There are many things that inspire us to create art. Often, they’re positive and happy things, rooted in wonderment and amazement at the world we live in. However, there are darker motivations, rooted in sadness, pain and frustration. These motivations often produce emotionally affective art, but at what cost to the artist?
I’ve found that there are particular thoughts or subject matters that I find it extremely hard to incorporate into my writing, my song writing, my painting and other forms of artistic expression. It’s not that I don’t feel those emotions strongly enough; it’s that I felt them so keenly at the time and bringing them back to mind feels almost as bad as experiencing them did, the first time around.
In order to create art inspired by these painful memories, I find I must inevitably suffer through them once more, for the duration of the creation phase and forever thereafter, whenever I regard that art. It becomes a constant reminder of feelings I would rather never have felt in the first place. When faced with such feelings, I procrastinate and avoid creating. I find it hard to go there. Maybe that’s what so many people mistakenly call “not being in a creative mood” or “a creative block”. We just can’t face the pain again.
This introduces a bias into my art. I find it easier to express joy and gratitude in my paintings than I do to express betrayal, indignity, injustice, sadness, loss, loneliness, shame, fear or disgust. However, I still find it necessary to portray these darker emotions, as hard as it may be to do so. I will explain why in a short while.
Recent research at Purdue University discovered that social or emotional pain is as real and intense as physical pain. The same neural pathways and networks are activated when a person experiences physical injury as when they go through a painful, traumatic, emotional experience. It turns out that your brain cannot distinguish between physical and emotional pain very easily.
While both physical and emotional pain can hurt very much at the time they occur, the social kind has the unique ability to linger and come back over and over again. Physical pain, on the other hand, lingers only as awareness that it was at one time painful. Think what that means. When we hurt somebody emotionally, it may very well be the equivalent of a violent physical assault, as if we had broken one of their bones, as far as their brain is concerned. This is why we should be careful to develop empathy towards others and to be mindful of the emotional harm we can sometimes thoughtlessly inflict.
So that means something significant – by recalling the painful, emotional experience, so that it can inspire our art, we can feel much worse, for longer, forever, than if we had simply hurt ourselves physically. Why do artists put themselves through it? How masochistic can you get?
Catharsis is perhaps the reason. Art can actually liberate you from your pain, in a manner akin to grieving. A poem, short story, song or a painting that depicts and accurately portrays what you are feeling and going through can help you to let it go. Yes it hurts, but by giving the pain some form of expression, you can download it from your own brain, to some extent, and park it in the artwork. The process of doing this may be excruciating, but it’s a way of letting you find a relief valve from the pain that builds up, if never vented. It’s a little like imprisoning the source of your pain in some form of physical confinement – i.e. the artwork you created.
Think, too, how your art may free somebody else, experiencing similar pain. There is great comfort in knowing that others have felt this pain too and survived it. We’re not alone. It will pass. It’s why people love the blues. It’s why the suffering of Van Gogh is so compelling to us, as a story. Music that evocatively tells of an emotional hurt, experienced sharply, finds a ready audience of people that have been there too. We all embrace, however distant physically, in the shared experience and appreciation of the song. We rejoice.
So, as painful as it might be, perhaps the reason that artists feel compelled to deal with disturbing, painful subject matter to create their art, facing it with courage and heart, experiencing it anew as they bring their work to life, is to release themselves from its grip and to release others feeling the same thing. None of us can rewrite our past, but how we interpret it and how we choose to let it affect our futures is up to us. We can either remain subject to the inevitable reminders of emotional pain, which recur frequently and hurt as much as they always did, or we can use our facility, as artists, to conquer, control and effectively eliminate the source of the pain, from our own hearts and from the hearts of the world. Beauty can conquer pain.
In that small way, isn’t the world a slightly better place because artists are willing to re-live their pain, to create resonant, emotive and powerful works of art? I think so.