Suffering Unto The Artist

In Winter Journal, Paul Auster touches upon a highly debated concept: that of the suffering artist.

With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County house after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you realize now (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child.  Three weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you though a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again.

Some people, like A.L. Kennedy, think that the whole thing is utter nonsense.  Though I have trouble arguing with anything in his article for The Guardian (and I appreciate the feistiness of the tone), I do think there is more to the equation that just a yes or not; an X or a Y.

Kennedy says:

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.

He’s he’s abso-fucking-lutely right.  To assume any different is to rob the artist of the value in his/her hard work.  As the Cursive song goes: Art is hard.

I think the whole problem comes more deeply from the idea that talent is something that someone is born with.  This idea is wide-spread, idiotic & fucking insulting.  Artist’s are no more naturally able to create than anyone else.  Yes, some people are born more inclined toward certain activities, but that inclination isn’t what makes them talented, it’s the hard ass work they do that makes them talented.  Picasso didn’t just pick up a paint brush & splish splash there was Guernica.  He spent years paint shitty things to hone his skills.  He learned all of the rules and painted things he didn’t want to paint.  He may have had a natural eye but all that did was drive him to continue pursuing art throughout the fumbling years of learning.  Most people will never read a novelist’s first book, because it’s never published.  It’s thrown away and so is the next & the next.  The first book you read is probably their fourth or fifth effort.  Most musicians write & throw away hundreds of songs before their first album.

It is this idea, that talent comes naturally, which has robbed the artist of value in society.  We no longer look at a man sitting in front of a piece of paper, staring at the walls as working.  As Victor Hugo said: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.”  There was a time when this was understood; a time in history when artists were payed well; a time when they could make a living, like a plumber or a doctor.  There was even a time once when wealthy people supported artists to allow them the freedom to create.

But, I’ve digressed a bit from where I started.  Kennedy is correct, suffering is not necessary to create.  Work ethic & determination are far more important.  But—but—but suffering does have value to the artist.  As C.S. Lewis (who coincidentally Kennedy also mentions in his article) said in his book, The Problem Of Pain, ”[Pain] removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”  

C.S. Lewis was actually talking about the idea that pain exists to batter men into submission of God’s will.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  The late Christopher Hitchens (who’s words I seem to live with daily) would refer to this as The Totalitarianism of Religion.  As an atheist, the idea god is also ridiculous to me, but it doesn’t frighten me.  It doesn’t frighten me the way that this concept of such a god does.  Is it any wonder that man has enslaved man, when people have come to believe that god will pummel them into subjugation?…and that they have the gall to say it is done out of love too?

Subtracting all of this mythological nastiness from Lewis’s quotation, I take this from it: Pain exists as speed bump.  Without pain, it would be far too easy for us to barrel forward in life with ever growing momentum without any thoughts to why’s or what if’s.  We would accelerate faster and faster to our demise without even realising that we existed; our life a blur of spit on the side window of a speeding car.  But pain, as a speed bump, causes us to slow down; it forces our rebel souls (apt to runaway from us in manic fits) to face the truths that are waving in our faces.

So, of course, this is of value to the artist.  The artist could not create without revelation and some revelations require pain.  But the artist can grow beyond this, the most base & primal form of divination.  They can learn to remember the pain without needing to live continually within the pit of it.  But the one thing that the artist cannot do is create without knowledge of truth.  The artist cannot create without that these truths ejecting themselves out their bone marrow like piercing, jagged shards of light.  One who creates solely for profit & has no burning reality to express is a skilled forger not an artist.  And though the true artist need not continue to suffer, he/she must absolutely be acquainted with suffering.  Pain need not chase the artist like a rabid dog, but the memory of it must haunt his/her mind in the silence as they stare at the walls.  And maybe this is the sacred nature of the artist that we adore, not that they suffer, or that they do what we cannot, but that they bring us truths so that we do not need to do what they have done to learn them; so that we need not bleed as the goat we sacrifice does bleed.

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By C.A. Hall

Writer / Podcaster I'm a well-written sentence marred by a curse word. In another life I might have been a criminal profiler, a jazz drummer, an architect, an acrobat, an actor, or a children’s book illustrator.