic temperament.” When artists treat others badly it may be tolerated or excused—if they are “gifted” enough—as though talent is a get out of jail free card.

The problem is the “artistic temperament” excuse doesn’t help the artist or those around her because it doesn’t address the fundamental challenge of how to make your art AND make a life for yourself.

In author David Ebenbach’s piece, “Being an Artist Doesn’t Mean You Get to be a Lousy Person” he describes how in his early years his writing heroes were often villains in their own lives—and how he found this romantic. (Think Hemingway and Mailer.)

As a young man, Ebenbach excused his own at times erratic behavior as due to his “ink blood.” He writes, “It was a nice way to convince myself that (1) I couldn’t help myself, because of some artistic temperament, and (2) really, it wasn’t that I was a jerk; I was just a charmingly rebellious artiste who did things his own way.”

Getting over yourself

Ebenbach eventually got past this mindset, and with therapy and medication, became not only a successful author, but a reasonably well-adjusted person with a family—a contributor to society.

The truth is, for many musicians, our art is a refuge from inner (or outer) turmoil. In the studio we can escape the realities of life’s difficulties.

But life’s realities always catch us up . . .

You can run but you can’t hide

Every creative artist must deal with the art vs. real life conflict: that in order to make your art, you need to have a lifestyle that will support it. Much of what passes for artistic temperament is simply musicians behaving badly (been there, done that). It’s the acting out in frustration over being distracted from our artistic work by the necessities of real life and the needs of others.

The only way to have both an artistic career and a life that supports it is to find a balance between the competing demands of our artistic yearnings and the rational universe (dealing with others, making a living, and having a life).

Your music or your life?

The way we bargain between these two competing sides determines the quality of our day to day lives and our art. How well we sleep at night is a consequence of how well we manage the stress of the competing demands on our time and energy. And this determines our ultimate ability to live with ourselves and with others while continuing to make our art.

One of the most rewarding aspects of my coaching work is helping musicians find their own sweet spot, the balance point that helps them manage their artistic goals and live a life that supports these goals.

The first step is to find out what you actually need.

Ask yourself . . .

What would most help you get more of your best work out into the world? Do you need . . .

  • more time for your music
  • access to inspiring colleagues and collaborators
  • more performance opportunities
  • specific goals with action steps to get there
  • accountability and a trusted feedback loop
  • expert advising on the promotional aspects of your music

Knowing what you are looking to change is the first step.

The second is to reach out for the help you may need.

To have a conversation about the vision for the life you want to create and how expert music career coaching can help you achieve this, let’s find a time to talk HERE.

Lets get your better future going now,

Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well!

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