Michelangelo was “the master pattern for the Romantic artist.”[i] But what is a romantic artist?
The dictionary says to be romantic is to be “imaginative but not practical.” Romanticism is “an artistic and intellectual movement that originated in the late 18th century and stressed strong emotion, imagination, freedom from classical correctness in art forms, and rebellion from social convention.”
So Michelangelo was 300 years ahead of the movement that he was to set the pattern for and he was certainly imaginative. We don’t see that he was impractical, however, but he certainly expressed strong emotion and was no more “free” from his predecessor’s art forms than any artist who works in the evolutionary flow of the creative process. He was a creature of his times as we all are. Was he a rebel? He was an employee of three successive Popes—a creature of the establishment — he was hardly a rebel. But a genius? Without question! One of the greatest artists of all time.
But all of this is not our major concern for this essay. In his self-portrait Michelangelo Buonarotti (1525) reveals a tortured soul. We want to look at why the image of the suffering artist—especially the greatest of our artists—seems to be such a prevalent part of our belief system. Without that suffering some would even say that they could not have produced great art. This is a very dangerous and incorrect characterization relating to art, the creative process and human nature itself.
There is no question that artists suffer. Looking at Michelangelo’s portrait we see that: “The artist’s troubled, even battered face reflects a life-long struggle with colossal projects, and the sense of failure that recurs in his letters and poetry of often tormented piety.”[ii] Michelangelo is not a suffering “artist”—he is a suffering human being experiencing the universal human condition. It is other human beings, especially art critics who “romanticize” his suffering. He is a human being trapped in a primitive culture among unconscious contemporaries in a toxic religious paradigm. No wonder he suffers.
The dominant philosophy of his day especially among Italian intellectuals was Neo-platonism. This doctrine held that man was “imprisoned in his body.”[iii] The reality was that during the Italian High Renaissance human beings were also imprisoned in their minds not just their bodies—as we are today. We are imprisoned by identifying with our minds, our bodies and our emotions.
We suffer because we cannot free our essence, our identity, from this illusion. Just as Michelangelo freed his sculptures by “taking away” all that was extraneous to the form held captive in the marble—we must escape the beliefs that smother us. It is easier to be a “modeling” sculptor by adding layer after layer of clay to build up the desired form. Human beings for many millennia have been elaborating or “adding to” life rather than taking away or simplifying life. We have so complicated the illusion that covers and smothers our “natural form” that we have lost our True self. We no longer remember or “feel” who we are. Our True-self is encased in a block of fear.
Michelangelo further lost his way toward the end of his life, “renouncing in the moving late sonnets the world and even his art; he made remarkable drawings expressing his profound, now often pessimistic, religious feeling.”[iv]
Michelangelo’s own words reveal the source of much of his suffering and that of humanity today. It is the illusion of institutionalized religion. The phrases “tormented piety” and “pessimistic religious feeling” quoted above show how the “moods” associated with religion and other unconscious illusions took him away from the present moment joy of the process of creation. And like many talented artists he was robbed of the appreciation of the glorious beauty of his creations, which in the case of Michelangelo Buonarotti, left the rest of us a legacy that we can use to achieve our own freedom.
[i] Piper, David. The Illustrated History of Art. Octopus Publishing Group, London. 1986, page 132.
[iii] Ibid., page 133.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.