It has been a few weeks since I got back from New York to deal with my painting slump here at home, and since then I have painted several times, and it has felt good and I’ve been happy with it. I’ve also been reading about art.
When I was in New York I bought a few books, including The Happiness of Burnout, about an artist who suffers burnout. The title spoke to me but as I started reading it, I couldn’t figure out if this book was for real or not. At first it read like a fictional book; maybe I found it questionable that there was an artist who was so successful at being an artist that he suffered from burnout.
Turns out I just don’t know very much about contemporary European artists. The artist Jeppe Hein is, in the words of the Public Art Fund website, “one of Denmark’s most celebrated contemporary artists.” (I guess Denmark celebrates their artists?)
Another reason that I couldn’t figure the book out at first is because the translation is not that great, so some of the language is a bit stilted.
Despite my skepticism, and the not-great translation, and the fact that I could not wrap my mind around all of the philosophical concepts (lots of talk of “becoming”) – that is to say, despite my own short-comings – I enjoyed the book, and I did learn from it. In addition to weaving in psychology and philosophy, Janning compares Hein’s experiences with burnout in fiction, including Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, which predates the coining of the term “burnout” (thanks, Wikipedia!).
Just leafing through it to help write about it, I’m finding useful passages like this one about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “…Esther Greenwood becomes alive at the very end, where she steps out of the role that society has given her. The last line is full of suspense, because being alive, she knows that things might go wrong, she is no longer playing a role where she pretends everything is fine. But they are not; she will have to make them so.” She will have to make them so! This chapter, “Happiness?,” describes how happiness is a skill, “a manner of being that requires hard work and time. It must be learned.”
I’m not saying I’ve got burnout, but as an artist who has anxiety and constantly questions what I’m doing and why, I found much of this book helpful. As I said, Janning delves into fiction, which I think is one of the greatest tools that we have to teach us how to be human. He also describes how and why yoga and meditation helped with Hein’s anxiety, and with refocusing on what is important in his life and his artwork.
Using my bookclub’s rating system, I’d give this book a solid 3 (would recommend to a friend).