Art and suffering. Suffering and art. Do they go hand in hand? Is it necessary to suffer in order to produce art worth creating?
Anais Nin reflected in her diary, volumes upon volumes which were published, that she wrote because she suffered. And that life is only known to those who have known true suffering.
Is that really true in the 21st century? We’re so conditioned to eat higher-fiber diets, practice yoga, and improve our chi to eliminate suffering from our lives. Or at least adjust our perception of what suffering really is. Do you mean to tell me that we can actually use it toward something?
At the risk of sounding too Proustian, artists have the ability to make something of their suffering and pain. I find it rather fascinating. The first thing that came to mind was a friend of mine who can turn anything into a good story. She’s been in situations that are slightly awkward to ones that are downright ridiculous. No matter what, she’ll come out of it with a good story to tell. Others I know would complain, but this particular friend of mine has a true appreciation for comedy and the finesse of fine storytelling. She taught me to value the comedy in otherwise unfortunate circumstances. This way, the creativity that went into constructing a good story would dilute any trace of tension, stress, anger, or frustration.
I remember reading that Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite songwriters, considered Blue her most honest album and that she would never be “that pure” again. While they were recording, no one was allowed inside the studio except for Joni and whomever else was involved in its production. She wrote and sang about her child born out of wedlock and put up for adoption, suicide, and lost love. These were lyrics that would wrench your heart and tug at your tears. I couldn’t help but feel as if she had to write those songs to process her emotions somehow. That she could no longer bottle up these feelings inside, and somehow these feelings pushed her to a point where she had to make something of them. (Like breakup poetry.)
Then there are those who constantly straddle that fine line between genius and insanity. Like Hart Crane, the poet who often spoke to his typewriter and threw it out his apartment window one day because it didn’t speak Spanish.
Since the dawn of time (you never know…this could actually be true instead of being a simple transition), artists have channeled their suffering into music, novels, sculpture, photography, theater, (hieroglyphics…) — the list is endless. Not to say that suffering is essential to creating art, but it does indeed feed it.
After all, I did write this last album in the middle of the biggest snow storm I had ever experienced (we called it Snowpocalypse, among many other punny names). It was January of 2010. We were completely isolated. My gas and electricity had both cut out, and the electric and gas companies were closed for the weekend. The snow had fallen so quickly that the streets were undriveable and the sidewalks unwalkable. My roommate, best friend, and I burned all the firewood we had in the house (and all the cardboard we could find too). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and we broke down some furniture as to not freeze to death during the night. Somewhere amidst trying to stay alive and nursing my splinters from breaking down our kitchen chairs, I found time to write and be with Creativity. Perhaps the freezing cold elicited music and lyrics (hallucinations, rather) that evoked images of warm weather, sandy beaches, and sunshine — a stark contrast to the landscape of white snow, howling winds, and darkness that surrounded me. My suffering inspired my craft.
It’s a magical relationship that I don’t presume to understand in full. But I don’t deem it a relationship that is necessary to completely understand in order to participate in it. With my recent writer’s block due to the momentum of life and the tour and everything else happening around me, I’ve been trying to regain that same kind of creative flow that I had with this past album. I had forgotten to consider that suffering had something to do with it. (I probably blocked out all my memories of the cold up until now.) Sometimes, what inspires you the most is what affects you most deeply. (Or, in my case last winter, what pushes you closest to the brink of death!)
I also found this article surrounding art and suffering that I thought I’d pass on:
So then what about this sticky notion that the artist must suffer? It’s long been a cliché, this supposed truism. Addictions, suicidal temperaments, promiscuity, unbalanced behavior, misanthropy…all these things have been expected of the great creators of the human race almost as a matter of course.
It’s impossible to argue against the evidence that so many renowned artists were – or are – going off the rails. But what does pain really mean? It prompts us to seek ways to soothe or heal it. If we burn our hand on a hot stove, the pain is there to tell us to yank our hand away. It is not a negative feeling; it’s a protective measure.
Suffering, then, in the life of an artist is merely the impetus to embark upon the quest. Suffering means that the status quo has become too painful, stifling or debilitating for artists – and so they must find their own way. The fruits of this search are what inspire the rest of us, their audience. Does this mean that our artists are supposed to endure physical and spiritual penury all of their lives? No! The purpose of suffering, again, is to prompt us to learn how to heal or otherwise alleviate it. Artists who die in despair never learned how to redeem themselves with their own art; in the end, they failed to be physicians for themselves in the way that they were for so many of us.
So, in answer to the eternal question “Is it necessary to suffer in order to be an artist?” I would say: “Yes – but only at the onset.” From there, the real creative path for each of us lies in finding our own personal answer, the means to fulfill ourselves without relying upon society’s prescription for reality.
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