A perspective on stress

Here’s a talk I gave at the Royal College of Art on the subject of ‘stress management for artists’

The term stress as we understand it was developed by Hans Selye, based on his experimental biological work in the 1930s. Before that, people understood stress as something that happened to things like walls and bridges. It was Selye who began to use the term stress to describe a human state of being, and it was not until the 1950s, when he wrote a popular book entitled The Stress of Life, that people began to speak of being, or feeling, stressed. So it’s a relatively recent notion.

Nonetheless, by the 1990s, ‘stress’ had become:

“an integral part of modern scientific understanding in all areas of physiology and human functioning, and one of the great metaphors of Western life. Focus grew on stress in certain settings, such as workplace stress, and stress management techniques were developed. The term also became a euphemism, a way of referring to problems and eliciting sympathy without being explicitly confessional, just ‘stressed out’. It came to cover a huge range of phenomena from mild irritation to the kind of severe problems that might result in a real breakdown of health. In popular usage, almost any event or situation between these extremes could be described as stressful.”

In other words, the ‘Stress of Life’ might simply be understood as ‘Life’.

And so perhaps what we are talking about here is ‘Life Management’ – and I suppose that here we are entering the traditional preserve of religion, which maybe accounts for my invitation to speak tonight. Except of course, times have changed. These days, people are more likely to seek help from a counsellor than a priest when it comes to managing their lives. If in the 19th century, art was the new religion, in the 20th century, we might say that it was psychology that usurped much of the function of religion, in accounting for our lives. Hence the development of our current, essentially psychological concept of stress.

However, we should remember that the originator of the concept was a biologist – an endocrinologist, in fact – who understood stress to have a physiological basis. Stress has physical symptoms, from headaches to heart attacks, and so physical remedies are required, such as regular exercise, healthy eating, etc. And, for what it’s worth, I have found this to be true for myself – if I don’t get enough exercise, or eat properly, I can feel more stressed. And it’s a bit of a vicious cycle, because the more stressed I get, the more likely I am to skimp on exercise, sleep, healthy eating, etc. So I try and swim and walk and do yoga on a regular basis – but I guess you know about that kind of thing already, and you’re probably better at it than I am.

But there is another aspect to this question, which we might call spiritual. At least, many of the established techniques of stress management are essentially spiritual exercises. The meditation that Hogetsu has just led us in, based on Buddhist tradition, is a fine example. Yoga is another, which combines both the physical and the spiritual.

These techniques, based on Eastern spiritual traditions, predate the modern concept of stress. And in the West, there were spiritual precursors to the concept itself. In 1844, Kierkegaard published a philosophical work whose title was translated as ‘The Concept of Anxiety’, but the concept itself is better known by its original Danish name, angst, which entered the English language as a key term of Existentialism. Kierkegaard himself used the term to refer to the problem of freedom of choice within the moral framework of religion. This did not mean freedom from religion – freedom itself was understood in religious terms: we are given our free will by God. It is the responsibility of this freedom that generates angst.

And whether or not we are religious, I think that any discussion of stress within the context of art and art education must recognise that freedom of choice is part of the problem. (And by the way, I’m speaking specifically in terms of art here, rather than say design, because that is my experience, but I hope that at least some of what I’m saying will have more general relevance.)

So what do I mean when I say that freedom of choice is part of the problem? Sometimes people think that art is an easy option, academically, because you are free to do what you want. But this freedom is not as easy as it sounds. For example, art students are asked to identify and develop their own research topics at undergraduate level – this is not usually required in other subjects until undertaking a PhD. Moreover, because there are not the same kind of objective criteria available to measure art as there may be elsewhere, there is a greater demand on the students’ ability to construct a critical argument from disparate and potentially conflicting sources. Follow this with the seemingly laissez-faire but actually highly codified professional art world, and we can begin to understand the kind of pressures that can be experienced by anyone seeking to establish or maintain an identity as an artist.

Today we might call this artistic stress, but in the past it might have been called creative angst… think of Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Sylvia Plath. Now, we can dismiss this as the romantic myth of the tortured artist, and of course, we should be critical of such mythologies, not to mention the hubris that can be associated with them. But at the same time, I think we need to be careful of becoming cynical about creativity, and forgetting the reasons that we got into our situation – that is, why we are at art school – in the first place. And what is that reason? Basically, that we love making art. Or at least we used to. And I guess if you have survived art school to postgraduate level, you must still do.

And I say survived, because when students first arrive at art school, they immediately encounter critical theories that seems to contradict and make foolish their naive love of art. And I think this causes stress, if not angst, because they feel torn between being true to what they believe, or at least, think they believe, art to be, or abandoning this in order to fit in with what seems to be believed by the institutions of art. I may be putting this conflict a bit dramatically, but I’m guessing that you have some notion of what I am talking about, and if so, that you will have developed strategies to manage the stress.

One response is to divide up your creative practice – to have one mode for college, and another that you do in private at home. The classic would be to give up painting in favour of, say, lens based or digital media at college, but to carry on making secret paintings at home. But it might equally be the other way round – maybe you make paintings at college, but make photographs, or write songs, or whatever, outside college. And, in terms of stress management, it might be a good thing to have a creative outlet that is not subject to assessment and critique. A kind of occupational therapy, if you like. Basket weaving, perhaps… But of course, the problem with this is that as well as being creative, we are critical. Indeed, I would argue that creativity cannot produce art if it isn’t critical at some level.

And so the more likely response is to become ironic – or at least, to develop an ironic mode – to cover up our anxieties around personal creativity in the corporate world. Now, once again, I’m not trying to offer a romantic myth of artistic genius here. I think we need to be critical of our creativity, but as part of this, we need to be critical of the strategies we adopt to cope with the stresses associated with that creativity.

Here’s Rilke’s advice on the subject, from his Letters to a Young Poet, written in 1903:

“Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn’t be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless. Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world arises from a necessity of your being. For under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you (if it is something accidental), or else (if it is really innate and belongs to you) it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with.”

Now, we are not used to talk of seriousness, let alone greatness, in terms of art today. But what I think is particularly relevant here is Rilke’s emphasis, not on the rightness or wrongness of a technique or mode per se, but on whether it works for a particular artist. In other words, we are free to choose to make use of irony, or not, as a tool or technique. But note that this choice is not free of constraint. According to Rilke, we are not to be controlled by it, but at the same time, we are not in control of it, as an external object. We can only use it successfully (or purely, as he puts it) if it is already part of us.

So we have a choice, but this choice is not the free choice of the autonomous self beloved of the myth of the romantic artist. It is constrained by who we already are, in the “necessity of our being”, as he puts it, which is itself “under the influence of serious things”, which are beyond us.

And so, whether we call it artistic stress or creative angst, we are dealing with a spiritual problem, which requires a spiritual solution.

And that I think is why, in our attempts to manage this modern thing that we call stress, initially understood as physiological or psychological, we are increasingly turning to the wisdom of the world’s spiritual traditions. And so in closing, I’d like to pass on something from my own tradition, in the form of Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.25-34)

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ [and here you can add any other anxieties that are currently causing you stress, like ‘How will I repay my student debt?’ or ‘How will I continue to practice as an artist?’] … indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”