Thursday, May 11, 2017

Is pain the locus of great art?

If I hadn't watched Greta Garbo’s “Leave me alone” scene from movie Grand Hotel (1932), I would have never written this. On that cheery sunny day, Garbo left me longing to know more about her personal life. For some weird reasons, it was almost impossible to believe that she was a happy woman off-screen. The more I learnt about her, the more I found her lonely and struggling for peace. This was the day when I wondered for the first time- “Is there any truth to this stereotype?” Is pain the ultimate source from which great art emerges? Does it inspire artists who introduce new styles, ideas or creative directions? Now and then, I heard suicidal stories of many artists (Virginia Woolf being one of them). But my curious mind doubted always.

I looked at studies. Surprisingly, many studies showed a higher rate of suffering among artists compared to the general population. In fact, there were evidences too to show that children with bipolar disorder are disproportionately creative. I must admit, these studies took me by surprise, yet I had to talk to few painters, musicians and writers for re-assurance.

Perhaps, for some artists who struggle with deeply rooted chronic mental conditions, the choice to be happy may not be easy. For instance, one visual artist (name not revealed) was grateful for his depression. In fact, he stopped taking medication a few years ago because he wasn't able to feel anything while he was on them. According to him, the pills didn't make him feel happier; but muted his joy.

Artists who experience intense emotions are believed to have access to powerful tools. In a manner, it’s true. You can’t fully identify with love unless you get your heart broken. You can’t write a tragedy until you experienced it or at least observed it. Since art explores new ways of seeing the world, it makes sense that artists can fixate on feelings more than the average person.

One of such famous artists is Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. After an accident in teenage, Frida’s spine injuries left her with multiple operations and miscarriages. She poured her lifelong suffering on canvas in stark, disturbing and even bloody images. For her, turning pain into art was the essence of empowerment. But, it doesn't mean that one has to starve for the pain to become a true artist. Salma Hayek who portrayed the artist in the movie Frida (2002) says, “For me, the most important thing is that she decided not to be a victim. She was a woman who had a lot of pain in her life, but that didn't stop her from having this wonderful love affair with life.”

Let’s see what studies say. The majority of people suffering from a mood disorder do not possess strong imagination, and most accomplished artists do not suffer from recurring mood swings. It seems that diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people. Clearly, pain doesn't inspire anything in us but hardens our souls, makes us immune to tragedy. Creativity, on the contrary, provides a way to structure or re-frame pain. Since pain doesn't show up on a body scan, many chronic pain sufferers turn to art in an effort to depict their pain.

I think today is a perfect day to stop talking about the role of pain in great creations as I know some will self-inflict suffering to master their art. Pain, suffering, emptiness, and loneliness are the important part of the human experience. Sorrow makes us want to contract and withdraw, not expand and excel. Creating great art depends on our capacity to stay emotionally balanced, not tortured. Pain may create beautiful art. But, this does not make pain beautiful.

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