by Al Kennedy
Suffering. Now there’s an artistic word. Or so you’d think.
I have been doing my best to avoid suffering.
I have been trying to write for at least a quarter of a century, and I can say very firmly that in my experience, suffering is largely of no bloody use to anyone, and definitely not a prerequisite for creation. If an artist has managed to take something appalling and make it into art, that’s because the artist is an artist, not because something appalling is naturally art.
Just try kicking your bare foot really hard against the nearest wall. In your own time – I can wait … And now tell me how creative you feel. Just bloody sore and mind-fillingly distracting, isn’t it?
I mention this because I was recently in the company of a film producer. (I know, that doesn’t bode well for the avoidance of suffering.) We had no professional relationship at all, so he was simply chatting about life and art in the way that I find people genuinely involved with either never do. And as I quietly clenched my teeth more and more tightly against the rim of my coffee cup, the producer told me all about how necessary it was that creative people of every type should have as awful a time as possible.
You would have been proud of me – I didn’t punch him even once. Because it is wrong to punch people. It makes them suffer and suffering isn’t nice.
To his way of thinking, comfort and success are poison, the Stones never did anything good after they’d got money, Van Gogh prospered because of mental distress, obscurity and ear mutilation and, actually …
The producer hadn’t got any other examples, but he was convinced: if you weren’t hurting, you couldn’t be working. He is not alone in his beliefs. TV and film representations of real and fictional artists always go heavy on the torment. Press coverage of the arts is never more enthusiastic than when it has managed to ferret out a “battle with demons”, or at least a suicide attempt. This is partly because of the media’s steadfast assumption that the arts aren’t interesting – hence all those galleries, concerts, songs, poems, novels, cartoon strips, museums and T-shirt designs. Doom is apparently fascinating: all of us can recall how much we’ve enjoyed spending time with people who are heartbroken and/or depressed, finding them stimulating, generous and emotionally supportive by turns. Assuming that making a sculpture would be assisted by despair or hunger in a way that, say, plumbing wouldn’t be is absurd and insulting. There’s no reason to believe a plumber might be less sensitive than a pianist, or that someone who you’re assuming is more than averagely sensitive couldn’t be broken into sand and teeth by grief. It’s simply cruel to assume that any human being will somehow benefit from punishment. And the cultural white noise that links having a job in the arts to the threat of punishment cuts the arts off from people who could enjoy them, or produce them.
If we follow this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion, we are about to encounter a tsunami of art from pensioners. They will be inspired by living below the poverty line and dying during cold winters. That, or their rage at having, perhaps, been part of the generation who saved the country from Nazism and created the welfare state, only to be screwed over when they’re at their most vulnerable by a parliament filled with self-obsessed looters. Maybe they’ll even have illnesses: arthritis, or the risk of a nasty fall. The producer’s merrily sociopathic thinking could, if we allowed it, imply that if CS Lewis was productively devastated by his wife’s death, or Eric Clapton by the loss of his son, or Britten did well after his mother died, then bereavement (the closer the better) should guarantee a thriving career. I’m a writer and greatly admire both Chekhov and Robert Louis Stevenson – maybe I should try to contract TB. That would, of course, be insane – at which point we have to deal with the cliche that a spot of mental illness is supposed to be a good thing if you fancy knocking off a poem, or a tune everybody can hum.
The myth of the suffering artist is part of the wider myth that sinking into abjection will somehow cleanse and elevate the poor and/or unconventional, eventually leading them on to glory. Those who are not led on to glory will be unworthy and deserve to fail. Economic Darwinism will crush them as they should be crushed. This kind of pressure can’t, naturally, be applied to nice people David Cameron might meet at parties or have gone to school with, because they would find it unpleasant. And might be crushed. This kind of thinking divides human beings into categories, as more and less human. Art almost inevitably does the reverse – hence, I have to assume, the established insistence on extra-special suffering, just for artists. Because suffering keeps artists quiet, just as it can weaken and muffle anyone else.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, artists have access to a creative way of life that can sustain them through dark times. They have used, and will use, their crafts to transform what they can of life’s pain and loss and fear into something communicative and alive. This can be a generous and lovely thing for all concerned and can produce healing, as can anyone’s triumph over adversity. It doesn’t mean anyone needs to be rendered abject – by others, or themselves.
The rather more personal problem I have with the myth of the suffering artist arises when I meet young and new writers and find they are intent upon suffering, rather than writing. It can seem that wearing black, moping, engineering car-crash relationships and generally being someone nobody wants to sit beside on the bus could be a shortcut to writing success. Surely, when so many writers seem bathed in fascinating disasters and have such wonderful scars, then scars and disasters would save us effort, focus and the development of our craft? Well, no. In fact, without effort, focus and development, we won’t have the skills to present even rosy sunsets and charmingly eccentric families with saleable adventures to the waiting reader, never mind the kind of stuff that wracks the soul and is personal and precious and must be handled with care and precision and respect.
Apart from anything else, I hate to see people being unhappy, and people being self-inflictedly unhappy is doubly sad. A writer being purposely unhappy when writing provides such a glorious and unpredictably rewarding path through life … well, that’s borderline criminal. If the budding writer just settled down and wrote, then he or she would become more and more who they are happy being, and might make things other people can like and feel happy about, too. Better still, the sheer effort of getting better, of pushing sentences to shine brighter, of fumbling about in the dark of half-formed ideas and feeling foolish and lonely and scared – that’s more than enough suffering to be going on with. And, even better than that, when you’ve taken your exercise for the day, you’ll feel great. You’ll be tired, but you’ll have dignity. You tried your best and maybe learned something and if not today, then tomorrow – who knows how good you might get. Onwards.
Al Kennedy is a novelist and writes for The Guardian.