Is pain necessary for art?
Thank you for the tragedy. I need it for my art. – Kurt Cobain
Whenever tragedy strikes the world of arts and entertainment, my husband and I rehash an old, familiar debate: Is pain necessary for art?
The most recent catalyst was the untimely death of Chris Cornell, Soundgarden front man. I came of age in the early 90s. The Grunge movement’s haunting, unmistakable sound is imprinted in my DNA. In 1994, Black Hole Sun overtook the airwaves, and its hyper-color, face-stretching video played on MTV every 47.5 minutes. I was both highly disturbed by and smitten with the song and its hypnotic melody, melancholy lyrics and Cornell’s symphonic voice.
When we learned he’d chosen to end his life in our hometown, my husband and I mourned his loss and spent a marathon evening on VEVO, watching and listening and reminiscing. That night, we both realized something:
Though at the time we were both too young and unbreakable to comprehend it, Cornell’s art was a window into his tormented soul.
That night, instead of my youthful adoration of his music, I felt…I don’t know…guilt? Do we somehow encourage and enable, via our praise and devotion, those who believe the pain necessary? No, that would make me in some small way responsible for choices a stranger made for himself, and I’m a staunch believer in personal accountability.
Still, I began to wonder about cause and effect, and whether pain and suffering is a necessary element for legitimate and salable art.
As a writer, one of the first things we’re taught is that if there’s no conflict, then there’s no story. I get that. We must have man vs. man; man vs. nature; man vs. self or, as storytellers, we have nothing at all.
But conflict need not equate to personal pain and, ultimately, tragedy. Art itself is a conduit, but how we utilize it depends on a number of factors. We use – we choose – art as expression, art as catharsis, art as a shovel wielded to dig ourselves deeper into personal abyss. The nearest I can figure, pain, inasmuch as the creator believes it necessary, becomes like a drug.
If you believe you need it to create, then pain becomes an addiction.
Addiction, while painfully real, is not necessary for art. According to creativity expert Julia Cameron,
“As artists, we must learn to be self-nourishing…Art may seem to spring from pain, but perhaps that is because pain serves to focus our attention onto details (for instance, the excruciatingly beautiful curve of a lost lover’s neck). Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans. But it is the attention to detail that stays with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art. Even in the midst of pain, this singular image brings delight. The artist who tells you different is lying.”
With this quote, I began to get a sense of apart-ness, that while pain absolutely exists, we can remove ourselves, we can perhaps envision the pain as a separate entity. I did more research to explore this idea, and I was not disappointed.
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, editor Joe Fassler interviews award-winning Danish writer Dorthe Nors. In it, Nors asserts that, “It’s not drugs, poverty, or wild lovers that make a great writer. It’s discipline and time alone.”
“We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life. One is not a requirement for the other…you can use your demons to pull your way through life. You can use them for good things instead of trying to let them destroy you.”
Even more forceful:
“It’s the human condition, you could say: memories, emotion, being, pain, even the simple fact of living, breathing. Everything at once: the human experience. We all have it, even the people who don’t—or can’t—express it through art. But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.”
There it is. Pain is not necessary for art, though pain and art may be intrinsically linked; it is instead how the artist chooses to wield the pain that makes all the difference.
Here’s the real tragedy: Cornell, Cobain, Morrison, Joplin, Shakur, Winehouse – these genius creators, lost too soon, always had it in them, pain or no pain. We lost many of them because they believed it was necessary.
Our identity is more than our art; it’s only when we become unable to disentangle ourselves (and I’d assert that adding mind-altering substances to the mix makes it less likely, if not impossible, to separate ourselves) that we cannot perceive that our art is a part of who we are – not who we are.
Tragedy and pain can fuel art, yes, but some of the most poignant art is the work – is the heart – that travels through the black shadow of the valley of death and emerges changed, bruised but whole to rest in the light of the sun.
Like so many other things in life, it’s how we choose to handle the pain – not the pain itself – that makes all the difference.
For our creative heroes lost, though through their absence they continue to teach us – to warn us, it’s too late. But so many remain who wrongly believe they must continue to suffer for the sake of their art, to succumb to “the romance of the pain” (as Nors puts it, the tortured artist is a cliché for a reason). For them, hope is not lost.
So the question becomes, how can we help?
What do you think? Is pain a necessary element for art, or is it possible to travel a different path and still be successful?