The artist and the cynic

Peter Sculthorpe, the Australian composer whose work celebrated Australia’s indigenous culture and evoked the mystery and grandeur of the outback, died earlier this month. He was 85—and began writing music at the age of seven. How did his piano teacher react when she found out?

You might think that she would have been excited. And she was—but not in a good way. She scolded him. She told him that all the composers were dead, and brought her cane down sharply across his knuckles. She demanded that he practise his scales, and forget about composing his own music.

Fortunately, the young Peter Sculthorpe had a strong sense of destiny. He kept writing music at night under the bedclothes, illuminating his manuscript with a torch. Eventually, his parents discovered him. Unlike his piano teacher, they accepted his calling, and encouraged him to continue.

So Peter Sculthorpe enjoyed a full life as a musician and composer. But how many other people—with less self-confidence and with less supportive parents—have had their creativity crushed by a fearful adult?

We might hope that such attitudes belong in the past. And yet Sculthorpe’s piano teacher gave life to four tragic tropes. They remain as prevalent now as they were eighty years ago. We’re just better at hiding them from ourselves.

One: all the great music has already been written. This idea is not unique to music. It has surfaced time and time again, with appropriate variations, in all the different fields of the arts, and in the sciences. There are always people who believe that the current moment represents the pinnacle of human achievement. They are invariably wrong. There is no limit to human creativity.

Two: the only good artist is a dead artist. How pleasant to attend the Vienna Philharmonic’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem; how unpleasant it would have been to meet Mozart in person, with his childish eccentricities and his toilet humour. If you’ve seen Amadeus, you know what I mean. Some people can only appreciate an artist who is comfortably dead, preferably for hundreds of years.

Three: how dare you create? Sculthorpe’s teacher believed that it is somehow wrong to bring forth something new. To perform a piece of music, within the strict boundaries enforced by your betters—that’s OK. But the untrammelled act of creation terrifies timid people. To them it feels like hubris, as though you’ve challenged the gods. It’s better to fit in and shrink down than it is to stand out.

Four: what makes you so special? This accusation strikes right at the core of our being. Sure, each generation may offer up a handful of decent composers, with geniuses like Mozart and Beethoven rarer still. But you? Don’t make me laugh… And so we are taught to check our dreams at the door, and settle for mediocrity.


When we hear such stories it’s easy to respond with anger and frustration. But anger and frustration only perpetuate the cycle of persecution. As psychologist and best-selling author Steve Biddulph says, in a cruel inversion of the Golden Rule, children will do to others as is done to them. What punishments had been inflicted on Sculthorpe’s piano teacher when she was a girl? What dreams of greatness had been snuffed out by a harsh word, or a swift stroke of the cane? She was only doing as she had been taught: to deny her creativity, and the creativity of others.

But creativity is part of our essence as human beings. So when it is crippled the effects ripple through all aspects of our lives. It affects our health. It damages our intimate relationships. And it creates problems in the workplace. When our creativity is thwarted, we find refuge in cynicism. We reject new ideas as flawed by definition. We shun people who exude creative energy. We deny our dreams of greatness. And we dare not poke our head above the parapet, lest we attract the gaze of a sniper.

Conflict can arise in the workplace when people with different personalities and expectations work together. The difference between the flamboyant, artistic temperament and the repressed cynic is one possible theatre of conflict. This can led to bitter disputes, as each sees in the other someone they despise. The artist sees the tyrant who would snuff out his or her creative fire. And the cynic sees an iconoclast who has transgressed the social norms, and needs to be taken down a peg or two.

The good news is that such conflicts can be overcome. They can be overcome because the artist and the cynic share at least one essential trait: the desire to be heard and understood. Mediation can give both parties the space they need to listen, and develop an appreciation of each other’s needs. Sure, it may not be easy, and there will be some preconceptions that need to be dismantled, but the insights revealed will justify any initial awkwardness.

After the mediation is complete, the relationship will prosper if the repressed cynics receive the guidance they need to recover those joyous, expressive aspects of their personality that were crushed so many years ago. Suppressing our creative instincts consumes enormous amounts of energy. Once we release these instincts, we discover the vitality we lost as children. Only then can we bring our deepest dreams to fruition.


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