Reporting and Essays on Society, Culture, Lifestyle. Plus a dash of creative non-fiction with questionably funny pictures.

Does great Art spring from suffering?

I am so sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you will never be happy.

(…) You will never get the girl. You will not save the world. You will never find true love. You will not find a trustworthy friend. You will never be satisfied. You will never have enough. The grass could always be greener. The grass will always need mowing. Your days will be long and contain no fun. Your nights will be lonely and not much else. You will be always be waiting for better days that will never arrive.

This isn’t the beginning of some tough love self-help blog post, but a 2004 novel called Torture The Artist by Joey Goebel. The narrator, Harlan, has written a letter to his seven-year-old ward Vincent. The grim vision he warns Vincent about doesn’t follow from an (annoying) ultra-pessimistic worldview: it’s entirely grounded in reality. Vincent will experience heartbreak, depression, and suicidal thoughts. And the reason Harlan knows this is because he’s been tasked by a billion-dollar entertainment company to ensure it all happens. The CEO behind the company wants to revolutionize the derelict world of mainstream media by feeding the public true Art, and for that, he needs an Artist – but a true Artist. A great Artist. And since so many great Artists have struggled with melancholia, drug abuse, and other jolly good things, the man thinks it’s only logical Vincent be forced to live a hellish life in order to create unforgettable masterpieces.

Torture the Artist starts off with a truly intriguing story. The idea that emotional pain enhances creativity is wildly popular in our culture: we can easily conjure up images of suicidal writers, Byronic heroes, drug-addicted singers whose voices have mesmerized millions. Men – for it’s often men we remember – struggling with their “inner demons”, leaning over their desk with feverish eyes as they scribble down their darkest thoughts. They have worked through their pain to give us masterpieces – and that pain, that struggle, is precisely why we regard them as masterpieces. “Why,” asks Christopher Zara, “should we invest in a work of art that was created without conflict, or struggle, or pain? Where is the challenge?”

“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”                        Edvard Munch

Torture The Artist shows us a powerful media conglomerate literally putting the idea to the test by creating a suffering genius to reinvigorate mainstream culture. As such, it feels like a great opportunity to disentangle the myth; the back cover summary, as a matter of fact, explicitely describes the novel as “an inspired exploration of the age-old idea that the best art springs from suffering.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what happens. The novel never “explores” this idea at all. Far from being challenged or examined more closely, it’s actually played straight.

Up until the last third of the novel, the plot is very simple: we are treated to episode after episode of Harlan finding a new way to ruin Vincent’s life, and Vincent suffering a breakdown over it. Then Harlan eggs him on to use the experience as writing material, which Vincent does, producing a chef-d’oeuvre or two in the process. It never fails to work, not once. (It also gets tiring pretty quickly.) The role played by his depression in his creative success is unquestionable. When Vincent’s in love or hangs out with his friends, he creates less: he’s too busy and happy to bother with writing. When his love has left him, or his friends, or when he’s diagnosed with tuberculosis (yes, Harlan goes so far as to secure a fake diagnosis), he becomes significantly driven and creative: this is when he produces, in his manager’s words, his best work.

It’s near the end of the novel, as the characters are fleeing the corrupt executive who devised the whole scheme, that we finally encounter some semi-criticism of the plan… and it’s weak. Vincent comments on the fact that art isn’t a science and, as such, using him as an experimental test subject to determine whether or not suffering brings about creation is pure nonsense. I fail to see how that’s nonsense, considering it’s worked wonders for him. Then he tells Harlan that he has decided to stop writing for life… which apparently shows the experiment has failed.

This is faulty logic. Vincent has only decided to stop writing because his mother has let him in on the whole plan and he’s disgusted with Harlan. Aside from that, the novel shows without ambiguity that his suffering had led him to produce his best novels, songs and sitcoms. That’s why Torture the Artist doesn’t actually explore nor criticize its premise. It presents it instead as unequivocally true.

“His lack of creativity perfectly coincides with his choosing girls and shopping over loneliness and alienation.” (The CEO to Harlan, p.193)

It was obvious to me that at the root of Vincent’s creative slackening were the freedoms allowed by his surplus of money. (Harlan, p.194)

“I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t been worth a damn since my life has improved out there. That’s a bit sad when all your life is good for is material.” (Vincent, p.198)

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to be said here. When it comes to the link between anxiety and creativity, things aren’t quite as simple as they seem. Yes, our culture is saddled with stories of tormented, suicidal geniuses. “In examining creative history,” writes Robyn Reisch, “it is much more difficult to find an emotionally well-adjusted artist than one who struggles with his or her mental state.” On the other hand, maybe it’s more difficult because we remember better the ones who suffered. They fit with our romantic ideal. But for every masterpiece made by a mentally ill individual, there are probably just as many excellent novels, songs or scripts cooked up by perfectly content – or commonly unhappy – creators. Let’s be serious here: does one really need some kind of drug abuse problem or childhood trauma to come up with an original idea? That’s a pretty bleak view of creativity.

The authors of a study published in 2004 and exploring the link between mental illness and creative endeavours claim that “in samples of young adults, the effects of anxiety and depression symptoms on dimensional measures of creative thought and action range from small to non-significant.” They acknowledge at the same time the limitations of the study, in no small part because measuring both creativity and mental illness is no walk in the park. How do we even define these terms in the first place? How do we determine the role played by emotional pain in the creative process? What kind of emotional pain makes one more creative, and why? Does it have to be permanent to “work” and does creativity decline once the effects of therapy kick in? Had Hemingway or Fitzgerald gotten proper help and counseling, would the quality of their works have suffered? Because Stephen King has been sober for a while now and he’s still pretty good at what he does.

The truth of the matter is, most normal human beings will have experienced periods of darkness at some point: the loss of a loved one, a near-fatal accident, sexual violence, even something less dramatic such as boredom with one’s life. We all have our scars. So maybe it’s only natural artists would collectively appear as a bunch of depressed, anxious people: if you dig a little, you’re bound to find darkness in the life of an artist because there’s darkness in everyone’s life. The last novel I’ve read that’s made a deep, lasting impression is The Idiot by Elif Batuman. I find it marvelous – funny and painfully realistic, with a clueless heroine to whom I can honestly relate. Elif Batuman, it turns out, has suffered from depression and underwent therapy. Which seems to reinforce the notion that creators are suffering geniuses at the core -until you remember that depression is not exactly an uncommon experience.

Rather than serving as catalysts, there’s instead a very real possibility that anxiety and depression hinder creativity. It’s not a stretch to imagine that feeling miserable, isolated and plagued with self-loathing isn’t very conducive to work. A big part of depression is having trouble performing the most menial tasks, including getting out of bed. The idea of using art as emotional catharsis sounds nice in theory, but no catharsis is possible when you can barely feed yourself on an upset stomach. There’s plenty of evidence that stress and anxiety hamper cognitive abilities: shouldn’t they logically hamper creativity as well? Many report feeling less driven and creative when they’re depressed instead of the other way around. As noted by Irish performance artist Áine Ní Laoghaire, art isn’t simply about a sudden stroke of genius and inspiration followed by long hours scribbling at the desk, letting everything magically flow out. The artistic process is often far from sexy. It requires thinking, deconstructing, failing, correcting again and again and taking two hours to finally get that four-line paragraph right. It is, in many ways, mundane and boring, and constitutes real work like anything else; real work that requires being able to think at least a little bit straight, and having energy to spare.

We believe that it’s their inner demons, traumas and obsessive thoughts that have led the greatest artists to excellence. But what we don’t know is how those inner demons actually got in the way. What if anxiety wasn’t the creative force behind their masterpieces but the obstacle they had to overcome with all their might to get anything done?

Some food for thought: American scholar Kathryn Brady found that paintings made when their creators were going through difficult times – such as the death of a relative – were often auctioned as lower prices and less likely to be remembered in major collections. The public isn’t necessarily gushing over anxiety-induced material, it would seem.

Inner demons can certainly provide inspiration, but passion isn’t uniquely fueled by feelings of brokenness. I’m sure anger, intellectual curiosity or sheer joy can be just as effective when it comes to boosting creativity. Art is motivated by all sorts of things and doesn’t always need to be an exercise in catharsis or function as therapy. Feeling down and self-hating or being plagued by mental illness doesn’t magically provide a more accurate view of the world, and works imbued with sadness aren’t the only ones with value. It’s actually rather interesting that we would think a work of art is more heartfelt or genuine if it comes from a place of sadness. Is joy so cheap ?

The idea behind Torture the Artist is interesting, but it’s treated way too superficially to provide a meaningful insight into the issue. The story takes the suffering artist trope and simply plays it straight, without showing how depression and anxiety may interfere with the creative process. It also provides a rather bland view of depression and anxiety: they seem like little more than concepts to be thrown around in order to show the severity of Vincent’s unhappiness. There’s no thought as to what they really involve in everyday life: we’re told that Vincent is miserable, hates himself, writes a lot, and is unbelievably happy when he’s found love. His suffering is strangely sanitized, expressed without much affect behind it. We’re told he’s in pain and he himself says it frequently, but I’ve never managed to gather any sort of pity for him. He mostly sounds like an emo teenager.

There’s another idea that the novel could have examined more closely. It is stated, repeatedly, that Vincent’s suffering is justified by its higher purpose: to bring about deep and meaningful works of art into the world. He will be lonely, depressive and miserable, yes, but his work will change and improve the lives of millions of people.

The only consolation I can offer is that the things you will be making amid all the loneliness and suffering will by far outlast your despair and our cruelty. Our torture is temporary, your work is forever. (Harlan to Vincent, p.2)

That’s far from an uncommon idea. In the midst of a discussion about a “tortured artist”, one is likely to hear this phrase (or a variant thereof): “If she/he hadn’t suffered, we’d have never had (insert name of relevant masterpiece)”. When you really think about it, it sounds rather disturbing. Should we seriously be thankful that Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath suffered as much as they did, just so we could be touched by the magic of their prose?

In January 2018, Nautilus published an essay titled, Can PTSD be good for you? Yes, PTSD. A state of mental trauma which includes symptoms such as hypervigilance, nightmares, distressed thoughts, and emotional numbness, among others. How can that ever be good for you, you may wonder? Well, Gallagher uses the example of Wilfred Owen, a World War I soldier and poet. His most famous piece, Dulce et Decorum Est – one of the most celebrated war poems of all times – was written while he recovered from PTSD at Craiglockhart, a psychiatric military hospital. Gallagher speaks of his own feelings of wonder at reading the poem, how the vivid imagery made him feel as though he were experiencing the battlefield, how angry he felt at the pointless death and suffering of fellow soldiers. He shows that Owen, encouraged by his doctor, was able to produce a unique work of art of unprecedented depth.

   Transfiguring his gruesome memories and nightmares of battle into poetry afforded Owen a keen psychological precision perhaps even William James could envy.

But did Owen heal? Gallagher admit we can’t know, for “he died so young.” This preoccupation, however, arises only at the end of the article, almost as an afterthought. The central argument of the essay seems to be that PTSD can be good for you because you may produce Art that will influence History.

Call me boorish if you will… but maybe it would have been better for Wilfren Owen to be spared the horrors of war and live a happy life in the countryside with his three dogs and four bunnies, rather than endure tremendous physical and mental trauma. So the world would have been denied a masterpiece. And? The world is denied masterpieces all the time. There are millions of talented individuals we’ve never heard of because they were unlucky or lacked opportunities. Besides, surely human beings can find other ways to satisfy their intellectual joy and thirst for knowledge than the words produced by traumatized individuals. Yes, art can change us and help us gain amazing insights into our souls and the world around us. But we could gain those insights by ourselves in many ways.

This idea – that emotional pain is worth it, as long as it helps us churn out a good poem – shows how, as a culture, we elevate Art above humanity. Art, Talent, Genius;  abstractions supposedly higher and more worthy than human life itself. Art transcends; Art transforms; Art makes the world a better place. Art is eternal and immortal. We are ready to do many things in the name of Art. We are ready to legitimize suffering; starve ourselves and harm our bodies; and excuse the awful behaviors of artists, betraying their victims.

But Art is an abstraction. In reality there are novels, photos, films, poems produced by human beings. Those novels, photos, films or poems, wonderful and life-changing as they may be, are not more valuable than individual human lives. Art is not a higher thing. It’s nice, and reading is fun, and The Invitation was a gorgeous movie. But those things are inanimate. They don’t suffer and they don’t bleed. It’s human beings who matter, and none should be sacrificed in the hazy name of Art.

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