Monday, November 23, 2009

The "Suffering Artist" Idea Points to a Truth About Persons

Some artists, it seems, perhaps especially those who are young, have a tendency to wish for some sort of suffering to accompany their life as an artist. The idea of the "starving artist," enduring some sort of pain or inner turmoil (misunderstood, before his time, etc.) is a figure that holds a sort of romantic attraction. And perhaps it is not so much true suffering, but to be seen as suffering (for one's art), that holds an attraction for some artists.

Isolation of a sort goes along with this. The gifted artist lives in his own special world enduring a unique pain for the sake of his art. Or, at least, so goes this romanticized idea.

To the extent that some artists have a yearning for something like this (and I don't claim that many artists do; but, there is at least an image of the young artist in pop culture music and movies that inclines in this direction), their yearning is misguided. But is it completely so? Is the notion of the tormented artist (the more gifted, the more tormented) rooted in some sort of authentic truth about the human condition? I would say, yes.

Before expanding on this answer, first, I want to acknowledge that seeking after suffering for suffering's sake is wrong. Artificially bringing pain into one's life does not enhance one's humanity, but degrades it (and I am not referring here to the Christian understanding of voluntary penance, which is not the same as what I am referring to here). And this is where an artist who sabotages his life, somehow artificially adding to or bringing new sufferings into his life, goes seriously wrong. Nonetheless, his instinct is not entirely out of whack.

How so? The answer lies in a particularly Christian understanding of human suffering. Specifically, an understanding of suffering as found in the works of Max Scheler and John Paul II [and here I thank Peter Colosi and his article "John Paul II and Max Scheler on the Meaning of Suffering," published in the journal Logos, 12:3, summer 2009, for enlightening me about this.] In the experience of real suffering (note: not artificially enhanced suffering, but genuine suffering that comes into one's life independent from one's yearning), there is a potential (not necessarily always realized) for the heart to become bigger--for the spiritual center of the human person to become better able to enter into the heart of others who also suffer. In other words, the suffering person can, through his pain, become in turn a more compassionate human being in the way that he loves others. Peter Colosi put it this way, "the link between suffering and love is not merely that they can occur simultaneously, but that to an extent they depend on each other." (p. 21)

For a fuller explanation, please see Dr. Colosi's article. But for my purposes here I simply want to point out that there could be some glimmer of truth about persons hidden behind the twisted yearning that an artist might have for a life touched by suffering to the extent that he would go so far as to bring about circumstances that promise to enhance his suffering. Though he goes about it in a misguided way (i.e. by seeking suffering so that his suffering is in a sense artificial), such an artist intuits something true--that suffering (authentic suffering) has a mysterious potential to increase and enhance the powers of love in the human soul.

Why would an artist want this? Artists are about seeking a communion, a melding of hearts. They want their audience to be able to enter into their vision--to experience the world if only for a moment through their interior, spiritual eyes. They want to communicate something meaningful, something stirring, something worthwhile. And they know through a kind of intuition that somehow, suffering holds at least a mysterious potential to make them, as artists, better able to enter into what they seek to find and to communicate to other human hearts. A heart tempered by the flame of suffering is a heart that might have gained a greater vision into the the most gripping and poignant realities of life. And such a heart might then more effectively communicate and interpret these things to others through art.

Please note, I am in no way implying in this post that the greater the suffering, the greater the artist. It is not a quantitative, direct correlation. Every soul is unique. And again, I would stress that artificially creating suffering in one's life is not the way to achieve an enhanced spiritual vision. But, I do want to make an observation that perhaps the somewhat hidden desire for strife that some artists may have is connected to the truth observed by JPII and Scheler and brought to my awareness by Dr. Colosi, that unsought-for, genuine suffering, handled rightly and with the transforming balm of divine grace alive in the soul, can open up the heart to a deeper capacity to see, understand, and love other persons in all their human splendor. And this in turn can help artistically gifted persons become better artists as they become truer seers and deeper lovers of fellow human souls.

The path for Christian artists into this greater depth of vision and love is not by seeking pain as an end in itself, but through turning to the cross of Christ in the experience of whatever suffering comes into one's life, being open to and embracing grace in the midst of pain. Taking on the heart of Christ, uniting with Him on the cross, by His grace, in whatever crosses we are permitted to suffer--this is how our hearts are expanded and our spiritual vision deepened. And it is a mysterious intuition into this bittersweet reality which it seems to me lies behind any twisted desire of artists to artificially bring pain into their lives.

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