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Suffering for art’s sake

Suffering. Now there’s an artistic word. Or so you’d think. I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation. If an artist has managed to take something

books Updated: Apr 06, 2012 18:53 IST

Suffering. Now there’s an artistic word. Or so you’d think. I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation. If an artist has managed to take something appalling and make it into art, that’s because the artist is an artist, not because something appalling is naturally art.

Just try kicking your bare foot really hard against the nearest wall. In your own time — I can wait … And now tell me how creative you feel. Just bloody sore and mind-fillingly distracting, isn’t it?

I was recently in the company of a film producer who was chatting about life and art. He told me how necessary it was that creative people should have as awful a time as possible.

To his way of thinking, comfort and success are poison, the Stones never did anything good after they’d got money, Van Gogh prospered because of mental distress, obscurity and ear mutilation and, actually …

The producer hadn’t got any other example, but he was convinced: if you weren’t hurting, you couldn’t be working. He is not alone in his beliefs. Television and film representations of real and fictional artists always go heavy on the torment. Press coverage of the arts is never more enthusiastic than when it has managed to ferret out a ‘battle with demons’. Doom is apparently fascinating: all of us can recall enjoying time spent with people who are heartbroken and/or depressed. Assuming that making a sculpture would be assisted by despair or hunger in a way that, say, plumbing wouldn’t be is absurd and insulting. It’s simply cruel to assume that any human being will somehow benefit from punishment. And the cultural white noise that links having a job in the arts to the threat of punishment cuts the arts off from people who could enjoy them, or produce them.

The producer’s merrily sociopathic thinking could, if we allowed it, imply that if CS Lewis was productively devastated by his wife’s death, or Eric Clapton by the loss of his son, or Benjamin Britten did well after his mother died, then bereavement (the closer the better) should guarantee a thriving career. I’m a writer and admire both Anton Chekhov and Robert Louis Stevenson — maybe I should try to contract TB.

The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will  deserve to fail. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse.

Artists have access to a creative way of life that can sustain them through dark times. They have used, and will use, their crafts to transform what they can of life’s pain and loss and fear into something communicative and alive. This can be a lovely thing for all concerned, as can anyone’s triumph over adversity. I hate to see people being unhappy, and people being self-inflictedly unhappy is doubly sad. A writer being purposely unhappy when writing provides such a glorious and unpredictably rewarding path through life … well, that’s borderline criminal. The sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas feeling foolish and scared — that’s more than enough suffering to be going on with.

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