October 17, 2022   

Flip Side of Delaying Gratification

Because I went to art school, I don’t expect my friends to simply die of old age in retirement homes; they are more likely to die prematurely from substance abuse like some already have.

I was not a typical art student. I’m sure I would have done well as a computer science major too. What I clearly lacked that others had in college was impulsiveness. I aced when the assignment was about technical competencies that required flawless execution, like photorealism and minimalism.

Many psychologists argue that delayed gratification is essential for “success.” I naturally delay gratification and noticed how different everyone else was in college. I discovered that it was impossible for me to paint like Jackson Pollock because my impulsiveness had been beaten into submission by my executive functions. I had no access to it. I would be more concerned about how to clean up afterward or the cost of the paint.

Impulsiveness is important for artists because they want to externalize who they are without judgment and self-censorship. It is a necessary process for self-discovery, as in psychoanalysis. When the interpretive layer dominates their work, it becomes predictable and one-dimensional. There is nothing more to “get” beyond the artists’ own interpretations.

There is a cost to delaying gratification, so I’ve always strived not to. Naturally, delaying gratification pays off in old age. That is the whole point. These people are generally responsible, reliable, and healthy, but the flip side is predictable, repressed, and normative. Some artists are lucky and die in the lap of luxury, but that is not the norm.

If the dead artists I know had a perfect retirement plan and faithfully listened to their doctors, they wouldn’t be who they were. Their vices defined who they were as much as their virtues did.

We certainly need responsible people, but they can’t tell us much about what it means to be human. If your life is about the “success” achieved by delaying gratification, the ending is your final judgment, but this does not apply to artists. However disturbing and preventable their deaths might have been, we need to celebrate how they lived.