“Great art comes from great pain.”
A fully loaded and explosive statement if ever there was one, this is the primary proposition in Christopher Zara’s recent book Tortured Artists, a collection of forty-eight profiles on some of the most celebrated artists of the millennium—from Mozart to Woolf, Garland to Disney.
What exactly, though, is Mr. Zara suggesting?
According to the managing editor of Show Business himself, “I never claimed that art cannot be produced without suffering, only that art produced without suffering is not likely to be very good.”
Zara is not the first to remark on behalf of this haunting stock character. In fact, the tortured artist mythology is one that has sustained a life of its own for centuries, overflowing with the same torment associated with the artists in Zara’s collection—full of devout self-hatred, extreme cases of introverted or extroverted tendencies, sexual frustrations, personality disorders, tremendous amounts of substance abuse, and high rates of suicide.
And still beyond any shadow of a doubt, in these ashes were some of the greatest artistic achievements born.
By looking at the profiles and history alone, one might be quick to say art is more formulaic than we ever perceived. True art can be reduced to a mere mathematical equation where anguish stands idly left of the equality sign and magnificence resides on the other (do what you will with the variables).
Of course, my aim is not to present art as a formula. It is also not my desire to debunk the tortured-artist concept entirely. It’s a fascinating one and I want to investigate it more critically.
One way to do this is by irradiating the reasons behind our obsessive desire to understand the inspiration for art, especially those works from artists described by Zara as “long-suffering creative geniuses.” I refuse to settle with the myth that pain is the sole source for our art. Coming from one human being to another, we are far too complex to accept that. And it is for this reason that I would very much like to make a case for vulnerability.
In order to smoothly engage in this sort of conversation, it should be made clear that our vernacular will most certainly differ. Words we traditionally perceive as universal—suffering, pain, genius, and even artistry—are in fact extraordinarily subjective, especially when used in this context.
My own definitions for suffering will not be the same as another’s. This is perhaps because of contrasting political opinions, geographic and cultural backgrounds, personal convictions, and the list continues into sempiternity. Therefore my pain may not be pain to another. Your definition of artistry may counter my own. These differences naturally help to build more fruitful conversation. I only point them out because inevitably those contrasts will surface.
The one thing I think we all can agree on is this: Life is not easy. At some point in our lives, we suffer. So if we all experience suffering and all endure pain, does this mean we all can produce great art?
I doubt this is what Zara wants his audience to take away from his collection; but, it’s the subtle implication that might prove most devastating for aspiring artists who buy into the myth that their hardships will foster compelling work.
So to answer my own question: No. Simply because someone has been through the ringer and back does not mean they’ll be our nation’s next great artist.
I say this with little hesitation because what I’ve learned from studying Sylvia Plath and Arthur Miller and listening to Charlie Parker and Amy Winehouse—all artists profiled in Tortured Artists—is that their work wasn’t entirely rooted in their hardships. Of course it served as an inspiration. But it takes a naïve soul to assume that each of these artists rested on their plights and were then able to manufacture art as a natural response to their experience.
This is a common misconception among inspiring artists, young and older. It’s something I can give an anecdote about myself, since a great deal of my writing is inspired by my familial relationships.
But we cannot summarize our pasts and expect to generate new ideas. Art is a learning experience, and we do not learn from wallowing. It is for this reason that pain is not enough to solve our equation. Pain is simply the opening of a door someone must make the conscience decision to walk through.
Oftentimes, then, it is inside pain when we begin to take the necessary steps toward discerning our artistry. Where only few realize how small they are. Where fewer accept that they are more insignificant then they’d like to admit, but that they are also vastly important. And even fewer are brave enough to become one with their own vulnerability. Because vulnerability is the single universal condition that makes us utterly human. It is also the same condition for which we are immensely afraid.
So to rest on pain as it passes, which the tortured artist concept implies, is to simply rest inside of our own humanity. To discover something from a moment of joy, fear, shock, rage, empathy, appreciation, jealousy, epiphany, or suffering is to become an artist.
And great art comes from great courage.
Great art comes only from those willing to be vulnerable.