Deconstructing the Myth: You Do NOT Have To Suffer To Be A 'True Artist'

My son, four-years-old at the time and sitting next to me with a sticky juice box in hand, offhandedly asked, "Mom, are you an artist?" Surprised by the question from a boy whose typical discourse involved Duplos, Matchbox cars, and the Rugrats, I smiled and answered, 'Yes, sweetheart, I am." He looked over with shy admiration and declared, "You're so bwave."

Beyond the Elmer Fuddian dialect that never failed to slay me, his comment pricked tears because, regardless of what inspired either the question or the response (he had nothing more to add when prodded), he was right: it does take courage to be an artist. What it doesn't take? Or, perhaps, more accurately: what is not required, is suffering.

It's a hoary meme, suffering for one's art, one that's likely been bandied since the onset of man + art, conjuring images of sweat-drenched cave painters, bloodletting Roman sculptors; emaciated Frenchmen in grubby garrets fighting off scurvy to complete their latest masterpiece. There are slews of celebrated suicidal poets, iconic authors awash in clinical depression; famed dancers beset by eating disorders, drug-addled musicians, and brilliant comic minds battered by addiction and self-loathing. And from this wealth of damaged artistic souls, the myth emerged: that true art demands such torture, inspires such laments; that those talented enough to wear the mantle of true artist are inevitably destined to suffer, to angst, to be eternally roiled and ennuied.


I am not impugning the greatness of the many great artists who were/are inflicted by any of this litany of miseries. Nor am I suggesting that suffering prevents one from being a true artist (though with some it certainly can). What I'm saying is there is no linkage. No equation. No cause and effect. They are simply two different things: art and human affliction. There's no + with a desired = to follow. They do not go together like a horse and carriage. They do not go together at all.

As for artists who are depressed, suicidal, addicted, troubled, and sick, the question must be asked: Would they suffer so even if they weren't artistic; if they were doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, or plumbers? I suspect so. Yet we don't automatically assign "suffering" as a prerequisite to any of those other professions.

Frankly, subscribing to the "suffering theory" can be detrimental to one's health: believing it is natural, expected, inevitable for an artist to endure the Sturm und Drang of creative malaise sets one up to wear suffering like a mantle, a red badge of courage. It suggests artistic agony is romantic. It might even give one franchise to "act out" in deference to the dictum, to allow oneself to crash-and-burn as a matter of presumed destiny. As a self-destructive painter once said to me after nearly drinking himself to death, "I'm an artist, it's what we do."

I'm attuned to this at the moment because just this week I was inundated by a series of articles pushing the myth, offering impassioned treatises, provocative quotes, sighs of resignation from various artists, old and new, living and dead, in support of the "suffer theory." And, as is often the case, these quotes and essays were presented with breathless aggrandizement earned by virtue of the quotee's celebrity, success, or agree-upon excellence. These folks know, therefore this theory must have merit.

What these folks know is their own singular experience. Their individual states of being and how it all goes—or went—with their unique participation in the arts, their chosen allegiance to the "suffer theory" as they found it applicable to them. Their mistake, I'd posit, is in assuming it applies to everyone and, with the power of their celebrityhood, turning it into belief.

For example:

“No artist is pleased... no satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” ~ Martha Graham, choreographer

What I'd suggest is that Martha felt that way, then made a declaration about it, which then became a mantra for those who celebrate her.

But, all due respect to the great Martha Graham, I beg to differ. Many artists, myself included, have found satisfaction in the creation and communication of their art, the outside enjoyment of what they created; the success—minimal or grand—that offered enough encouragement to carry on.

I would argue that it is not "blessed unrest" or "divine dissatisfaction" that enlivens an artist, keeps them creating, drives them to accomplish profound work. It's not madness, despair, or angst that compels true artistry. It's the relentless, compelling, burning desire to create; to get out on paper, on canvas; on stage, through instruments and voice; that idea, that image, that sound that demands conception, that tickles nerves and brain and synapses so thoroughly one can't sleep for needing to express it.

That's not suffering. That's the exhilaration of artistic inspiration.

But even the great writer e.e. cummings, in critique of artistic academia, pushed the suffering conceit in the aptly titled article, The Agony of the Artist (with a capital A)

"... being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A."

In e.e.'s estimation, it's not just any artistic suffering, it's the kind of agony that alchemizes a lower case artist into one "with a capital A." What a siren song that must be for the tender, gullible spirit seeking artistic guidance!

Rinse and repeat my response to Martha.

But if you thought the notion belonged only to philosophers of yore, you'd be mistaken. Another article this past week referenced a young, contemporary writer who asserts in Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing the following:

"Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied."

Never? Ever?

Zadie had other, more useful, items within her "rules of writing" (though such lists are anathema to me, given my subversive view that there are NO rules to writing), but still I'd repeat my Martha response to her last "rule." Instructing writers to resign themselves to "the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied" is, to me, a disservice. As with Martha, I'd guess that is Zadie's view as it applies to her. For you? I'd encourage you to reject it wholesale; embrace the "heresy" that you can, should, ought to feel joy, find satisfaction, revel in accomplishment, even fall in love with your own work as you artistically evolve. That is your right as an artist; the other is an assigned burden of no particular value.

As a take-away to all this, let me reference back to my son's statement: While agony and suffering are not prerequisites to artistry, courage is. Because art—expressing art, pursuing art, doing art—is as close to a person's entity as skin and bones and heart and soul. It's not a thing "out there" to be learned at the hands of professors, teachers, mentors, and skilled practitioners. Beyond technique (which can be learned), art—at its most creative, bold, individualistic, daring, experimental, and innovative— is innate, intrinsic, endemic to an artist's being, the essence of who they are, not just what they do, and in that it becomes deeply, profoundly, elementally unique to that person. It becomes Personal, with a capital P (to borrow from e.e. cummings!).

To be vulnerable and intimate enough to make personal art, then make public that art, exposing it to the potential of rejection, misinterpretation, critique, insults, and painful, hurtful, soul-scraping judgment takes courage. To get up after each onslaught to continue tapping into one's soul to access what bubbles within takes courage. Honoring your muse by not ignoring or discarding your talent takes courage.

Courage is not suffering. One is necessary, the other is not. As I've chosen to be courageous enough to be frequently satisfied, occasionally pleased; persistently enlivened, relentlessly creative, selectively frustrated, mildly self-effacing, but always, indefatigably artistic without suffering, I hope you will too. It's far less exhausting on body and soul... which only leaves room for more creativity.

Photo by Lucas Lenzi on Unsplash
Dancer In a Red Dress & Joy of Song by LDW


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