Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Famous Artists, Suffering and Creativity

Artists have long ‘suffered’ for their art and have believed that the two were linked.

Certainly, throughout history there has been this idea of the mad genius. And the notion that one must suffer to be great has been propagated for centuries. Recently, the opening episode of the television series House examined these same issues that many creative people have wrestled with. Must one suffer for their art? Would Van Gogh have painted the Starry Night had he not been in pain?

The Great Violinist

There was a young male violinist, David, who played very well. He went to the most prestigious music school where his notable teacher told him that yes, he was a technically proficient and advanced student but his music had no soul. The teacher said to David, “You will never be truly great and your music will never be able to touch people’s hearts until you have truly suffered for your music.”

So, David took on this task of suffering so that he might be truly great musician. The young man traveled and played for free for anyone who would listen. He begged for food; stopped caring for his body; slept in the streets and let his hair and beard grow wild.

After some years, David was playing on a street near the school. It happened that his teacher was passing by and stopped to listen to this exceptional violinist. David played will feeling. As his bow glided across the violin’s strings, the sound was ethereal, every note conveyed emotion, meaning and melancholy. The teacher wept. When David was finished, his teacher recognized him and said to him softly , “You have grown tremendously. You are truly a remarkable and soulful musician. But for God’s sake, take a bath! No one will ever listen to you if you continue to smell like that”.

The lesson, of course, is one must care for the soul along with the body and the body along with the soul. But still the story does encourage the myth of the suffering artist.

Do you have to suffer to be a good artist?

No. No, you don’t. Sure there are plenty of examples of famous artists who were mentally ill. But we can also find plenty of great and famous people who weren’t mentally ill and who weren’t unhappy who created great art and had good lives. And there are plenty of mentally ill people who aren’t great actors, musicians or writers. As the episode from House stated, had Van Gogh gotten treatment for his mood disorder he may or may not have gone on to paint the Starry Night but he would have retained both his ears.

Perhaps one reason we associate great art with suffering is that the true artist shows us our humanity. And to be human is often to suffer. There is nothing noble in suffering but it is universal and affects rich and old, young and poor, educated and ignorant. If a sensitive individual seeks to show true humanity they may look deeper and allow themselves to be deeply affected in order to express truth. And of course there is the simple fact that many creative endeavors don’t pay well and those who pursue them exclusively may often suffer from the lack of security and comfort that money affords.

If you ask creative people when they are most prolific you will find different answers from each of them. Often their art was a way for them to release themselves from pain. A kind of therapy. A way out of the darkness. And ultimately, whether it was an artists suffering or their joy that produced their work. They give us a path to walk, transcend our normal lives and see beauty in all things.


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