Giacometti Fixed My Head

Giacometti, Homme Qui Marche, 1947 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve worked for twenty-seven years (and counting) as an engineer on water resource problems, but I’ve never had a career. As much as I think the water work needs doing, it’s never felt like something I pursued because it was rich and valuable to me. Rather, it’s just been a series of jobs in which I’ve felt restless, like I’ve had an itch I can’t scratch.

In 2017, I finally discovered writing, and it’s been a paradigm shift in satisfaction with my work. When writing, I often feel like I’m doing what I’m made to do. At times, my day job in engineering still feels like a storm that could shipwreck my soul, but my writing serves as critical ballast, preventing capsize. Though I won’t feel I’ve had a writing career until my words get published (which is yet to happen), the writing itself often gives me joy.

And yet. And yet.

Even on the rare days I spend only writing, I can tend to feel itchy. I’ll review the work of a prior day or week and think, “This is terrible!”, and feel like scrapping the whole project. Or simply getting new words on the screen will feel like a Sisyphean task. These days typically lead to self-pity (“My work has come to nothing!”), followed closely by self-condemnation (“Why am I so hard to please? And why so ungrateful for the good things my work produces, not least food, clothing, and shelter?”). I’ll begin to view myself as the stereotype of a tortured artist, a cranky baby who needs a diaper change.

A Giacometti Portrait

A 1965 book by James Lord, A Giacometti Portrait, recently helped me toward a clearer, more compassionate view of my work journey. The book describes an eighteen-day period during which Lord served as model while the famous Swiss sculptor and painter, Alberto Giacometti, painted his portrait. As the clever title implies, the book actually ends up as a psychological portrait of Giacometti himself.

Lord’s book lovingly uncovers the roots of the tormented relationship Giacometti had to his art-making. According to Lord, the torment stemmed from Giacometti’s belief that his goal—to represent his vision of reality in sculpture or paint—was impossible to achieve. He lived with a compulsion to try, yet every moment he knew his goal was out of reach. Because of this fundamental conflict, Giacometti was constantly frustrated while he worked. He would curse and castigate himself for his failures and almost daily consider quitting art altogether.

At times, Lord’s account made me laugh out loud: Giacometti’s flailing seemed the caricature of a troubled artist. At several points he wished someone else would come and paint the portrait as he envisioned it (per impossible!). Yet, it was clear that Giacometti was not “affected” or putting on a show in these moments. He sincerely despaired of realizing his vision—both for the portrait and, seemingly, for every project he worked on.

I Am an Artist

The sea change for me has been realizing (1) that Giacometti’s conflict just is the inner conflict of most (all?) artists and (2) that I’m a plain-old, garden-variety artist. While I don’t mean to compare the degree of my struggle or, heaven forbid, my talent to Giacometti’s, I do mean to say that I see the same basic conflict in myself, and that the conflict accounts for the better part of my discontent with work, both past and present.

I see now that my past restlessness followed from the inability to realize my inchoate artistic vision. I had something inside that couldn’t come out. Of course, this inability was no fault of mine: I had no understanding of the bubbling, boiling vision. I just knew that my work as an engineer, and even as an aspiring academic, never quite scratched the itch.

I see the same conflict in my present situation. My day job often feels futile because it makes no progress toward my artistic vision. It can feel like a waste of my life, even though I know it’s necessary to maintain my life. And when the odd busy week goes by without any writing, I can get to feeling restless, anxious, irritable, and desperate: no progress toward the vision!

But even when I am writing, I still sometimes feel dissatisfied and restless, especially when the work is not going well (as I noted). Then I feel most like Giacometti—confronted with the truth that what I create will never quite achieve the transporting reader experience I’m aiming for, my artistic vision.

These insights have been revelatory and liberating. Simply understanding my inner conflict around work has brought tremendous relief. It’s instantly clarified the years of opaque discontent. It’s also given me greater compassion for myself in the ongoing struggle. I didn’t ask for an artistic sensibility or vision; I just got them. So I needn’t write off my dissatisfaction as ingratitude or immature fussiness. Rather, it’s just part of living as a human being with an artistic vision. And that’s nothing to beat oneself up about.

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