The Suffering Artist

This is a blog post a long time coming, but that's par for the course; you should see how many posts I have sitting in my account, waiting to be written.  It's kind of sad, actually.  Poor, sad little titles, with no words to fill their hollow bodies.  It's literary child abandonment.

(Honestly, the folders full of partially written stories puts my blog to shame.)

Anyway, a while back (over a year ago!) a bunch of creative types that I know and/or follow online shared this here article:

I'm guessing many of you have already read it, but, if not, go give it the once over now.  Even if you have read it, you've probably forgotten it by now.

The more I saw this article passed around, the more I thought about it, the more I found that I actually disagreed with it.  And I suppose I'm okay with the sentiment, I just think it's a bit too general, a bit too knee jerk.  But I'll get to that in a second.

I would be remiss if I didn't first mention this particular gem:

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 central conceit there is that the Stones were no longer suffering artists after they made a bunch of money.  In other words, money is the cure to suffering.  That boggles my mind.  It's such a stupid idea that it actually colored the way I read the rest of the article.

And now I'm going to argue that all artists are, in fact, suffering, and I know how that sounds.  I have a hard enough time describing myself as a writer, let alone an artist.  But for the sake of this debate, I suppose the two terms will have to be interchangeable.

People create because they want something to exist that doesn't already exist, and they feel like this thing has to exist, that the world needs this thing to exist.  Take that away from an artist and there's nothing left.  Take away their desire to create and they're no longer artists.  Imagine wanting to create something and not being able to -- that would be my definition of suffering.

In other words, it's not that all artists are suffering, it's that they create to avoid suffering, or at least to minimize it.  It's not unlike removing an arrow from your leg so the hole can be stitched up; it hurts like hell
and you would never choose to do it, but the arrow is there and it has to come out.

We have to firmly believe that what we're creating needs to exist for some, often times undefinable, reason.  If you create for yourself, then you're making something you need in your life, and if you don't have it, then your life will be all the poorer.  Sure, we're not talking about insanity or cutting off your ear and that degree of suffering, but it's suffering nonetheless.  The need to create stems from wanting to fill a void.

To a certain extent, we're talking about meaning.  Everyone wants their actions to have some kind of meaning.  If we truly believed that the things we did served no purpose, would we really keep doing them?  There's no way.  The fight for meaning is where depression comes from.  The fight for meaning is what keeps so many of us from accomplishing our goals; it's what keeps us from being great.

The belief that what you do has meaning isn't an end in and of itself, it's a way of keeping those negative thoughts at bay.  Believing what you do has a purpose is the door between you and meaninglessness.  It's the last defense against the void, and it's a hard defense to maintain.  It's often more difficult than creation itself.

Then there's the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of artists in this world have to fit their art in whenever they can.  Their art is marginalized because they need to do things like making money and have a family.  Which, of course, is something that the article in question misses...because the author is getting paid to write.

Those of us who lead double lives as productive members of society and artists of some type know the kind of sacrifices we have to make.  It's not easy.  There are much, much worse things, yes, but it's still not easy.  Not a day goes by when I don't wonder about how much happier I'd be if I didn't have the need to create, if I could be content with the 9 to 5 and a house in the suburbs.  I look out my office window and I see my neighbors outside talking to each other, watching their kids play, and I wish to god I could have that kind of clarity.

But I don't.

We don't cut off our ears anymore (not most of us, at least), but we still suffer, and we very much suffer for our art.  We just do it in less flashy ways these days.