When Should Art Hurt And How? Pain in The Creative Process Part 2
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 ended Part 1 of this meditation on some cliff-hanging questions: If art must hurt at all, when should art hurt, and how? And what do we do about it?
In my experience, the constructive pains of art cluster around physicality, vulnerability, and sacrifice.
We art the arts with and through our bodies. On a practical level, art causes pain through physically demanding techniques that can wear us out, especially when we don’t pace ourselves. Most people don’t associate arts outside dance and acting with athleticism, but crafts like painting, sculpting, singing, and playing an instrument can lead to injury and burnout just as easily—if not quite as often or visibly—as sports or dance.
Invest some time and care into finding the right warmups and cool-downs for your media and your body. Invest time and care into finding the right pacing and routine. Listen to your body. Take frequent breaks. Stretch or shake it out periodically. Hydrate. Rest your eyes. Sleep.
You may benefit from a regular exercise routine, within your abilities, to maintain the strength needed to sit or stand for long sessions. Not everybody is able to exercise, and many of us need to find adaptive or low-impact routines. That’s fine! If you can work out at all, nerdiness and fitness are natural allies.
Seek medical advice as needed. Some crafts may require ergonomic aids longterm, especially if they have you standing or sitting still for long, or require repetitive motions. The right office chair and wrist rest, or a cushy mat under your feet at the easel can make a world of difference, especially for aging artists. For specifics, consult a doctor or physical therapist, and experts in your medium.
Many art materials are also toxic or otherwise hazardous, and must be managed carefully. (I say having made some overly cavalier decisions about fume exposure in poorly ventilated studios way back in my checkered past. Live fast and die young, lookin’ like a bad stock photo of an unapproachably painterly painter. That is the glam life! Or maybe let’s not get so jazzed about textures that we forget we have bodies…) It’s not uncommon for folx with chemical or sensory sensitivities to switch media altogether to avoid toxicities, and there’s no shame in making that change for yourself. You can still create amazing work.
Calisthenics, pacing, rest, ergonomics, and hazardous waste management may not be sexy, but they are foundational. If you want to keep arting for the long-haul, you’ll need to make peace with them.
If you live with any kind of chronic pain condition or physical disability, your creative process will likely involve ongoing pain management and injury-avoidance from the physical side of your crafts, even if your media are relatively gentle. I’m in this boat now, myself. (From genetics, not fumes lol.) Exact strategies vary widely by condition and person to person. That’s something to discuss with your doctor, and in support groups with others who share the same condition.
Ultimately, there is the pain of letting go of a beloved craft or medium, or of switching media at the physically-mandated end of a career. While this pain can run deep, and cause grief, it is fairly common. It happens eventually to almost every dancer, and more musicians and visual artists than you might think. Art is impermanent, and the time we have to work it tenuous and uncertain. It’s still worthwhile. It can help to know in advance that media and career changes are a normal part of the field, that they can’t always be prevented, and that many extraordinarily talented artists have to navigate them at least once in a lifetime.
Let’s round out our sportsless injuries with some good, old-fashioned emotional pain!
The discipline it takes to show up regularly for an artistic practice is painful when the artist’s ego is fragile. It doesn’t have to hurt, but it will if we don’t actively study and practice resilience, work ethic, work balance, openness, and acceptance.
I’m speaking of ego colloquially here, rather than clinically. Ego can mean many things, and some of those things are good. It’s great to have a strong sense of self! To learn a craft, however, we have to quiet the stubborn or problematic aspects of ego—any craving to be seen in an exclusively positive or impressive light—because it’s impossible to get good if you can’t confront your mistakes and shortcomings. (If only ego discipline within craft automatically transferred to ego discipline in all aspects of being! Artists can get very good technically, and stay supremely dickish in personality, alas.)
We face different kinds of vulnerability in art. Accepting criticism from self, from teachers, from peers, and from audience are all different challenges. Generally, those who can’t entertain criticism from themselves and teachers don’t tend to get as skilled. Those who can’t weather criticism from audience, peers, and critics don’t tend to have as much longevity in public markets as those who can learn when to hear it and when to tune it out.
Navigating criticism can be very uncomfortable, and downright painful to anyone unacclimated. When criticism is constructive, we can liken the pain of acclimation to the beneficial aches and pains of building muscle through working out. You know why the pain is there and what it’s for. it hurts noticeably, but not unbearably—not to the point that you can’t get up and move. You get used to it the more you engage with it, and you learn how to listen to it and work through it. Eventually, you take it as a sign of progress, and you may even come to appreciate it in association with good longterm outcomes. Fragility is learned, and it can be unlearned too.
Unfortunately, many artists also encounter destructive criticism, bullying, or even abuse around our crafts from time to time. If criticism involves insults, personal attacks about things you can’t change, abusive language like screaming or slurs, humiliation or repeated put-downs, discouragement from learning, or clever language designed to make the critic look good by taking you down a notch, it’s destructive criticism. Criticism should aim to help you improve, and may feel uncomfortable or unflattering, even embarrassing on the short term if you were expecting different feedback. That’s normal. Criticism should not try to tear you down, shame you, or divorce you from a pursuit you love. If it’s Simon Cowl-y, it’s dodgy.
Malicious feedback is not rare in our culture, but that doesn’t make it right. It’s far more telling of the critic’s character and insecurities than the artist’s potential. The pains of intentionally harmful criticism are not constructive. We could liken them to the pains of injury, and they may require some degree of healing, processing, and rest to recover. If malice can’t be avoided entirely, it’s best to transcend it without entertaining it. Easier said than done! This may involve putting relationships or platforms on pause for a while, turning off comments, choosing not to read or engage with reviews, or choosing not to share your art with certain people. (Remember that not all criticism is meant for the artist at all, if you're arting in public. When I talk about destructive criticism here, I'm talking about criticism intended directly for the artist's ear, and not things like movie reviews meant for an audience trying to decide what to watch, or casually roasting media between friends.)
The pain of destructive criticism and abuse is not intrinsically necessary to the art process. It derives from society’s shortcomings and others’ poor behavior, not from art itself. But it’s so common that learning to cope and move on from it is, as yet, necessary for most artists.
Art does require sacrifice, not necessarily of sanity or physical health, but always of time, energy, and discipline. Given the finite nature of time in life, labor and attention are significant sacrifices and offerings.
Many art forms are also expensive, and require the sacrifice of material resources, or of extra labor elsewhere to support your passions materially. When resources are scarce, we have to make do with what we have, and forced resourcefulness can be incredibly frustrating. There is pain in wondering what you’d be capable of if only you had more time, more help, or access to better materials or equipment. But there is joy, and the genius of invention, in pushing your capabilities to their limits within what you do have to work with.
Placing your resources on your craft can mean taking them away from some other area of life. Choosing to pursue art with any dedication very often means choosing not to pursue something else valuable or beloved, and that stings. Sometimes it stings chronically.
This goes doubly for anyone whose art wires are crossed with their mystic wires. Here, it’s not that art is predatory, so much as that mysticism breaks you down and rebuilds you over and over, and we experience that unmaking process as painful by default from within our critter suits. If you Mystery and you Art, well, art makes a powerful vehicle for the process of symbolic death and decomposition within life. If you’ve a mystical streak or a visionary aspect to your art, it may help you to study some basic grounding, protection, and healing practices within whatever spiritual or occult channel most appeals and makes sense to you.
The willingness to weather any of the above discomforts in order to create something that wasn’t before, is a form of sacrifice and transmutation in itself. Let it be a balanced one.
Contrast the genuine pains of art and craft to the dominant culture’s mythology of creative suffering:
Your process says to expect some wear and tear, and pace your self to better manage risk of injury. The mythology says to work around the clock, stop sleeping, and starve for your art.
Your process says to grieve as needed then adapt around career changes if you do run into injury or burnout. The mythology says to do one thing obsessively until you die, and if you can’t keep doing that thing, get yourself a way to die faster.
Your process says to use the discomfort of constructive criticism to check your ego, improve your craft, and work well with others. The mythology says to cultivate a perpetual state of anguish, alienation, and grief, so you can pour it into the work.
Your process says to set boundaries to limit or transcend your exposure to destructive criticism. The mythology says nobody understands you but your muse.
Your process says your finite time and labor are worthy sacrifices to create something beautiful and true. The mythology says to throw your entire body mind and soul into your work, burn bright, burn fast, and die young so your work can live forever.
Your process says be resilient, and create something spectacular. The mythology says be a spectacle, and create something familiar.
We absolutely need to stop equating art with suffering and mental illness, and stop glamorizing illness, addiction, depression, and burnout for the sake of art.
We need to do this while leaving space for people with physical or mental illness, addiction, and other challenges to shine as the excellent artists so many are, without holding up the worst of their suffering as representative of the whole field.
We can do that. We can celebrate diversity of mind and experience in the arts without making templates and standards of personal tragedies. We can respect the complexity of artists’ biographies without reducing anyone’s life and works to the most sorrowful or sensationalizable slice of their identity.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge that life itself involves pain and danger. Anything we care deeply about, anything we lend a good chunk of our lives to, will channel pain and risk to us in its ways.
Above all remember:
Just because a thing may be dangerous, doesn’t mean it’s an active threat to you now.
Just because you’re handling a thing well now, doesn’t mean it can’t become dangerous in time.
Just because a thing is wondrous and joyful, doesn’t mean it won’t have its trying, frustrating, and painful moments.
Just because you’re in a moment of frustration and pain, doesn’t mean you can’t get back to the wondrous and joyful side of the thing again.
Art hurts a least a little a lot of the time. There’s no evading vulnerability and dissatisfaction. But it oughtn’t hurt always, and it oughtn’t devour you whole.
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