Does art require pain?
Wade Bradshaw, in his book By Demonstration: God, wrestles with that question from a Christian perspective. He writes:
It is not only loss of freedom that artists fear from Christianity: they also fear loss of power. Again, I hear this both from artists who believe in Jesus and from those who do not: “If I allow this news of reconciliation with God to permeate my life, and I find myself hopeful, I shall lose the very thing that fuels my work.” This sounds strange in the ears of many, but please realize that this is important to artists. These people believe that only despair can make fine art. Looking back over history, they demand, which of the greats was happy?
I remember my freshman year of college I was walking with my poetry teacher after class and asked him a similar question. Does an artist need to suffer to make good art? He grew concerned (understandably so… who knows why a student could be asking that). He thought for a moment and started to tell stories about poets who have pursued that belief and their lives have rode a downward spiral into despair and suicide. I assured him I wasn’t contemplating suicide. I was trying to pick his brain about the romantic myth that artists have to wear ratty sweaters and cook their food over a bunson burner, that the only way they can get any truth on a page is by experiencing the pain of life to its dregs. My professor said “No” in a roundabout way – that seems to be the answer a professor would have to give a student. It wasn’t until I came across this passage in Bradshaw that I started thinking seriously about the question again. Bradshaw thnks that it is a terrible mistake that artists make and argues that hope, not despair is better fuel for art.
This is a very serious, indeed a catastrophic, mistake to make, and the church ust recognize its allure for artists. However, I can say with the volume turned all the way up to ten that hope is a better fuel that despair. Hope is an imagination of how the world can be and , if that hope is true, how the world will be…
I had a friend who was very gifted. He was creative in many areas we recognize as art. He began as a student at L’abri, bu my family came to love him and so later he would just flow in and out of our lives as he traveled. He was very unpredictable, because social conventions meant little to him; yet love meant a great deal to him and because of this he was easily misunderstood as immoral and irresponsible, whereas I consider him one of the most moral people I have met. It was he who first really argued with me that he had to retain his despair and depression becaues it was these that fave him the his creative energy. I was still not clear about these things myself. I could tell that something was fundamentally wrong with his attitude, but I couldn’t persuade him by showing him a better way. And this friend did commit suicide. The despair and depression, at first seem by him as a help of sorts, a precondition for creativity, overwhelmed him. He forgot that there was a reason to hope, and so he put an end to all his earthly creativity. I knew that what we had spoken about was important, but I hadn’t realized until then that it was a matter of life and death.
Pain can make people make art. Artists are a peculiar creation of God, art can be part of the way they understand life. Like a cup, when they overflow, art spills out. But the myth that despair is the only thing that can make the cup run over is a lie. There is a romantic image of the artist as sufferer that only tells part of the truth. We live in a fallen world and so true stories told of this place will involve sadness, but if all stories only tell of the brokenness of the world then art will lose the power of telling the full truth. The brokenness of the world and every individual of this world is not the most true thing about the world. We live in a world that is itself being carried through a story. The story began with a pure, good creation, then it was broken and that is the world we see out of our windows. But even here there is great beauty in every broken thing. Nothing that exists can escape its original identity as being a good creation of a good God, and nothing can erase that identity. All things are a mixed bag of beauty and darkness, but that mixed bag has a destiny of redemption. The story of this world will be carried through to completion, and a complete redemption. There is power in that story and in that destiny. As artists fall in love with that story and come to know it as their own story their art will tell the same story.
As Simone Weil said, “The heart is pierced by two things: beauty and affliction.” There is so much wonder in the world around us! What a shame it would be if the most sensitive people the Lord has made turn away from it. It needs to be exposed, captured, displayed for everyone to see and be captured themselves by. Artists should dedicate themselves to the beauty that really is there. Yes, there is beauty in telling a true story about the brokenness of the world. Yes, affliction can pierce the heart. But it is foolish to throw away the hope that this world is infused with in the name of affirming those two truths. Especially for the Christian, who holds as a conviction that this world is not run by chance and chaos, but by a good God who is himself an artists and who is creating a grand work of art that we all inhabit. There is enough richness is that idea to fuel great art if there is richness anywhere.