I’d like to talk a little bit about the link between art and human suffering (now that my exams are over, the blog’s going to become a tad more personal and – perhaps – a bit more informal). Now, this is not a philosophical subject I’ve studied with any great detail, but as I do now have some training both as a philosopher and as an artist, I figured I’d give it a shot. Actually, this topic touches on two things that are very dear to me; art and happiness. Art has been a part of my life for a very long time (as long as I can remember, in fact), and I’m talking not just about visual art here but also drama, music and writing. I’m one of those quiet brooding types who seem to have based their persona on the phrase “still water runs deep”, and I’ve always found it substantially easier to express myself artistically than through direct verbal communication. More recently, primarily through my philosophical studies, I’ve realized that if I’m going to enjoy life, I have to seek out a way to understand happiness and – more importantly – what makes me happy. So I’ve given myself a goal or “quest” of sorts; to find some kind of key to happiness. Though, perhaps a more apt word would be contentedness, as I’ve already learned enough to understand that “happiness” (which can be viewed as a sort of extreme, lying at a polar end of the emotional scale, with sadness at the other end) is something ephemeral that comes and goes as it wishes. Naturally, this goal of mine has led to a great deal of thinking, and lately that thinking has been continually returning to the subject of my art.
If I want to lead a contented life, if I want to be happy, do I have to spurn art? Is art something that is simply too closely linked to suffering for an artist to ever have a happy life? Must I give up my dream of becoming a writer and abandon my drawing? These are questions that have been bothering me quite a lot. I don’t want to be unhappy. But I don’t want to stop being creative either. And yet, when I look around there seems to be a lot of evidence to suggest that art and happiness are in a sense mutually exclusive. Phrases like “you must suffer for your art” spring to mind, along with countless anecdotes about artists, musicians, poets and novelists slowly sinking into a deep pit of despair, before dying way too young and way too unsatisfied. A lot of the artists I’ve been shown during my education – Edgar Allan Poe, Jackson Pollock, Robert Frost – obviously suffered in their lives. Quite frankly, this has scared me. As much as I want to be an artist and help people get through their lives with my work (there’s never been the slightest doubt in my mind that art reduces the suffering of its audience), I don’t want to go through that sort of pain. Like so many others, I just want to be happy. I’m not sure I could abandon art completely even if it was made very clear to me that it would make me suffer, but I need to have these questions answered. So let’s give it a crack, shall we?
Surprisingly, I haven’t been able to find many videos or texts addressing this online. By pure luck, however, I typed “creativity” into my YouTube search bar earlier today, and found a TED talks video on that topic, featuring Elizabeth Gilbert (of “Eat, Pray, Love” fame). I thought it would just be a general discussion on creativity and inspiration, but I quickly realized that Gilbert was addressing the exact issue I’d been worrying about. She, too, had been feeling some anxiety about her art, due in part to the rather ominous precedent set by many of the great artists of the 20th century, but also the comments elicited by her recent success (“aren’t you worried you’ll never top your last book?” and such things). I watched the video, and found that she had some rather good things to say on the matter. Her thoughts were of a spiritual nature, which some people will instinctively disagree with on account of the lazy atheism that has recently crippled our society’s ability to view the world as a potentially magical place, but valuable nevertheless. Basically, what Gilbert had done was to take an anthropological approach to solving the dilemma. She looked at past civilizations and their perspective on art, trying to find a more wholesome view on creativity. Eventually, she stumbled across Ancient Greece and the Romans, with their ideas regarding daemons and geniuses. I’ll include a link to the video, but here’s the gist of it; daemons (not demons) were, according to Ancient Greek mythology, benevolent spirits that served as a sort of link between the mortal and the divine. Basically, they allowed humans to create art by inspiring them and guiding them as they worked. The Romans had a similar idea, but they called the spirits geniuses. Naturally, with this view on creativity and art, an artist was not viewed as the sole actor in the creation of an artwork, but rather as a sort of receptacle or channeler working in unison with some otherworldly being. This protected the artists of the time from narcissism, and took a lot of pressure off of them. If their play wasn’t a hit, it wasn’t just their fault, and if people didn’t like their newest sculpture, then there was a third-party who could take some of the blame. Nowadays, artists are viewed as being solely responsible for their work – the artistic process, in other words, is viewed as being completely internal. We no longer think of people as “having” a genius, but rather as “being” a genius. Not only can this lead to arrogance when an artistic person is showered with praise (as they often are), but it also leads to a good deal of pressure. These days, when an artist “fails” it implies that they were in some way inadequate or “not good enough”. It’s no wonder modern creatives have suffered so much.
I think Gilbert’s spot on, and I want to try to formulate a version of her argument that doesn’t rely on the existence of a divinity (not because I don’t like the idea of the divine, but because as long as an argument is based on such a thing, it can be doubted and I want certainty). Just shortly, though, here’s what I found to be the most salient point in what she was saying; art in itself is not intrinsically linked to the causing of suffering, but our perspective on the artistic process and the way we think it should work is.