Introverts and Extraverts as Artists

I recently read the well-written and highly interesting biography of Hermann Rorschach called The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls. (A nice article that gives a good summary is here.) First, the book stood out because it was written as a story rather than a necklace of facts. Second, Rorschach was a painter as well as a doctor, someone who merged science and art. Third, he was an introvert, someone who enjoyed socializing and people, but needed down time, quiet time to think and recharge. 

Psychiatry and the concepts of introversion and extraversion (also written extroversion) were developing during Rorschach's time, which was also the time of Freud and Jung. In 1922, Rorschach noted that "'Again and again we run into the fact that introverts cannot understand how extraverts think and behave, and vice versa. And they don't even realize that they are dealing with a different type of person'" (154). Knowing how introverts and extraverts think and behave are important to teachers and educational institutions as well. And it should be noted that a person is rarely all one or the other, but a mix that varies proportionally, person to person. Rorschach wrote that the relationship between one's introversion and extraversion does not change, but it can shift over one's life (127).

While I wish I could blame the political climate in the U.S. for the push toward social interaction and political action, I think our society has been extraverted and outward- looking for a while. The art school where I teach used to focus on solitary work: becoming a gallery artist. Having one's work exhibited in prestigious places and around the world, not just locally, was considered the ultimate goal. The often-introverted gallery artist of yesteryear worked primarily alone, but had to socialize as part of the business: schmooze at gallery openings and interact with the public. This model has its own drawbacks (the hustle, for example) but it can be acceptable to introverts, as it balances inward facing and outward facing work. (Of course, there are extraverted gallery artists as well.)

While the ideal of "gallery artist" still seems to be true in art school today, there is an added component; collaboration, installation, and community outreach are even more highly valued. This totally outward facing art may also be part of the "deskilling" that I've mentioned before in this post: artists as facilitators or curators rather than as highly skilled makers. With the emphasis placed on outreach, those who are extraverts have the advantage. Social practice is valuable, but it cannot be the only goal for everyone. If the only value is placed on collaboration and partnering with other institutions (such as grade schools, adult care facilities, mental health organizations, etc.) then the introvert is left alone on the island of his/her/their own making. And there I stress not just the word "alone" but also "making."

Extraverts thrive on being with people and continued stimulation out in the world; it is how they work best and are happiest. Introverts like social interaction on a more limited scale and thrive on quiet alone time. It isn't just a matter of preference; they need more thinking time to recharge and survive. Making art for an introvert happens in this solitary time. It is much more difficult for an introvert to make things in a group situation. Collaborating in real time can be anxiety producing. The introverted artist can make change in his/her/their own way (see this post). For an art institution to push community based art does not acknowledge different ways of working, which is something absolutely fundamental to teaching. You must meet students where they are and guide them toward becoming a better them, not a better extension of an institution. This means acknowledging that all artists are different and can have an impact in their own ways.

In her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain shows just when extraverts became the ideal in the U.S.. After the 1920s and the rise of Dale Carnegie, self-help books began focussing on qualities that were quite different from previous aspirations. Instead of qualities that you had real control over, that were primarily moral issues, advertising emphasized how you would be more popular, more attractive, have more friends if you used, say, a particular kind of soap. A study by cultural historian Warren Susman found that words such as: duty, work, honor, manners, and integrity came up more frequently prior to 1920 and these words came up after: magnetic, fascinating, attractive, forceful, energetic (23). Action was traded for surface  treatments. Self-improvement turned from working on inner qualities to perfecting outer ones. Susman noted we had shifted our attention from the "culture of character" to  the "culture of personality."

So, while there has been a trend for a hundred years towards pushing people to be extraverts, it seems strange to do so in an art school. When the focus is outward toward the public, and by stressing community projects and collaboration, private art school will actually be pushing the introverted artists aside, ignoring them. It is possible that art education may still remain alive in public institutions, where funding comes from multiple sources and enrollment remains possible due to the lower costs to students (at least currently). But with deskilling and community practice more and more the norm, the introverted artist may end up feeling anxious and alone. In her book, Cain includes a quote from Ana├»s Nin (264) from In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays (1976): "Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again."

Lost: Center. 


PrairiePeasant said…
Thank you for this post. As an introvert, I love creating in my own environment, and find events like selling at craft shows challenging (but doable). I am also a parent of a university student (also an introvert) in Fine Arts. It will be interesting to ask her if this topic has come up in any of her classes so far. Susan Cain's book is the best on the subject by far, and I wish it was mandatory reading for everyone, particularly teachers in the early years. A lot of childhood anxiety (and adult) could be diminished by accepting people for who they are and find the strengths within each individual, rather than trying to force them to fit a perceived acceptable personality style.
You make some excellent points about the artist and introversion/extroversion. Like Anais Nin, I believe that artists, perhaps more then anyone, need to experience that "inner journey". Speaking for myself, that "center" is the place where my inner vision resides; if I were an extrovert, I feel sure that my work would be vastly different and far more shallow, if I were even an artist at all.
Alisa said…
Thank you both for your comments. Cain's book, along with The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling (and working in retail, at least briefly), would be useful to everyone to understand people different from oneself and to gain compassion and empathy. Mandatory for teachers (and parents), yes!
Velma Bolyard said…
alisa, very good writing here. i've often wondered why we as educators seem to ignore (education) research and dwell instead on doing the popular thing, whether it's testing, phonics, or community art. i've loved being around, for example, the lovely drew matott and his traveling peace paper project (and the former combat paper project). i love the energy he stimulates and manages as he invites others into the process. i couldn't possibly work that way, though i do work with groups sometimes, they are usually small, and i'm happiest working alone at my vat, or at most with a friend or two. it's personality for sure, but both are valuable, even essential. i was surprised lately to hear the talk about introverts, indeed to hear that it's "ok" to be this way, and i agree. additionally, i just returned from a teaching trip to australia. another u.s. teacher was there and she was busily developing a body of work based on the trip, combining residencies and workshops as well. not me, i can't work in public that way, i go home and think and think and then work comes.
Alisa said…
Thanks, Velma. I agree: I love the community projects and energy that can happen around them, particularly as a way to introduce art to people who might not have access to materials or time on their own, and I admire people who can make them happen and thrive on the event. It's great to have both kinds of making. Variety and inclusivity is what I hope we can preserve.
This is fascinating as it applies to the artist and maker. I agree with you 100 percent. I've read and enjoyed Cain's book, and it is having some impact, I think. Yet at the same time I do see so much emphasis on collaboration.
Excellent post and has articulated something which has been floating around my sub conscious for years, thanks.
Alisa said…
Thanks for writing, Valorie and Westown Girl.