Do You Have To Suffer To Produce Great Art?

Beethoven was my homeboy growing up. Every artist has a ‘narrative’ and Ludwig’s was suffering made him a great artist. The 5th Symphony was him shaking his fist at the lightning, cursing fate. The world seemed to say, “You think he wrote that in his Malibu beach home while his lingerie model wife and 2.4 perfect kids lazed around the pool and the servants polished his Ferrari? No, he wrote it in a disgusting hovel with a piece of wood clamped between his jaws as he struggled to squeeze the last drops of hearing from the vibrations entering his skull. THAT, my boy, is how you create great art”.

This always bothered me. Not because I thought the statement wasn’t true . It bothered me because I wanted to created Great Art. And I didn’t want to suffer.

And as I grew older this worldview gained weight.

Shostakovitch labouring under the gaze of Stalin, the genocidal psychopath, Brian Wilson’s mental illness, Van Gogh’s self harming, Cobain’s chronic pain. All kinds of suffering – crushing poverty, disease, sexual shame, disastrous business deals, broken marriages, alcohol abuse, drug habits, wrecked friendships…

And yet so much beauty growing out of so much pain. Fragrant roses blooming with their roots covered in excrement.

A few years ago I reached a turning point. I was not creating great art. And I was suffering anyway. I was drowning, pulled down by all the things I didn’t feel I could share with my church. Or talk to my wife about. Or say to God in prayer. Or even write down in my journal. I had to get those things out. And for me, wired like I am, I had to set them to music.

At first they were simple and tentative

Looked for a star but the night was black
Fell from grace, right through the cracks

On the ropes and off the rails
Hanging onto God by my fingernails

but things started to flow. And I started to be more bold, more honest and even go beyond what I was feeling just to break down the walls.

Oh no, oh Noah you don’t know
The way my poor soul sprung a leak
My faith turned greener than cheap gold
As fake as American teeth

One day, reflecting on my journey, a tiny light came on. I realised I’d had it backwards.

Suffering doesn’t infuse art with meaning.
Art extracts meaning from suffering,
like drawing poison from a wound.

We WILL suffer. We will ALL suffer. One way we can process it and work through the suffering, is to MAKE something. It’s part of what makes us human.

We shouldn’t court chaos just to feel artistic. Or wait for pain to come before we create. If you are in a good place at the moment, learn the nuts and bolts of your craft. It’s probably too late to take ukelele lessons when you’re lying in intensive care.

Postscripts

  • Another way we can heal is to appreciate something that someone else has made, probably through some suffering of their own.
  • If you want to remember Robin Williams this interview is a good place to start. I want to watch The Fisher King right now.
  • Depression is an appalling harvester of talented peopleKeir Francis
  • I think Cyril Connolly was full of crap when he wrote “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”.

About mattblick

Songwriter/Singer from Nottingham, UK. My 2nd EP, Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky, is out now. I'm blogging (& podcasting) through the entire Beatles catalogue at Beatles Songwriting Academy. In my spare time I wish I had some spare time.
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