In 1998, David Bowie sat down with Charlie Rose for an interview about the various artworks he’d been showcasing in galleries. But what was meant to be a light-hearted conversation to publicise these gallery shows quickly turned into an age-old debate, one almost as old as art itself.
Describing one of the pictures from his website, an abstract acrylic portrait featuring a blue figure staring gloomily into the middle distance, David Bowie said: “That’s Iggy Pop in 1976 when we were living in Berlin. We both had pretty severe drug problems, so to rectify that we moved to Berlin, the heroin capital of the world. Which I guess in retrospect doesn’t sound like a terribly smart decision. And that’s a picture of Jim turning blue in his apartment.”
Rose was quick to ask Bowie, the cultural polymath that he was, about the creative process and where his seemingly endless creative drive comes from: “For me, to be quite frank, it’s finishing it [the artwork] so I can get on to something else,” he began. “It’s getting through it. It’s the process, there’s something in it that just turns me to jelly. I can’t explain it, it’s a very strange feeling. It’s not particularly pleasant either. I can’t say that I enjoy music or painting. It’s not like sex or something which you really – sort of -enjoy.”
Bowie wasn’t the first to describe creating art as if it were some form of torture. The concept of the tortured artist has been around for hundreds of years but became especially prevalent towards the end of the 19th century when bohemian artists embraced the idea of turning one’s pain into art. Arguably though, it goes back even further than that. The ancient Greeks told a story about a man called Philoctetes, who was exiled to an island and ended up inventing the bow and arrow from bits and pieces he found in the caves there. His invention subsequently became an important weapon used by the Greeks in their battles, and he was venerated thereafter.
But back to Bowie. “I have often wondered if being an artist in any way, in any nature, is a sign of a certain kind of dysfunction, a social dysfunction anyway,” he continued. “It’s an extraordinary thing to want to do; to express yourself in sich rarefied terms. I think it’s a loony thing to want to do.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Bowie’s view of the artist is precisely like that of the ancient Greeks, who believed that Philoctetes creative genius lay in his isolation from the rest of the society. The perfect artist – according to both Greek myth and Bowie himself – is an outsider whose separation from mainstream society allows him the perspective to innovate it.
As Bowie goes on to explain, the artist needs to be slightly dysfunctional in order to give society what it doesn’t even know it needs: “the saner and more rational approach to life is to survive steadfastly and create a protective home and create a warm loving environment for one’s family and get food for them,” Bowie said. “That’s about it. Anything else is extra. All culture is extra. Culture is…I guess it’s a freebie. We only need to eat. We don’t need a particular colour of plates, or chairs or anything. Anything will do, but we insist on making one thousand different types of chairs and different types of plates. It’s unnecessary and it’s a sign of the irrational part of man. We should just be content with pickin’ nuts.”
So if Bowie believed art to be useless and tortuous, why did he spend a lifetime making it? Because despite his belief we should be content with foraging for nuts and berries, he also seems to understand that this “irrational” side of the human brain is as essential as the rational one. We may not need painted plates, oil paintings, and rock music. But without them, life would barely be worth living.