Art and Suffering

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

Artwork: Ophelia by John Everett Millais (public domain).

by Rob Colfax

Where do we get the idea that artists must suffer? Granted, a lot of them do; look at Van Gogh, for instance. Or Edgar Allan Poe. Not all artists have such tragic struggles with life, of course, but it’s certainly a running theme. It’s so common that we expect it and are perplexed when it isn’t part of their story.

Where does this idea come from – the artist or the audience? Or is it just “the way things are”?

I don’t believe anything is just “the way it is” – I think we create the situations in which we find ourselves. So I have to think that it’s either an idea that came from the artist or the audience – or maybe some collaborative effort. Most things are a cooperative event, I think. One person may start the train of thought, but others agree to ride on it.

The world expects the artist to enlighten and inspire but the world also feeds the idea that artists must pay a price. When did this business of suffering, starving artists begin?

But this idea of suffering being necessary for art… why is this? A young friend told me once that she only writes when everything’s going wrong in her life. Maybe it provides an escape from her tragedies. Maybe it serves the purpose of exorcism for her. I don’t know. Maybe she’s uninspired unless she’s mired in conflict. But why would this be? Can happiness not get the creative juices flowing as well as depression or anger can?

Another acquaintance insists that he does his best paintings when he is devastated by the end of a relationship. His lovers never seem to stay around very long. I sometimes wonder if he unconsciously pushes them into leaving so that he will plunge into the severe depression he feels he needs in order to do good work. But is this a necessity? And why is this such a common theme? Many artists have rocky relations with friends, lovers and relatives alike. People usually assume it’s because of those quirks and eccentricities that they love to hear about in connection to their favorite artists – but would not want to have to endure every day from someone they loved. But maybe that’s not it. Maybe the relationship becomes a sort of sacrifice to the muses.

If this is true – if it’s all in the mind of the artist that this is necessary – then I’m back to the question of why? Has it always been like that? Did the first human creature to pick up a stick and draw on the side of a cave wall feel angst? Did they draw pictures of the cave woman they wanted but couldn’t have? No; they were more concerned with matters of life and death: where is the next meal coming from, where will I find a dry place to sleep… things like that. Free-floating anxiety is a phenomenon of the modern world. The cave artist drew pictures to tell a story or to “make magic.” So when did this business of suffering, starving artists begin?

Art is not inherently something that makes you feel bad. In fact, it carries with it a surge of euphoria, a certain ecstasy, when you’re in the act of creating. Maybe somewhere along the line, those who didn’t create but manifested themselves through destruction became jealous of the joy experienced by the artists of the world, and began to grow an idea that there had to be a price for this fleeting moment of brilliance.

Maybe because it is so much easier to tear down than to build up, over the years there became fewer and fewer who were willing to express their essence through the art forms. And maybe, over the years, anyone with the artistic will has come to accept that art and suffering go hand in hand. The world expects the artist to enlighten, to inspire, to give up some kind of hint as to what it’s all about. But the world also feeds the idea that artists must suffer, to pay a price in order to do it.

That’s not making an artist. That’s making a scapegoat. And in the process of becoming this martyr – even if it is an idolized martyr – the artist has gradually lost sight of the idea that creating was originally a form of ecstasy, of translating the unspeakable into concrete words or images.

Maybe it’s only the logical result of some long-running course of events that has linked art and suffering. The artist – whether from conditioning or sensitivity to the great collective unconscious or any number of possible reasons – has accepted this idea, this role of the “dying god” who creates and then must be destroyed and rise again. The artist now expects to suffer. How the idea came about becomes irrelevant and pointless compared to the urgency of making a change.

In the beginning, art was not about suffering. Art was not about division, or reserving the act of creation for a handful at the expense of leaving the masses powerless to the point of destruction. Art was once about translating the unspeakable experience into something that could be communicated. It was an inclusive act, sharing an experience or an idea with others who might only be able to experience it through vicarious means. It was about expressing the joy inherent in the act of being. It was about leaving a trail for those who followed.

Maybe we do remember this, but only as a glimmer in the depths of the subconscious, and our mental associations have become so twisted and tangled up that we put ourselves through unconscionable mental anguish now just in the hope of catching a glimpse of that ephemeral bit of light we experience when, in the throes of some emotional wreckage, we create something wonderful.

I say that it is high time to put away the idea that creativity costs – that an artist must pay for talent with soul or sanity. It is time to get back to the act of pure creation and leave behind this shameful idea of exacting a price for expression.

It should not have to cost your life to express what is in the depths of your being. The catalyst of pain and suffering is not necessary to bring out the finest part of our nature. Let us be done now with this torturous need for sensationalism and sacrifice, and allow art – and our artists – some breathing room to grow.

© Copyright 2001 by Rob Colfax. Republished 2004, 2011, 2015.

[Editor’s note: The painting Ophelia is named for the character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who suffered from madness and drowned. Elizabeth Siddal, the model who posed for this painting and many others by the Pre-Raphaelites, also suffered from depression and died from an overdose at the age of 32.]

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