What Causes People To Reject Themselves As Artists?

I was talking to a friend recently and I realised I don't think I've ever posted the 6000 word major critical project essay from the last year of my fine art degree before, so I thought, why not now? I became really interested in children's art and the mental, social, and cultural barriers many of us put up between ourselves and art, and what we consider art based around those barriers and values, so that's what I decided to write an essay on.

Please enjoy all subsequent waffle-y art nonsense (and if anyone currently doing their third year of fine art at UAL finds this, good luck comrade).

What Causes People To Reject Themselves As Artists?

by Lil Ashton

”Unlike most adults, who are likely to use defensive systems, [children’s] art expresses the truth of the moment more readily.”
- E. Kramer: Art Therapy and Childhood.

This essay seeks to examine how sociocultural perceptions and representations of creativity shape our understanding of and willingness to engage in art from childhood to adulthood and in the transitional stages between the two. It seeks to explain how ideas about respected forms of art (and methods of artmaking) are rooted in differing attitudes to artmaking and creativity in relation to age, or rather stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Further to this, it seeks to examine how ideas concerning childhood - past and present - currently affect common contemporary art practices. This essay seeks to understand and explain changing views of childhood in all its stages from infancy to the early stretches of adult youth. How does the modern artist child pass between childhood and adulthood? How does art-making change during adolescence and the phases immediately preceding and following it? To what extent does the institution of art, the culture surrounding it, and the culture outside of it altogether, mould the form by which children and adolescents must traverse their art-making and how they express themselves creatively in a wider context? Are tropes within the art world itself repressive of human creative traits which are praised in childhood, thus creating confusion and discomfort in the adolescent artist whose creativity is suddenly inappropriate? If so, is this repression an echo of the creative attitudes of the wider sociocultural climate? Do adult self-described “non-artists” reject creativity as a result of capitalist conditioning? Are adult artists only successful after forcing themselves to dissent or otherwise overcome social measurements of artistic worth and legitimacy? These are questions I seek to address, but my focus is on figuring out why many adult members of the general public reject artmaking.


Numerous people, on entry into a discussion of art, proclaim loudly that they “can’t draw”. Everyone is more or less able to physically create a drawing, excepting those who have physical disabilities which inhibit their hands, so the logical conclusion is that these people do not consider drawing to be defined by the physical act. What they often mean and imply is that they can’t draw in a certain way. They lack a certain level of technical skill. They are unable to emulate styles they have observed. But in a literal sense, they can draw, so why is the definition of drawing understood to be conditional in this way? People who claim they “can’t draw” will be referred to in this essay as the “artistically dormant”.

The alienated-from-art status of the artistically dormant combined with knowledge of the skill-catch-up stage (the deficit of experience and ability resulting from a person’s lack of artistic practise - this serves to make individuals feel that they are fundamentally unartistic because their ability doesn’t match their taste) which all artists must trudge through in the current cultural environment in order to find their artist voice - this is what has influenced this essay. It is entirely possible that all people could be exciting, skillful, happy artists following changes in cultural and educational systems regarding art, creativity, and play.


[fig 1 - The Artist’s Family - Anon Graff, 1785]

Social views of childhood vary greatly across cultures and times, as evidenced by the eighteenth century attitude to children discussed by Rosenblum in his book The Romantic Child. [fig 1: painting example from The Romantic Child - Graff’s children are depicted with “postures of domestic intimacy”.] is a painting used in The Romantic Child as an example of paintings’ reflection of parent-child relationships changing “in the direction of a growingly casual and closely-knit domesticity” in the late eighteenth century. The book also examines the cultural atmosphere surrounding the success of such artists as Runge and Sendak (as in the book’s subtitle) who produced such doting drawings of children. Less close/doting relationships with children may have diminished in the late eighteenth century, but remnants of less caring attitudes to children were present in the Victorian age (Rosenblum, 1988). In earlier paintings, the expressions of the children depicted often gives away their distress and suffering. Often children in pre- or early eighteenth century are depicted in the background of paintings - unimportant props (Rosenblum, 1988). In contrast, modern attitudes award children a sense of admiration. To us they have a great potential and a gurgling sweetness; a carefree nature we remember fondly from our own childhoods, and one, possibly, that we wish to emulate. Victorian treatments of children tend to horrify the modern British public. The popular 1960s musical film Oliver! (Carol Reed, 1968) is a film which celebrates the rise in status (and adulation?) of the child. It depicts Victorian orphans, their struggles, and their triumphs. Oliver! is a clear product of the rise of the child - the audience wants Oliver to succeed and liberate himself from his hardships, seeing Victorian neglect of “sweet” and “precious” children as inhumane and unacceptable.

In modern Britain, children are precious to us; we may dote on children now, but often the romanticisation and idealised perception of children can swamp them with expectations, push them to be their untrue selves, or simply patronise them via their cherubic “non-human” special status - causing them to squander potential and miss out on opportunities for learning. Otherwise, children are allowed a unique freedom to experiment and enjoy life and activities that we are seldom allowed to partake in as adults. Children live to play games, watch tv, draw, run around, and make noise all day. If an adult spends all day playing, this can be challenged. Many adults would feel guilty if they hadn't done at least a little work in a day. The Jeremy Kyle school of the “get a job and do something useful” mentality permeates grown up people in the form of a constant background level of productive guilt.
We prioritise and celebrate children’s experience of and enjoyment of the world around them. Adults, in contrast, must prioritise their responsibilities (earning, friends, etc) with a focus on productivity. Capitalist values assert that each of us must earn our place in society - people do not simply deserve housing, food, comfort, or pleasure automatically because they are living. They have to work for it. Adults must be seen to be making adequate effort in all these aspects of their lives, such that the simple base-level enjoyment of their surroundings is pushed back behind many priorities. It is no longer the done thing to pursue and revel in basic visceral joys. The idea that adults only deserve basic living comforts on condition that they are providing a service to society concludes logically with the notion that those not seen as contributing adequately don’t deserve life, hence the feverish preoccupation with production amongst the adult population. Children escape this because we position them as separate from adults, recognising that children shouldn't be expected to support themselves and earn their own place in capitalist society. This, contrasted with Victorian expectations of children, has not always been the case. Child poverty was rife as Victorian children were expected to “earn their keep” much the same as disabled and otherwise disadvantaged people are expected to earn their keep in contemporary Britain despite their difficulties in doing so.

This dichotomy is seemingly logical (despite its restrictive effects on adults) when children are below a certain age threshold and adults above, but when applied to adolescents and the adults and children preceding or following stages of adolescence, such a strict boundary is problematic. A black and white dichotomy doesn’t work when there are transitional stages - and adolescence is a huge progression of transitioning, rather than a swift switch from childhood to adulthood. So how does prioritising productivity over creativity and creative play affect teenagers - the neither child nor adult?

Adults escape the joy and freedom of childhood creativity through situating children as socially separate to them. A sense of logical superiority keeps adults from willingly emulating childlike creative spirits. By feeling we are above play, we eliminate or repress our desire to play.


Child art is lucid, experimental, and lacking in rules and structures (to various degrees depending on age). Children are figuring out ways to represent the world they see as well as their own imaginative worlds.

[fig 2] is a drawing from an unspecified point in my childhood (estimated at between the ages of six and eight years old). I remember being concerned with using the correct colours when I made this. I wanted to draw the clock because I liked its bright colours and chunky shape. I wasn’t concerned with representing it perfectly, but simply representing it. I always used to sign the corner of my drawings at that age as a mark of completion and pride. At around this age I was usually satisfied with my efforts. As I entered puberty I would become increasingly unsatisfied with my artwork.

[fig 2 - childhood drawing of a clock by Lil Ashton aged between six and eight]

We can also see comparable, childlike attitudes to art making in outsider artists or adults who return to art later in life. These people must learn or relearn how to make the marks and shapes appear on paper, how to mould these marks into their preferred vision. In the documentary ‘In the Realms of the Unreal’ (Vu, 2004), Henry Darger’s self-taught art practice is shown to have many marks of childlike experimentation. His works are sprawling, grand, and reminiscent of children’s evolving illustration styles. We can deduce from this that adults beginning to explore art must also traverse some stages of artistic child development.

Darger’s images depict terrifying and vast scenarios of war but seem to cross over to dreamy, idyllic composition with beautiful natural landscapes and the girl characters brimming with childish joy. Their innocence is intermingled with their suffering, and their fierce fighting. [Screenshots from In The Realms of The Unreal / YouTube] [fig 3] shows a busy war scene. Colour choices are intriguingly repetitive - orange and yellow - bright colours of the children in contrast with more murky, warrish dark shades and khaki green (Darger used a lot of repetition of forms due to his method of using photocopied images again and again)
[fig 4] is ethereal in look and the girls look tranquil in play/exploration in idyllic natural surroundings. The vivian girls are determined and strong. They never give up or back down from their convictions/assertions of rightfulness. Perhaps to Darger the vivian girls became a representation of his resourcefulness and determination, itself made clear through the sheer scale of and dedication to his creative work.

[fig 3]

[fig 4]

Darger was unaffected by social values of art as his artwork was entirely for him, kept hidden and uncommented on as he made it, untouchable by art critical culture.

Darger was adept at creating an immense and secret world, which was both separated from and influenced greatly by social expectations (especially with regard to children - as a result of his own tragic childhood and upbringing) which he felt were unjust (Vu, 2004).


When the child becomes the teenager, they begin to enter into a world of pressure and scrutiny. They are no longer cute, rosy-cheeked children fawned over. They are introduced to more focused and urgent productivity through increased homework and study. The things they do for fun they begin to discard for seriousness and more “adult” and productive activities. They are encouraged to prove themselves as capable adults with hard work, focused learning, and diligence, propelled by a growing desire to be treated as an independent and capable adult.

Children navigate their changing priorities, needs, and abilities with great frustration and confusion, and this is applicable to their creative lives. Many teenagers give up on art entirely at around sixteen years of age, fed up with their lack of rapid improvement in the face of their rapidly growing ability to discern skillful artwork from unskillful (or less skillful) artwork. This is coupled and emphasised by the adult preoccupation with specifically skilled art pieces only. Growing teenager’s desire to play is rapidly replaced by a desire to please the authoritative adults around them, to prove themselves as one of them as they start to recognise the “full human” status adults occupy in direct opposition to “childish” values and acts.


When looked at through an understanding of capitalist values/expectations and how those values and expectations shift between childhood and adulthood, we can offer some explanation of childhood creative development.  Child artistic development happens in several distinct stages. From infancy to around age twelve children love to draw. They draw their surroundings, their imagination, and progressively grow more skillful and understanding of how to best represent the world around them in a way that is uniquely satisfying to them. Varying between the ages of about twelve to sixteen, children usually reach a creative developmental stage in which they have developed critical responses to art and wish to emulate the skillful styles they have come to interpret as the most appealing kinds of art - the art most representative of true and ultimate skill (Armstrong & de Botton, 2013). This can cause problems, as children’s ambitions increasingly become focused on styles of art which they are unable to emulate. Fixation on this specific show of skill causes a majority of children to stop making art altogether following this stage. Cultural aspirations to specific art styles come about due to considerations of prestige - the public focus on “proper” artworks is strict. We respect classical works, works with a certain realism and status, or work that is considered to have come about through unfathomable intellectualism. Respected and revered art is based on certain aesthetic or academic outcomes more so than the process of art making, the individualism of art making, and the joy of art making regardless of the quality or style of the artwork itself. Young children are not terribly concerned with making artworks which are accurate, or which display a certain style or quality - they tend to be much more interested in exploration and play. Adults who have given up on art fail to recognise the importance and respectable reverie of play.

Teenagers are often involved in rich and large mini-cultures of less prestigious and undervalued art styles/modes - usually as they have begun to make efforts at emulating praised art styles but remain youthfully excited enough to enjoy their play at creating celebratory artworks depicting various parts of popular culture. Fan art is at its heart a playful celebration of a popular subject, so whilst the frustrations of disappointing skills may be present in the young people who practise it, this is counteracted by the enthusiastic participation in shared fan culture. Fan art is practised frequently by children and teenagers. As teens become more interested in the technical skill of drawing, they look to their favourite TV shows and bands to cautiously and feverishly emulate their biggest influences. At this point, the enthusiasm of this age group is beginning to be devalued. Their boyband interests are scoffed. Young adult novels, despite the success of Harry Potter et al, are often considered a lesser, lighter form of entertainment. Older child and teen interests are starting to be debased as the growing adolescents are pushing towards the production and responsibility of adulthood.


Adults across the world are removed from the joy of reckless and playful art making by socio-cultural views of art and prestige. The majority of British adults appear to sheepishly refuse to draw, dismissing themselves in mild embarrassment as talentless non-artists - convinced that they are unable to draw. What happens to adults? Adults lose their natural convictions of drawing as a miraculous and exciting experiment. Adults, in a wider philosophical sense, do not tend to consider failure an opportunity to gain valuable experience and to further their knowledge through experimentation. By contrast, this is almost the only thing young children do. They are excited about everything and there is no failure (in the dreaded, adult sense) yet. Young children embrace mild artistic failure is an inevitable and useful component of art as a form of play. So perhaps the answer to this adult art problem is to reframe failure, both inside and outside of an artistic context. A failure is not just a mistake, but an acquisition of a new level of experience and understanding. Failure is a necessary component of learning. Creative progression would not be possible at all without the glorious, building experimentation of failure. Does this mean that adults are afraid of learning?

Perhaps part of this problem also resides specifically within the creative context of art-making. Art holds a stiff position in our minds, an unmoving space amongst our culture in which it is the preserve of the prodigies and the pretentious. Children are exempt because they are precious and magical and can do as they wish - carefree little imps with no responsibilities. Acceptable because they will grow out of it. Their fun is legitimate, but adults’ fun is not as it supposedly interrupts the routine of productive working. Work and play are seen as parallel opposites. Fun isn't productive, and productivity is our unwavering adult value. Artists are the few adults who have made art their method of productivity - those who have honed a great skill or else those who are laughable (as art is often made fun of or considered an invalid form of work by non-artists). Art is a domain with rules, like the rest of the adult world.


In the exhibition booklet, Childish Things, David Hopkins suggests that “many of the iconic images in the art of the late-twentieth century were toys.” He explains that toys and playful items remain captivating to adult minds despite their forced distance from childhood and the artefacts thereof, giving Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986) as an example of toy imagery eliciting excitement and nostalgia in adults - acceptable only in its form as a child’s object elevated to a respectable, purposeful adult intellectual status.

If we look closely at cultural items designated childish, it becomes clear that spectators and theorists are quick to distance the concept and prestige of the artistic from the simple world of the child. It has been noted that “[...]aesthetically-produced objects, which arise from processes that are frequently seen as analogous to play, often avoid referencing toys in an overtly direct manner” (Hopkins, 2010). This suggests that items and works perceived to be childlike in appearance or production are hurriedly explained away by conceptualism or intellectual and theoretical posturing which seeks to attach a meaningful prestigiousness to them. These works escape dismissal as low, worthless art through their adoption into the heights of the art establishment. Here, they are too high for ordinary adults to touch. Art with a childish approach experiences little transition between low art worthlessness and high art prestige. At no point is it allowed to be ordinary.

Art which is childlike in spirit or form is positioned within the establishment so that it may not encroach upon the proper values of ordinary, unartistic adults. Much of the artistically uninterested public shun this sort of art (and conceptual or modern art in general) in response. The resulting scramble to legitimise more traditional art which is made through proper adult responsibility, diligence, and suffering has a massive impact on art perceptions. The measurable, traditional skill of a piece becomes a mark of worth. Art which does not possess these qualities is pushed aside in the rush to hide the unpleasant reality of adult artists behaving in the carefree and joyful way that only a child is permitted to. If adults and adult artists are allowed to face this possibility and seriously consider it, it calls into question their entire method of productivity-based living and working. This presents a problem to the world of work under capitalism - which, ultimately, the art establishment relies on as much as any other establishment.

Hopkins’ analysis of toys purports that they “serve adults, as much as children, as a means of expressing anxieties, yearnings, fantasies and so forth, and have a direct relation to the artistic impulse” (Hopkins, 2010). His claims assert that toys are as valuable and natural to adults as they are to children, but that adults often minimise this point of view and distance themselves from it. Adults are desperate to prove that they are of a fundamentally different class to children. In early adulthood most of us are forced to make compromises that change our lofty ambitions and childhood dreams. In doing so, we risk losing healthy methods of dealing with our natural, human psychological fluctuations. The rejection of these healthy mechanisms in order to appear above them props up a societal system which benefits some, but sacrifices individual creativity and mental health.

It could be said that minimising children’s lifestyles and representations of it as flimsy, unimportant, etc is a coping mechanism for the adult attempting to traverse adulthood’s forced rejection of their childhood beliefs and expectations. We often talk of children wishing to be adults and teenagers wishing to be children, but most adults must come to accept their lives as adults and become responsible for themselves. This can involve a rapidly changing point of view in the face of a new perspective, and coping mechanisms are useful and necessary in the adjustment process. Adults commonly categorise things culturally seen as childlike or child-specific as lesser, less important, or less legitimate in some way, than adult endeavours. This is a coping mechanism. Rationalisation of their exclusion from supposedly childish activities allows adults to avoid feeling unfairly excluded.


There are many misconceptions about art both inside and outside the art institution. Art occupies a space of simultaneous prestige and distaste to the general public. A dichotomy of extremes. It is perfect and glamourous and sipping champagne, or it is a stupid and pretentious product of middle-class posturing. Art is one-dimensional to many. One Wimbledon student claimed, in their final year essay, that “most artists are not mentally ill and most mentally ill people are not artists” (Sigal). This is one example of the clear cut path people make for art and art-makers. Artists are “not mentally ill”. Not occupying a “human” space when they are the artist, perhaps. The dichotomy is set up, between the normal people (the not-artists) and the artists (somehow separate from ordinary humanity and emotion). The artist is “special” and thus their difference from ordinary people makes their lifestyle unattainable. And so people are encouraged, by this language and perception, to think of themselves as non-artists. The creativity present in these so-called non-artists’ lives therefore is diminished as not-art. Truly, everyone has creativity. No-one can accurately be called a non-artist, which would technically make everyone an artist. But the attitudes such as Sigal expresses serve to keep the two camps in their place.


The consequences of adult rejection of and scornful attitudes towards the importance of childhood behaviours can be harmful to people of all ages. Certain types of creativity and creative exploration are labelled immature, selfish, or non-useful acts when the opposite is true. Creativity has an integral place in the human psyche. Art is used as part of therapies, and is recognised as an essential tool in healthy and happy child development. It is clear to any practising artist that art-making is a highly personal and soulful act.

Many studies support the view of artistry and creativity in general as essential throughout childhood development.and in adult life. In an article exploring the observations of early childhood arts education made by new teachers, Garvis explains that adults’ attitudes to their own creative ability massively influences children who are in their care: “According to the national education and the Arts Statement (MCETYA and Cultural Ministers' Council, 2007), all children should have access to high-quality arts experiences, especially within early childhood. The delivery of arts education in classrooms is dependent on early childhood teachers' beliefs (known as self-efficacy) about their own capability“ (Garvis, 2012).

Another study claims “placing pressure on young children solely for academic success results in stifling the vital experience of creative, critical verbal reflection that naturally occurs with youngsters” (McFadyen Christensen and Doty Kirkland, 2009). Yet another study identifies the inherent therapeutic nature of natural and playful creativity, explaining that participant's “identity as an artist [..] contributed to their well-being [and] art-making provided an avenue for participants to manage their emotions” (Titus & Sinacore, 2013).

At the other end of the spectrum of treatment of child art, we encounter postmodern artists using child art as a representation of post modern ideals in form and execution. The romanticism of child art by some of these artists is troubling, as Brent Wilson explains in his essay, Art, Visual Culture, and Child/Adult Collaborative Images: Recognizing the Other-Than. Wilson explains that modernism required artists to create ever-evolving and continuous artworks, each leaping forward (in progressive terms) from previous efforts. Artists were expected to pioneer original styles. He says “when artists [...] eschewed smoothness and cultivated roughness, and when they experimented with expressing inner emotional states rather than external appearances, their works resembled, superficially at least, the features they thought they saw in the paintings and drawings of children” (Wilson, 2007). Following this assertion, Wilson discusses the misconceptions of genuine child art that many artists carried as they mimicked the now-popular forms of child art without understanding the differences between genuine child-produced artwork and their own formalistic mimicry. Wilson asserts that “children's images looked as they did, at least in part, because children had not yet mastered the artistic conventions and they lacked the skills needed to make their works appear conventionally refined, skillful, and finished” (Wilson, 2007).

Wilson suggests and examines the falsities of post-modern adult artists’ enamour of what they feel is child art, and goes on to discuss the coercion practised by many of these adults in their endeavours to encourage children to make so-called “child art” with all the appealing formalistic components recognised as the new artistic ideal. This, on the surface, appears to be a genuine appreciation for unthinking childhood creativity and spontaneity, but once examined it is clear that is more of a new reactionary paradigm - a shift in artistic prestige from skilled forms to forms more concerned with texture and colour than technical skill per se. The composition of the preferred art form is still restricted to a strictly specific style. As a result, genuine child art is dismissed in favour of stylised works similar in tone and form to child art, but adhering more concisely to the imposed style guidelines of the establishment’s stylistic guidelines of the moment.


Attitudes towards child and adult art which allow adults to warp the genuine creative output of children for specific constructions of the formalistically desired art object (as in the events discussed in Wilson’s essay) are a component of wider cultural attitudes concerning the purpose, respectability, and worth of acts performed by children and adults. A dichotomy is composed and propagated through these common attitudes. This dichotomy separates children and adults in order to encourage adults to act in the manner deemed most socially responsible and necessary, but in doing so debases both the adult and child by removing them from each other and asserting their social place as separate entities. A child, as she/he grows, is conditioned into uncreative, responsible adulthood. Teen creatives suffer as inbetweens, learning that their artistic efforts are no longer valid - that they must adapt to adult measures of creative worthiness. They suffer through successive challenging adaptations to the paradigm shifts as they move through school levels and eventually into “real life” as fully conditioned adults stripped of their former creativity. This restrictive social dichotomy is effective in maintaining social behaviour in adults which fuels capitalist economy at the expense of full, fluid creativity and the enjoyment thereof which would recognise and embrace the notion of the child and adult as converging in endeavours and lifestyles.

The child/adult artistic integrity dichotomy continues into the adult artistic community in the form of a dichotomy of institutionally recognised forms and works, and devalued forms and works of art. This dichotomy is rife in the establishment, and has evolved anew as each new generation of artists overturn old restrictive modes only to, however unintentionally, replace them with new forms of ultimately the same restriction, perhaps favouring themselves but not creatives in a general sense. This is the inevitable failing of modernism, postmodernism, and any successive movements which follow the same pattern. They begin as earnest efforts to overthrow and modify restrictive establishment rules and rigid artistic perceptions, but inevitably lead to a replacement of the specifics of the hierarchy of prestige, rather than the intended liberation from arbitrary establishment dictation altogether.
The mainstream British public largely reject the romanticism of child art and the view that children are inherently more imaginative or wondrous than adults as part of a larger rejection of less traditionally skilled art in general. Artists working to the confines of the art establishment embrace the romantic perception of child art. Neither group recognises genuine mundanity and play as worth celebrating itself. Children are not necessarily more imaginative than adults, but social judgement forces adults to ignore their natural imagination and sense of play. In turn we tend to mysticise the actions of children in order to distance ourselves from them. They are allowed to make pictures and use their imaginations as they wish because they are beings of a special creative world, its inaccessibility to adults accepted due to its short lifespan. Accepted on the condition that the child will eventually dismiss it in favour of culturally recognised productive contribution. If adults’ lack of wild imagined worlds is made inherent to the state of adulthood itself, then this “inherent” absence is unlikely to be questioned, and our lives continue within the dichotomy of gleeful but useless creatives (children) and not-so-gleeful, purposeful workers (adults).


Ultimately, changing attitudes surrounding the acceptance of natural, spontaneous, joyful, and unproductive (or not immediately productive) art making and creativity requires a rejection of capitalist values. Capitalist society measures our worth on what we can provide for it. This asserts itself through social views of art which value only art which displays visible skill (visually or intellectually). Art must appear to have taken a certain amount of measurable, visible efforts. Hence the stereotype of the tortured artist. The iconic status of Van Gogh is interlinked with the tragic events of his life, for example. Would he be nearly as revered if he lacked that symbolic status of tragedy? To the contemporary public, great art is made by the suffering and underappreciated, making life as an artist seem romantic, but hardly appealing. Perhaps this also has relevance to the popularity of outsider art. The mystique of the secret artist with a painful past and a brilliant, “natural” skill serves to bolster to the position of artist as inherently different from an ordinary citizen.

In a piece for The Guardian entitled “Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist”, A.L. Kennedy describes her struggles with perceptions of appropriate suffering in her creative field of work. She says: “I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation.” (Kennedy, 2012) She talks about an encounter with a producer who says “if you weren't hurting, you couldn't be working.” (Kennedy, 2012). With this simple statement, the producer unintentionally describes the underlying cultural problem behind adult disengagement from creativity. Adults are expected to suffer, to toil away endlessly to earn their success and stability. Kennedy discusses the harm this idea presents: “It's simply cruel to assume that any human being will somehow benefit from punishment. And the cultural white noise that links having a job in the arts to the threat of punishment cuts the arts off from people who could enjoy them, or produce them.” (Kennedy, 2012)

Kennedy describes “the myth of the suffering artist” as “part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory”, adding that those who don’t find glory will have, according to this paradigm, deserved to fail. (Kennedy, 2012). The starkness of this belief echoes the views seen across the media in recent years in regard to austerity measures and the justification of cuts to public services, defended through political rhetoric which has tended towards demonisation of disadvantaged groups - arguably from the same cultural source of distrust for those not seen to be adequately contributing to society that fuels adult rejection of creativity.


In 2006, Ken Robinson gave a TED talk entitled “How schools kill creativity”. This is, as of writing, the single most viewed TED talk. Robinson claims that the education system is set up to train children out of creativity and creative thinking as they grow up. He says that “we don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out if it” (Robinson, 2006). Children are naturally creative, he says, because they are not afraid to be wrong, and that a failure of society is that it considers being wrong a problem. By the time they are adults, he says, people have become afraid to be wrong - afraid to take risks. Creativity is inherently risky - it requires solitary experimentation and discovery. This means that in forbidding mistakes and failures, society, and education as a transmitter of social values, forbids creativity (or at least creativity without guaranteed or immediately sustained success).


Adults who believe they can’t draw or lack artistic skill tend to believe this lack of skill is inherent in them. It is clear, on closer inspection of educational and cultural attitudes to creativity, that this is a false and culturally engineered perception, designed to encourage a severe perception of working productivity as the most important goal at the cost of creative exploration and personal enjoyment of self-directed creativity.

This is a widespread cultural problem, meaning attitudes may be difficult to alter, but it’s in the interests of adult health and quality of life to counteract dismissive and judgemental attitudes to art-making. Older children and adults’ creativity can be nurtured by stripping the focus away from expectations of productivity, skill, and/or perceived usefulness and encouraging a visceral enjoyment of creative process itself as a natural and therapeutic occurrence. If we can encourage greater acceptance of natural leisure behaviours (through education, familial relationships, and plenty of other cultural directions) and diminish the categorisation of these behaviours as childish, the quality of life for adults will undoubtedly increase as they become more accepting of the inherent presence of creativity within them.


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  2. Rosenblum, R (1988). The Romantic Child: From Runge To Sendak. London: Thames & Hudson.
  3. Sigal, N. Art, Madness and the Creative Process. Undergraduate. Wimbledon College of Art.
  4. In the Realms of the Unreal. (2004). [film] USA: Jessica Vu.
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  13. Robinson, K. (2006, February). Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity
  14. Armstrong, J & de Botton, A (2013). Art as Therapy. London: Phaidon.
  15. Kennedy, A.L. (2012). Why I hate the myth of the suffering artist. The Guardian. [online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2012/apr/02/myth-of-the-suffering-artist [Accessed 29 Jun. 2014].
  16. Oliver!. (1968). [film] UK: Carol Reed.

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