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Pain and suffering and developing creativity

Posted Mar 13 2010 10:25am

“I’ve suffered enough. When does my artwork improve?”
Refrigerator magnet from

“Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” Jean-Paul Sartre

The tortured artist mythology is an ancient and enduring notion: that art comes mainly from suffering, and artists are likely to be fraught with suffering and dark emotions, and even need their pain to create.

In an article about the London debut of the opera Prima Donna by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright , and his new album, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, writer Tim Adams comments “Songs for Lulu is, Wainwright says, something of a homage to his former party-loving and addicted self – Lulu – seen from the vantage of hard-won sobriety.”

“Wainwright feared once or twice that his settled relationship with theatre producer Jörn ­Weisbrodt might have a debilitating effect on his gift for tainted love songs, the yearning, nuanced ballads, one part Morrissey, one part Mahler, with which he made his name.”

He quotes Wainwright: “I wondered if not being in these fatalistic disasters with boys, I would lose this dark lake of pain to drink from. But I needn’t have worried too much,” he says, with his wild laugh.

“In many ways, Songs for Lulu is a reaffirmation of that persona. Highly romantic, highly unstable. I mean, what I have found is that once you give up on a life, it doesn’t go away.

“You are always appeasing, or bargaining with, or neglecting that former self, the spirit who used to be behind the wheel, and would like to be still. I don’t cross to that side of the street any more. But it is important for me as a healthy person to acknowledge that the demons are still around.”

[The Observer, 21 Feb 2010 ]

There are, of course, plenty of examples of artists using creative expression to transform pain.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54) painted a series of self-portraits, including this powerful image “The Broken Column” (1944), a depiction of the years of treatment (including orthopedic appliances) she had to endure for a devastating spinal cord injury at age nineteen.

Salma Hayek commented about portraying the artist in the movie “Frida” (2002, directed by Julie Taymor), “For me, the most important thing is that she decided not to be a victim.

“A lot of people see the paintings and the cliches – Frida sufrida, the victim, the martyr. She was a woman who had a lot of pain in her life, but that didn’t stop her from having this wonderful love affair with life.” [More quotes on Painting page 2 ]

In her article Creativity, the Arts, and Madness , Maureen Neihart, Psy.D. says, “A basic premise of the expressive therapies (e.g. art, music, and dance therapy, etc.) is that writing, composing, or drawing, etc., is a means to self-understanding, emotional stability and resolution of conflict.

“Creativity provides a way to structure or reframe pain.”

So do we need to suffer to be creative?

Musician Sting was asked about this in the documentary All We Are Saying: “Do I have to be in pain to write? I thought so, as most of my contemporaries did; you had to be the struggling artist, the tortured, painful, poetic wreck.

“I tried that for a while, and to a certain extent that was successful. I was ‘The King of Pain’ after all. I only know that people who are getting into this archetype of the tortured poet end up really torturing themselves to death.

“And I’m thinking, well, I would just like to be happy,” he continues. “I’d like to do my work, and be a happy man. I’ve got enough memories of pain, of dysfunctional living, a reservoir to last me the rest of my life, so I don’t really need to manufacture that kind of life to be creative. Songwriting is every moment of your life, so if you’ve committed yourself to your art, you don’t need to go back.”

[Photo of Sting from his memoir Broken Music ]

Actor Maggie Gyllenhaal has also addressed the stereotype. In an NPR radio interview about her film “Sherrybaby” she admits she wasn’t very open to having creative discussions with the director, on account of the closed-down personality of her character, and she added, “I’m not someone who believes ‘The more tempestuous the better; if we have a really horrible time, that will somehow lead to great work.’ I don’t think that. I would much rather have a collaborative, trusting, good relationship with the people I’m working with.”

But the suffering of anxiety and depression has historically – especially before better treatment – afflicted writers and other artists.

Psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison notes in her book “ Touched with Fire ” that the majority of people suffering from a mood disorder “do not possess extraordinary imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings.”

She writes, “To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.’ But, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people. Biographical studies of earlier generations of artists and writers also show consistently high rates of suicide, depression and manic-depression.”

[Quotes are from my article Creativity and Depression .]

Actor, producer, and writer Cynthia Brian says in her book Be the Star You Are! , “What I have learned is that pain, suffering, emptiness, and loneliness are an important part of the human experience.” But, she adds, “Sorrow and pain make us want to contract and withdraw, not expand and excel.”

Creating depends on how open we can allow ourselves to be to both our inner and outer lives, and on our capacity to stay emotionally balanced, not tortured.

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