The Suffering Continues

Voice Card  -  Volume 14  -  John Card Number 13  -  Sun, Jun 17, 1990 08:38 PM

This is ONE OF 3 responses to Vol 14 Larry 7 ("Suffer the masses")...


I'll respond to your points level by level:

Level 1

"There is a whole lot of suffering going on out there. Therefore, shouldn't we have more artists in the world than we do now? And shouldn't we see a disproportionate share of artists coming from areas where there is more suffering?"

This would seem to be a simple error in logic. That The Artist Must Suffer simply does not imply that everyone who suffers must become artists. If I say that everyone who lives in Cleveland likes to bowl, this DOES NOT mean that everyone who likes to bowl lives in Cleveland!

Art is only one of many possible responses to suffering. And even the most dedicated artist cannot create if she cannot lift her brush. Increased suffering does not necessarily produce increased art.

Level 2

"Is art a response to suffering? Is suicide creative? Is lashing out in anger at your fellow human artistic?"

What is all this lashing out in anger stuff? Art is an ALTERNATIVE to lashing out. The pen is an ALTERNATIVE to the sword. That's what sublimation is all about.

Some great artists committed suicide, it is true. But other great artists lived long and healthy lives. The suicides were tragic but did nothing to improve the creator's work. If anything, the suicides came in cases where the art was not enough to OVERCOME the suffering. Suicide is never creative. In fact, in many cases, it results from a failure of imagination!

Level 3

"The art causes the suffering. What do you mean by that John?"

At the opening of my card to Suzanne I said "I think we are in agreement that the artist must suffer (although whether it's the art that causes the suffering or the suffering that causes the art is less clear)."

In compacting this idea into an aphorism I may have made it obscure. My apologies.

When I suggested that art might cause the suffering instead of the other way around, I did not mean that the art itself could be painful. I meant that the path the artist must take will involve suffering. Thus the choice of art as a vocation, if choice it be, can lead to suffering.

In order to paint a scene you must stand apart from it; you must get outside of it. And the work involved in moving your feelings from inside your heart out on to the canvas must be done alone. Thus the life of an artist tends to be a lonely one even though artists may be even more hungry for companionship than those they portray.

Also, getting "outside" the scene always seems to involve getting outside the rules of a society, so that artists are almost forced to become rebels and revolutionaries in some sense. Every society has its own kind of survival instinct and thus resists change, so rebels are always punished. Societies need the visions of artists, and artists need the inspiration of societies, yet these two groups are set against each other like the opposing muscles that make movement possible. But a society is very large and the lone artist is very small; when the inevitable struggle arises it's easy to guess who gets the black eye.

Thus we see a correlation between art and suffering, but the direction of causation is not clear. Is art a reaction to suffering? Or is suffering the inescapable fate of the artist? I think the answer is Yes to both questions.

Level 4

"An artist is an artist because of that special something called creativity. It doesn't take suffering to bring out this creativity or allow the artist to understand what is going on underneath or behind the scenes. It's aleady there and it is already understood. Any accompanying suffering doesn't change that."

Holy Mendel! It almost sounds as if you are arguing for a genetic basis for the artistic impulse! Are you suggesting that some people are just born creative?

As I have stated elsewhere, I do believe that genetics are a factor in all of this. I think some people are born with a temperament and hardwired ways of seeing that ENCOURAGE artistic growth. But there is clearly much more to it than that.

Your casual reference to seeing "behind the scenes" makes it sound as if this is an easy thing to do. Great artists make it look easy, but nothing is harder. Tunneling underneath the foundations that everyone else merely stands on is hard work. And learning about life requires experimentation and risk taking, which means making mistakes and enduring many, many failures. All of this is PAINFUL! That's why most budding young artists, regardless of their genetic endowments, are bank executives and shoe salesmen before they turn thirty.

So artists must suffer because the process of growing and learning is inherently painful. But there's even more to it than that.

I am only beginning to understand that in a mysterious way suffering can actually foster growth. It forces you to face the big questions. An emotional trauma is like a slap across the face that wakens a comatose sleeper. WAKE UP! GET REAL! OPEN YOUR EYES!

We are all masters at avoiding the fundamental questions. Our vast and intricate civilization is largely an elaborate distraction. We keep ourselves busy so that we don't have to think about certain realities. And we fall into our ruts and habits like stones falling to earth. This is human nature, and a good thing much of the time, but it is deadly to the artist.

So the artist, being only human, tends to settle into a fixed perspective. And yet the essence of creativity is a dynamic, multiple set of perspectives. So the artist who has fallen to earth needs to be thrown up into the air again. He needs to be blasted out of his rut, dragged kicking and screaming from his comfortable little window. This process of being uprooted and thrown helplessly into the air is called suffering. And if you can only survive it, you will see things that other people miss, and gain a new perspective on the world.

This all sounds very abstract, I know, but I'm doing the best I can to express some very difficult and subtle ideas. The reality of suffering, in all its many forms, is always harsh. And the lessons it teaches take a long time to absorb. Let me emphasize again that I am not boasting about suffering or promoting it, or romanticizing it. I am merely accepting it for what it is and trying to better understand it.

Keep firing away!