Monday, May 16, 2011

Pain, Suffering, and Making Art

 Albrecht Dürer, JOB AND HIS WIFE,1504, STADELSCHES KUNSTINSTITUT, Frankfurt am Main


The image of the suffering artist has dominated the Western imagination at least since the English Romantics.  Based on my own experience, I understand this image to be of mixed value.  To separate the precious from the dross, I propose the following distinction: Suffering versus Pain.

First let us set aside the obvious: too much of anything is destructive.  A little water quenches the thirst.  A lot of water and you flood the land.  But beyond the issue of quantity, there is a difference of quality, and it is this that I am attempting to pick out.  The sensation of pain is not particular useful to artistic making or poesis.   Pain is gnawing, distracting, maddening.  Give me pain and all I want is an opiate to deaden it and make it bearable. And opiates send the artist to bed: unproductive.

But give a poet suffering, and they will give you operas, sculptures, novels.  Psychological suffering gives you Job, pain gives you Jesus.  Of Jesus' pain we have seven lines, of Job's pain we have thirty-one chapters of speeches.

As I look at my notebooks, the years where I was suffering from a bad romance were years of filling reams of pages of poetry and novel ideas: a motherlode that I will be fortunate to go back and mine in this lifetime.  As I look at the productivity of the past few months, plagued with pain, I had to struggle to produce the minimum.

There is an entire literature on Melancholia (melancholy) and the artist long before the rise of Romanticism that bears witness to the relationship.  Without crossing over into sado-masochism, we may take a pragmatic attitude that recognizes the potential in suffering and harness it.  Suffering cannot be eliminate; suffering sucks.  So we might as well get something out of it.

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia I, 1513-4.

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