The Artist's Primary Relationship

by Robert Genn 

March 2006


Practically every day artists write to let me in on the inner
nuances of their personal relationships. Some write with
praise--others complain about how things have turned out. Some
ask me to suggest something. This is a considerable
responsibility--like trying to crit an unseen painting over the
phone. Apart from the few who have no close relationships, the
people who send these incoming emails often describe one of
five types of significant others:

Discouraging, negative or openly hostile
Disinterested, ignorant or mildly oblivious
Amused, tolerant, neutral or patronizing
Encouraging, positive or enthusiastic 
Overwhelmingly supportive and totally involved

Funnily, artists with partners (or parents) at either end of
this spectrum can be complainers. A lot of problems relate to
different personality types--introverts versus extroverts,
practical versus impractical, or highly sensitive persons
living with beer-drinking jocks. "My wife," wrote J.M., "golfs,
jogs, frisbees and goes to bars. The only thing she cares about
is that the goose keeps laying the golden eggs. I'm the goose."
There's a bit of resentment out there. Also writing are artists
who welcome the chasm between themselves and their
others--perhaps a ploy to get some creative time to themselves.

In art as in life, relationship difficulties can be turned into
convenient scapegoats for perceived failure. Whether in a state
of true love or not, an artist has to realize that when push
comes to shove, most of us are pretty much on our own. Art is
generally not a group activity, nor does art always profit from
the input of a close being. On the other hand, I get good
reports from broader-based divisions of labour such as the
creator-distributor duo where she paints and he talks. Or where
he writes and she edits, she carves and he ships, or he weaves
and he embroiders.

It may take considerable effort, empathy and fine tuning to
balance a life in art with a relationship--to my knowledge
there's no weekend workshop. Living internally and working for
the love of it makes us a unique study. And while we can be
difficult for many folks to understand, it's not their fault.
We have chosen to be this way, but we are not chosen people.
There are no chosen people. Sometimes it may be okay to golf.

Best regards,


PS: "What great artist?" (Reportedly said by Nora Barnacle, the
wife of James Joyce, to a journalist who knocked on their door
in 1932 and asked, "Is the great artist at home?")

Esoterica: Several recent letters have described an ideal
partner as being "self-amusing," or "having their own
itinerary." This may be all the support some artists need.
Their partners may intuitively understand the fragility of the
muse and the potential pitfalls in an individualistic,
ego-based effort. I'm not going to make a case for this
because, as I've grown older, I've come to appreciate the value
and the joy of true connectivity and creative like-mindedness.
But there is still something to be said for just being left