Painting Is Dangerous

Michael Garfield
7 min readOct 2, 2019

“What gives light, must endure burning.”
– Viktor Frankl

Painting is dangerous.

We don’t typically think of painting as dangerous, because we imagine the landscape print in our motel room to have emerged uncomplicatedly from the sweatless brow of some middle-aged homebody with a neat row of clean brushes and a comfortable desk chair. We are the children of Late Capitalism, recognizing product over process. Our physicists are busy looking not for fundamental relationships in the universe, but fundamental particles. We seem not to really grasp the wisdom in statements like, “Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” Machines build things for us.

Through clever modern chemistry, being an artist is almost totally non-toxic. You don’t even have to get your hands dirty; just use an electronic stylus and tablet, and you can do more with pixels than you ever could have with messier media. And you can do it sitting down.

Even the treacherous borderlands of the mind have been neutered, packaged, labeled, and thus contained. Psychedelia is trite. Been there, done that — our chain retailers advertise with swirling floral blooms and rippling waves of color with an otherworldly richness that puts every Boomer album cover to shame.

Maybe acid did break our parents’ chromosomes…or maybe we, like the kids of those Brazilian shamans, have just been inoculated to these deeper weirdnesses by growing up inside of them. Maybe consumer culture just gives us too much to experience, and we’ve grown even thicker shades to wear as we parade into the Light.

Aliens, angels, ascended masters? Oh yeah, my buddy channels them. Bilocation? I did that, once. We’re living in a world that is rending the minds of our parents to tatters, and it’s No Big Deal. The extraordinary is, like, so totally ordinary.

But I don’t blame any of us for blinding ourselves to the incredible intensity of our age. After all, we’re dealing with what Rudolf Otto called the Mysterium Tremendum — the deep unknown at the heart of the world that is so beyond our ken that we could not survive the knowledge. We cower from the face of God for good reason: that creative Source is a burning brightness of which fire is only a cool, pale imitation. History can be read as the story of one daring soul after another throwing itself into the flame, hoping to capture a spark. Our lineage is one of suicide missions, artists and scientists sacrificing themselves for the greater knowledge and experience of the collective.

I believe that the danger of creativity never really went away — it just moved, leaving a sediment of the once-extraordinary behind as it rolled outward like cooling lava into the sea. We live on what was once the boiling coitus of elements — now the terra firma, solid and predictable terrain. Genius and Madness are neighbors because they move fast enough to stay ahead of everyone else, snapping up beachfront property as fast as it is made. (Madness just builds a slightly shoddier house, slightly closer to the tide.) And playing around on the edges is inherently dangerous. In any form, creativity challenges preconceptions, digests conventions, and throws us to burn and drown in the intensely unfamiliar. It changes who we are. “Being creative” is agreeing to an adventure from which nobody has ever, ever returned.

The deep blue pigment bygone painters used for sea and sky was cobalt — it drove them insane with chemical poisoning. Nature photographers have a bad habit of being eaten by wild animals or falling off of cliffs. The most gifted musicians seem especially likely to drown or overdose. It’s a common myth across ancient cultures from Africa to Athens that the best artists inherit their talent through deals with water spirits — deals eventually repaid with blood.

(For more on this mysterious phenomenon, I encourage you to read up on the Saturn Return and the 27 Club.)

The Muse — actually an entire coterie of entities that the Greeks held responsible for inspiring every creative act — is a lunar, feminine
archetype. The muses were water nymphs, legendary for blinding those arrogant enough to challenge them.

Honest artists admit that they can claim no ownership of their creative work — that it emerges through them, and not from them. And like the biological creative passion of our sexual inheritance, artistic creativity drives us into all kinds of self-destructive recklessness in order to satisfy its own expansive urge. The Muse does not care about you, except as a means to an end. The island on which we perch our traditions is literally built from the bones of artists and scientists.

I think about this a lot, when painting at concerts in front of a heart-rattling beam of sound. I may not have to worry about carcinogenic paints devouring my brain, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I make my living like a deep sea creature on periphery of a hydrothermal vent, somehow surviving on the narrow ledge between crushing pressure and unbelievable heat, thriving off the rich intersection of extremes. Those benthic creatures lay root at the sweetspot where the ocean carries sustenance directly into their blood — and I plant myself right where a wall of tidal music energy is sieved through my energetic body into crystalline patterns of paint. These images are the love child of the audience’s and performers’ energies feeding back over a massive electrified circuit, leaving cross-sectional deposits in opaque pigment on a black board — a kind of spectrograph of the evening’s collective resonance, deformed and amplified by the matrix of my interpretation.

And this is matter-of-fact science. Chemist Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel Prize for his theory of dissipative structures — the gist of which is that order emerges when so much energy flows through a system that it must reorganize into a higher level of complexity. If it can’t keep up with the surge, it is totally destroyed.

Necessity is the mother of invention, just as whirlpools form because the river’s current is constrained by the lay of the riverbed. Life is the floret that pushes forth from the equal and opposite vectors of structure and chaos. And so, like Robert Johnson (a member of the 27 Club), I find the soul of my artwork at the crossroads. That’s about as deep a truth as I have ever known: that creativity lives in between things, balanced on the head of a pin, spilling from the broken crust of opposing forces.

Putting in my earplugs comes with a sense of frontier glee akin to what I imagine a welder feels when lowering the mask: the pride of having to wear protective equipment so I can play on the turbulent edge of knowing. I didn’t think to bring any on my first night out painting, and my ears rang afterward for an entire day. Working on fine art in a crowd of hundreds of drunk dancers requires a special awareness of the space around me, should any teetering reveler pitch over into my easel or elbows. Keeping a dance party schedule means getting to sleep at hours that can’t be good for my health. After five consecutive nights of painting, my legs begged for days to wobble out from beneath me.

And even in this supposedly enlightened age, I still have to work in a cloud of noxious fumes if I want to use gold or silver paint. (It’s funny: When I was a child, I acted in a public service announcement declaring the dangers of huffing paint. I was the “bad kid” who didn’t learn his lesson from the hospitalization of his friends…and now here I am huffing paint every week, only barely against my will.) My burning nostrils connect me to every artist who ever chose beauty over practicality.

I like to think that this job is somehow a mythological gauntlet or trial, that the frightful intensity is a door to greatness. Surely, these four-hour performance painting sessions are growing more muscle in my legs, cultivating my ability to improvise and listen, and teaching me how to conduct myself like a professional. Maybe one of these days I’ll come out of the kiln with the strength and coherence that can only be found in fire. Maybe this is just what I need, in a culture that has abandoned its rites of passage.

In the meantime, however, I’m glad that performance painting doesn’t require me to dive any deeper into the creative maelstrom than I already do. Sustainable artistry requires compromise, comfort, and care. It demands that artists be responsible enough to keep a little distance from the turbulent shores of the Godhead. Get too close and you’ll be consumed, erasing any further gifts you might have transmitted. If you care at all about keeping yourself alive and sane for long enough to do something more than a single incandescent opus, remember that the womb has teeth. The sun is on fire. You can’t breathe underwater. And painting is dangerous.

(Re-published from

Here’s this essay read over a time-lapse live painting video:

Paleontologist turned poet-philosopher, Michael Garfields multimedia maps of the evolutionary landscape and our place in it help us write new myths for our accelerating age. Learn more about Michael’s writing, art, and music, as well as Future Fossils Podcast:



Michael Garfield

Here to help you navigate the accelerating weirdness! Biologist turned philosopher, host of #FutureFossils & #ComplexityPodcast, ex @sfiscience ex @longnow.