Artists and Suffering

The Scream

If you read the biographies of preeminent artists – writers, painters, musicians – you discover an encyclopedia of suffering. Some cut their ears, others drank their sorrows away, a few found life unbearable and ended themselves.

Are artists born tormented souls?

If some people are born with genes that make them prone to misfortunes, or at least apt to interpret what happens to them negatively, and you happen to be among them, then art surely must be a positive thing for you.

It transforms your suffering into a fuel that powers your artistic endeavours, and gives you a commendable title, artist, and thus a good reason to stay alive.

“When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.” (Chinua Achebe)

In time, art helps you find happiness in your suffering, and your love woes and shames and disappointments become your muses.

Or does the art-making bring the suffering?

People who don’t dabble in art seem to have lower suicide rates that those who do. It’s understandable, since the making of art entails solitude, egotism, and overindulgence in one’s thoughts.

The life of the artist is characterized by extremes, of thought and of feeling, and by bouts of sexual fasting and feasting.

Also, I would say that making art changes the way you perceive the world, turning you from a participant into an observer, and thus encouraging detachment.

“You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” (Henri-Frederic Amiel)

If art causes suffering then why would anyone do it? When you suffer you feel important. And your silence and moroseness will make you seem interesting to some.

As to me…

I must admit that I am somewhat of a tormented soul. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t go to whores, I don’t even smoke. But I live locked in my ‘attic’ and I rarely go out.

And I have a bad opinion of myself, and no friends, and I am cold with my family, and I dropped out of school to write Oliver Colors’ biography, and to tell you the truth, sometimes I scratch my head and wonder whether it would have not been better for me, and for those around me, and for the world if I became a banker or at least a shop clerk.

But then I am not sure I’ve had a choice. Life has more control over me than I have over her.

“The reward of suffering is experience.” (Aeschylus)

Life is a struggle. If you don’t struggle, if you don’t suffer, it doesn’t mean that you don’t make good art, it means that you don’t live. Because the way you respond to the struggle shapes your character and fills your memory. Suffering is a positive force.

Do you suffer for your art?

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131 thoughts on “Artists and Suffering

  1. Vincent, I think it is time that you left your attic and began discovering the real world. I asked the question today “Why are poets more inclined to write the macabre – the dark rather than the light and happy. Writing is subjective as we know. Poets and writers have armour with chinks that allow words to invade…our muse directs the pattern we follow. We can live and write equally, we do not need to suffer for our passion.
    I’m just saying – live a little my virtual friend.

      1. Only Vampires are afraid of sunlight. It is difficult to reply for I know not how much is fiction and what is non with what you write ( I mean no offence by that) if you say you lock yourself away to write Oliver Colours’ biography – how much time indeed do you spend per day doing so?

        1. All day.

          I go out in the daylight about once every three or four weeks, when I visit my grandparents in the city. Once every few months I also go to the post office.

          Otherwise I go for walks at night every other day, after 21.30.

          I am quite terrified of the outside world.

          I will go visit my grandparents tomorrow. 🙂

  2. writers taste life twice – this is a way of/ how to “make use of suffering” the taking of what we experience and modling it into messages, and re-tellings. without those first experiences, there can be no re-telling, no re- tasting.

  3. “Locked in my attic” sure hope it’s not as intense as you make it sound.
    Your blogs are awesome and reckon you will be a pretty good conversationalist. Happiness can be amazingly, inspiring.
    Just get out, give yourself a fair chance, you may be pleasantly surprised 🙂

  4. I’ve been reading the comments on this post and want to ask you this: are you happy being in solitude and living life this way? Because most people reading this would assume you are terribly depressed about it. My daily life and relationship with other humans can be described in almost the same way, and as much as people think I’m weird and unhappy about my ‘lifestyle’, I wish they understood that I CHOOSE to live like this. Writing, suffering, melancholy etc. are things I choose to live with.

    1. I believe this post turned out to me more about me than I intended it. I just wanted to talk about artists and suffering in general, but it seems my ego got in the way.

      Although I have been depressed for years, I would not consider myself a tragic person. I laugh much.

      My current lifestyle might be deviant, but it certainly fits me. I also chose to live the way I live, and deep down I am happy with it.

      I think that the content of my posts reflects that I am not too sad, for my circumstances. 🙂

    2. I agree Sue. I believe that Art (whatever its form) requires a certain amount of solitude (that has to be determined by the Artist. Automatically associating solitude with suffering seems to be a big leap to me. And ‘suffering’ is relative. What is intolerable to me may be acceptable to you.
      I think my point is that Art demands that we be willing to include and exclude ourselves from the world. To be Artists who live full lives, we must be able to determine what is the appropriate balance of each.

  5. Bloody hell! Give me some warning about this. I come back after a month into the depths of suffering and art. All I can say is that you need to get out of your attic!! You need to go on a retreat, breath some fresh air, listen to the birds!
    As for the suffering – it is there, but only in the way that it is difficult to ride a horse. We can either ride the horse and the difficulty, or put another horse on top of that, which we try and ride.
    (I never got your email, sniffle)

    1. I shall go out tomorrow to visits my grandparents in the city. Lets hope no misfortune shall befall me, or the world might never meet Oliver Colors.

      (Apologies! Dying grandmother here. I will send it soon. I also knew you were away on your prolonged adventures, and did not want to distract you.)

      1. I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother. Putting aside some thinking time for you. Also, I did think that you were waiting for me to return – you’ve always struck me as the considerate type!

        1. Yes, I am the sort of person who gives his chair to elderly people in the bus (so he can stare at the pretty girl in the back without turning his head and looking suspicious).

  6. Thanks for being real, Vincent. These others don’t seem to get you so much, but I’m right there with you. I am currently working on a post entitled “The Dark and Light in a Writer’s Life” on much the same subject (maybe to be posted next week). Not that I don’t think we shouldn’t “get out of the attic,” both literally and figuratively, but I totally understand the “torture” of the soul. Even being of a Christian worldview, having a hope that has, I’d say, redeemed my life, I still tend toward the negative–it’s just the setting where person naturally seems to go. That said, we can both use the suffering as fuel in our art, and also strive for a balance so that the suffering does not ruin our lives. All best to you!

      1. As I’ve said in a previous comment, this post turned out to be more about me than I intended it. Although I must admit I am of a tragical nature, I find much comfort in writing. I am not too sad, I think.

  7. Dunno. Half the time I shun people for reasons of self-defence, not because I’m suffering! Solitude is best for making art. Just the way it is. Wouldn’t call it suffering.

  8. Personally, I think the suffering is something we all do, no matter what. Artist’s suffering is just more apparent.. Whether writing, painting, photography, cinematography,playing an instrument, we are just able to illustrate, demonstrate, convey our suffering and despair, where others don’t have the ability to communicate it well.

  9. As for being afraid of the world… My mom was like that. She had some unnamed fear of people, and public places. We could never go places as a family, she never came to my school, I never had friends over, we never went to a movie together. She never visited my home, never gave me a party . At 60, she died of breast cancer. Though she was my mother, she is like a dim memory, as there is nothing to remember . Just a thought.

  10. I live in my shell as well… and yes, you are right! I write when I feel deeply sad and in acute despair. I’ve tried to do so otherwise, but no luck just yet.

  11. Suffering is in itself an art, I guess.
    Everyone is an artist from within according to me… all it takes is to lose yourself to your conscious and let your art pour out of you.
    You write the truth… art seduces those who are suffering by serving their ego, their soul with what they crave for the most- attention, love and the feeling of being alive..

  12. For me, I think the sadness fuels the writing and the writing fuels the sadness. While I, too, am sad, I don’t think I’m too sad. I’ve learned through trial and error to control the sadness so it becomes something beautiful instead of ruining me. Though I frequently am out in the sunshine, I am lonely as well. I think all the great writers are — at some point, if you live inside your own mind, there’s only so far others can go to join you.

  13. Wonderful essay, Vincent, and I’ve had fun reading the discussion. I can’t agree with your conclusion that writing encourages detachment, though. I think it draws you into self-discovery and that it increases the frustrated desire to commit to involvement. You can either try Prozac and smother your creativity or dig deeper into your psyche. In either case, a daily dose of Vitamin D can’t hurt.

    1. Vitamin D keeps popping up… If I heard it mentioned one more time I shall buy large supplies I will!

      I referred to detachment from society, not for the word, but I’m often having difficulties writing what I think.

  14. Sunshine is the best. It’s got all that good-feeling mood boosting vitamin D. I’ve been meditating with Holosync for the past four years to help deal with my anxiety and agoraphobia. It’s helped immensely. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being introverted. I prefer my own company to the company of others. Plus the things that I love to do just happen to be solitary activities. Writing, reading, napping. When I was depressed I thought I needed to be depressed to write, then I got my act together, became happy (more or less) and have come to find out that my writing has improved since I’ve become happy.

    1. He could have said that to justify his own life. He ran about the agora discussing with everyone, and he did not write a single line. What we know of him we know through others.

      To justify my life, I could say that I don’t agree. But I think he’s right.

  15. I hesitate to join this conversation with such deep and learned writers, but I have a little something to add to this discussion – a slightly different slant on the topic. I remember reading the book “On Writing” by Stephen King (yes, the famous Stephen King). While half of the book is his life story, the other half of the book is Stephen King, describing his writing process. It’s not meant to teach writing per se (because writing cannot be taught; a writer can coach another writer about technique, but you cannot teach someone how to do it; it must come from inside). In the book, he merely describes HIS process. Anyway, I am reminded of a section where he talks about when he first started making enough money to have a home with a separate (large) room just for writing … he went out and bought a nice big new desk, and arranged the room just so. And found that he couldn’t write. He needed to be out, mingling with people, sitting in cafe’s and observing people and events around him to get material for his writing. It’s this last part that pertains to this discussion. While introspection is good and necessary for writing, in my humble opinion, I think one also needs to get out of one’s head, to observe people around them, to both observe and participate in interactions between people. But absolutely, one must know oneself, and what makes them comfortable enough to be themselves and heed their inner voice, no matter what others’ standards might be; and be content with your own decisions in that regard. But I also think that too much of any one thing isn’t always good. So, that’s just a perspective I wanted to share; food for thought. : )

    1. I’ve read that book, and I remember that part about the desk being placed in one corner of the room, not in the middle…

      You are right. I will certainly not live locked in my attic for long. Just this year while I finish with Oliver Colors. Being in an attic is okay while you write an artist’s biography, but not if you want to write about people and the world in general.

      I tip my hat.

      1. Ohh… Honestly? You said it so well that there seems to be nothing to add. I could really just keep repeating what you already wrote… It’s true. Art needs suffering. It lives from it, it breathes it. There are exceptions though. My boyfriend doesn’t create when he’s down. He needs to be relaxed and happy… But I think he’s the only one I know so far.

        1. The wise hatted boy must tease Julita from time to time, so that his memory remains fresh in her memory, in order for Oliver Colors to live in their memory. What an odd comment!

  16. Mm. Many thoughts. I’d say you chose your life, Vincent, and that it also chose you. I have friends who are bookworms and do nothing but talk philosophy on facebook and elsewhere. They relate to some but not many, of which they are proud… And I can’t imagine them any other way.

    We writers tend to be a lonely, melancholic lot, and, in truth, we like it that way. My only concern is that, in order to be relevant to an outside world, we must also, in some way, be participants. Reading books about “real life” can only go so far…

    But I’d agree that both in and out of doors, life is a struggle. For writers, that struggle is their muse.

    I’m glad you at least get out to see your grandparents. I hope your grandmother feels well.

            1. A few! My oh my…

              Let’s leave it there.

              I’ll hire an editor when I can afford it. That’s what I need. A professional, experienced, blue-eyed, pretty editor. 🙂

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  18. I do suffer for the art. Little money, no status, that feeling of being completely useless to the world. I’m not sure I’ll always be able to live this way… But then there are those moments, when you are engaged in the art for art’s sake, and you are transported to a kind of happiness that nothing else can give. It doesn’t seem fair, right?

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  20. ‘I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t go to whores, I don’t even smoke’. For god’s sake do something! Of the alternatives offered in the current financial climate, drink is probably the cheapest and least lethal option, and has many distinguished adherents to look back upon.

    Great artists simply ARE abnormal, I believe. And, mostly, they are savagely introspective, extremely intelligent, and accustomed to being shunned for each and all of those reasons. What if they were none of those things? What if they were unable lock themselves away for years, like Proust? What if they kept both their ears, used the lavatory instead of the hearth at parties, turned up sober for public engagements, or merely reprimanded their co-star rather than chasing him around their dressing room with a knife?

    Then their work would lack the enormity that characterizes unique talent. ‘Sunflowers’ would be bereft of that vibrant urgency and become just a few flowers, ‘Giraffes on Fire’ would be reduced to a cartoon.

    It is all too easy to reduce great work, to produce the cartoon rather than the masterpiece. It is something too many of us achieve too easily. In this the digital age is certainly not our friend and ally, but a distraction that is in danger of making us sane. Then we all become accountants, and there is no greater fear than that.

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