Wednesday, October 3, 2012

You Can't Be a Happy Artist

Barbed wire and a plant - 2004
American novelist Jack Kerouac believed in the Buddhist concept that life is Suffering.

Maybe not every single moment of one's existence is dictated by suffering, but can one really be an artist - a poet, a writer, an actor, or a musician - without having experienced a degree of sorrow? In other words, can a happy man be a successful artist?
When I say "artists" I am referring to grand and genial personalities who created masterpieces and key concepts during this and the past centuries: Melville, Kerouac, Dostoyevsky, Poe, to name a few writers; musicians like Beethoven Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler; actors and directors like Kubrick, Volonté, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy; painters like Van Gogh and Modigliani; scientists like Tesla and Einstein.

I often noticed how famous but not talented actors were able to obtain a high and touching performance while going through a rough patch. For some curious incidence, the character they portray is going through a similarly tragic moment. This is the case with actors like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD, Mel Gibson in The Beaver, Stallone in Rocky, only to name a recent few.

Herman Melville expressed through Moby Dick his outcry against the cruelty of God while Beethoven cast his challenge at God by creating his masterpiece, the Symphony #9, when he was completely deaf. Many of the artists I mentioned here were scarred by a life of extreme poverty, or they experienced family losses at a very young age, depression, mal d'etre, exile, physical impairment, extreme solitude, with all the consequences that such conditions imply.

As we can see, many great works arise from a tragic moment in the life of their authors, and the ones I mentioned are just some of the most notable examples.

I can't help wondering, then, with the pretense of knowing the answer, whether the unhappiness in the life of all of these artists can be considered the main agent in the greatness of their creations.


  1. Truth is, I don't know either. There have been tortured geniuses, but equally there have been tortured nonentities. Dickens might fit into one corner, but then again the superlative Anthony Trollope would fit nicely into a great artist for the most part content with life - though he did have the proverbial unhappy childhood which made him a sensitive observer.

    1. Mike, you're very right about the unhappy non-entity.
      Still, Trollope developed his sensitivity from traumatic experience in his youth.

  2. Crap, I'm in trouble then, as my life has been pretty even-keeled.

  3. I have found that truly arty people are always in the midst of drama, whether real or self-created. I think it could work both ways though. The art could be a result of the pain or the pain could be a result of the art.

  4. There is something about experiencing hardships that gives a person more depth, which in turn affects their art.

  5. I'll opine that having a compassionate understanding of suffering, even if the artist doesn't suffer her- or himself, is enough. Shakespeare would be my example. And in my own work (though far less than great), I also need a measure of joy.

    1. Heather,
      Yes, some artists are definitely drama queens. Still, that's how some great masterpieces were created.
      Why is pain a result of the art?

      I totally agree. I always find confirmation of this whenever I read a great masterpiece of literature, painting, or a huge acting performance.

      I've always thought that a theoretical understanding of suffering and a kind of understanding that comes from experience are still not the same thing.
      Oh, yes, I need joy too!
      Thanks for commenting!

  6. I believe all true great artists experience a great deal of mania and depression. It's a fact that one can have both at once to varying degrees. Frustration, fear, anger, and sorrow are the muses of all art in my opinion.

  7. I know the reason I started writing was born from tragedy... But the reason I still write? Is because it makes me happy. Interesting post! There's definitely something to the tortured artist theory... I think from deep emotion comes beauty. :)

  8. I agree that it's possible to create something that's life-affirming when you're depressed. On the other hand, I've written some very black comedy sketches when I'm on top of the world. That's what I love about art, it's so contradictory.

  9. Dan,
    Yes, I agree 100%.

    You see, tu quoque.

    You must have a strong other personality.
    I can't even imagine how difficult it must be to write comedy when you're depressed and black stuff when you're cheerful!