Does it Have To Hurt? Pain in The Creative Process Part 1
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
This two-part essay talks about the intersection of art and multiple forms of pain and suffering. Our myths around art and suffering, genius and illness, etc. are completely cracked, but so prevailing that all artists have to reckon with them at some point. (And do our best for our community to rewrite them.)
Disclaimer: I am NOT a doctor or psychologist. My expertise, and only training is in the arts. I’m writing this from immersion in a multimedia art practice, and from the perspective of balancing art and illness personally. None of the following constitutes medical advice.
This essay includes non-graphic mentions of physical and mental illness, addiction, ableism, and pain & suffering.
We speak of art in a terribly stratified way. As a legacy, it’s wonderful. Art worship lies at the heart of our cult of celebrity, and within the altars and architecture of all our religions, as one of the greatest things we do as humans. As a life choice, it’s deemed a terror: a home-wrecker, a side-tracker, and a rotten waste. It tempts bright young things from straight and narrow paths to doctorship and lawyerdom, and churns us into ne’er-do-wells, fuck-ups, and minimum-wage service pawns. So goes the suburban shame-jamboree.
Some artists are demigods, and the rest are cautionary tales. Stacey could’ve been an orthodontist, but she went to RISD and now she works at a gas station. When demigods fall from grace to join the ranks of crusty-dusty rebel-losers, pop-culture treats their stories like a snack. You’ll never guess why he disappeared from the silver screen! I heard their tour got cancelled cause half the band’s in rehab.
The Empress said “let them eat cake,” and now she can’t say anything at all.
Social stratification feeds artistic burnout, through the pressures of either fame and excess on the one hand, or deprivation and frustrated talent without an outlet on the other. The most prevalent artistic pain narratives stem from a ghastly imbalance in the opportunity to express the basic human drive of artistic creation, and the ridiculous difficulty of eking out a living wage in the arts, without having to socialize with millions of people at a time.
These imbalances generate pain. Because we so often find pain where we find art, we believe the art requires the pain as a kind of sacrifice, and that great art can only come from equally great suffering. These are the myths of the starving artist, the long-suffering author, and the tortured genius, whose frustrations derive as much from affluenza and sexual ennui as from the elusive, unconquered muse. (That look is so last-century.) But correlation is not causation. Pain-accompanies-art does not mean pain-produces-art.
What if these myths reflect a cultural malaise, rather than a greater natural order? What if social stratification in the arts is plastic, and part of a larger pattern of siphoning resource and dignity from the hands of the many to the few? What if the visibility of physical and mental illness in art comes in part from reduced stigmas in counter-cultures, and in part because the art world’s difficulties discourage so many who can easily find other work? What if everybody suffers, but we’re likelier to hear the pain-biography of an actor than a plumber or a barista?
Many artists today reject the notion that art requires pain, and that those who suffer more make better, deeper, or sexier work. This pushback is a breath of fresh air, and so important, but the pendulum can swing too far in the opposite direction, denying and erasing art’s hazards, glossing over all the aches and discomforts in the creative process, and scrapping the notion of sacrifice altogether.
We could compare the far ends of these two framings to spiritual or philosophical paths. Our old suffering myths align with asceticism. The body and mind must pine, diminish, and be reviled as the artist sacrifices their whole being to achieve creative transcendence. The furthest extremes of our countering stories align with hedonism. Great art can only spring from great joy, perfect health, steady comfort, and a prior state of fulfillment. If it’s not a party, if the senses are not constantly saturated, indulged, and fed with beauty and good things, you’re doing it wrong, and worse, you’re reinforcing the toxic old myths that want to keep artists starving in the gutter.
What terrain lies between the two extremes, and what can we learn from it?
In this context, I find it helpful to think of art less as an accomplishment or pursuit, and more as a power or tool. Art is a natural force like gravity. It’s the human exploration of the same laws of beauty and geometry that bring us nautilus shells, succulents, and bower birds’ nests. Art is a current of power like electricity. It’s the juice of human communication. Art is a set of equipment like a chemistry set. It’s the kit we use to build physical architecture and memetic culture.
This frames art as something utterly neutral, neither good nor bad, neither helpful nor harmful on its own, which can be put to a variety of purposes: creative, destructive, both, and neither. Art can be preservative, restorative, controlling, disrupting, innovative, regressive, and more. Which channel it takes depends on how we approach and wield it.
Any useful tool can become dangerous. I worked in a wood & paint shop in my younger days. I have seen things. You can use torches, knives, and electric saws to build something beautiful… aaaaand you can injure yourself on a tape measure.
Art can become dangerous, to practitioners as well as to social orders. Depending on how you inhabit and use it, it can absolutely wreck your shit. Or else, it can help you wreck your own shit, and wreck it hard.
I recently rewatched the original cast video of Sunday In The Park With George after Sondheim’s passing. (Sondheim was tied with Alanis Morisette for Top Favorite Lyricist when I was a little kid. Well roundedness is a virtue.) His works are making the rounds this month between Tick Tick Boom dropping on Netflix and the news of his passing. His songs can still punch me in the feels, but they naturally hit me more complexly now than they did over a decade ago, when I last visited them as a design student.
Sunday In The Park…, loosely inspired by Georges Seurat’s sparse biography, is a classic meditation on workaholism, and its alienating prowess. Here, la vie Bohème isn’t flicking lit matches at the gasoline trail of some prior addiction—the art is the addiction. Art can become the beloved toxin, forever healing the wounds it opens, inflicting afresh even as it soothes.
Sunday is about the cost of creating something beautiful by staring down reality without the willingness to engage it on any terms but your own, by observing the people in your life and pulling them into your world without allowing for their agency and validity in their own worlds. That’s a story we like to glamorize and play on repeat, but it isn’t noble. Dot and Marie—the sidelined lovers and mamas overspilling with warmth and feeling—are the equal heroes, and in many ways the true survivors of that tale.
Interesting to note: we don’t know that Seurat was like Sondheim’s version in real life. We do know that Seurat had a longterm mistress, who was pregnant with their second child at the time of his death, so he could socialize at least a bit. Many have speculated that George voiced Sondheim’s own inner conflicts. Or maybe the George of the stage illustrates what people think painters are like: “bizarre, fixed, cold.”
This is not, in my experience, how most painters are, including neurodiverse ones. Today, Sunday’s George can be read as neurodivergent/autistic-coded to the point of caricature, as noted incidentally and tactlessly in this NYT review. (CW: ableist phrasing, ASD stereotypes.) Meh. Theatre critics aren't diagnosticians. And we don't have to scrounge long to find cold, self-absorbed types and neglectful self-appointed-genius-men among neurotypicals.
Factory settings of bizarreness and fixity aside, art can become an addiction, and it can exacerbate a prior addiction, illness, or hardship. But it can also heal and soothe, or if not heal, then provide entertainment, distraction, and life-giving expression through pains we’d be having anyway. (Recommendation: Frida, the stunning biopic on Frida Kahlo directed by Julie Taymor, produced by and starring Salma Hayek.)
For many of us, the artistic drive is innate, vital, and impossible to dismiss. It may sound cheeseball or dramatic to folks undriven to make stuff, but for those of us so wired, suppressing an art drive can do far more harm than indulging it. Artistic obsession can become a source of purpose and meaning; it just needs good management not to behave toxically, as anything powerful may do unchecked.
If you’re one of those people with an unshakable, ghost-deep need to create, a core part of your work within the creative process will always be to keep the process in balance, to train yourself to better meet your art, and to set boundaries with your art to better preserve your health and well being.
Read artist biographies, watch patterns within yourself, and observe your artist friends. Our culture feeds and expands the stereotype of Art as Devourer of bodies, minds, and souls. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it does require some care to keep out of, or perhaps detangle from the sticky, devouring scripts society insists on repeating ad nauseam.
That care is a craft in itself. It should be folded organically into art training. I wonder how our culture’s art stories could go if we spoke of suffering in art neither as an inevitability to channel as glamorous-dysfunctionally as possible, nor as a specter to cheat like death, and defiantly dodge at all costs. What if we speak of suffering in art as a realistic possibility to navigate steadily, strategically, and craftily, with the support of creative community and peers?
The question then shifts from “should art hurt?” to “when should art hurt, and how?”
And what do we do about it?
We’ll explore that in Part 2, next week.
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