Posted in Of Writingly

Of Art and Pain

Amy Winehouse

A while back, I had an exchange with a comedy writer, who disagreed with my contention that writing comes from pain. I didn’t exactly put it like that, but in response to his question, that dreaded one all writers have to face – “Why do you write?”, I said that I write when I am miserable, because I am miserable. Mind you, this was a highly subjective answer, representative of only an individual state of mind, and not of my attitude to writing as a whole. But, it hurt to be dismissed so decidedly.

But, if it’s okay for greats like Joni Mitchell, Amy Winehouse, Woman of the World Adele, my infrequent dream guest Robert Smith, I think I might be allowed to believe it. You might say, none of these people are real writers, I must turn to the greats to seek answers. Yes, but instead of turning to Aristotle or even Shakespeare, I choose contemporary greats because what they do is what resonates with the majority of the world today, with people who may not be all that fussed with a piece of high art in literature or painting, but can’t help empathising with Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black”. The thing is, art has a real and rooted relationship with pain. To paraphrase Robert Smith, you don’t make art when you are happy, because you are too busy being happy.

This is very different from confessional writing. I have written about the difference between truth and honesty in writing before, but the key idea is, you don’t need to make art about your misery directly when you are being miserable. Mind you, I am stripping the word “art” of all its grandiose connotations for the purpose of this essay, and of my career. To me, art is the individual effort to make something that might say something about you, but definitely attempts to speak some truth about humanity. I am an essayist, for Cher’s sake, and I call it making art.

This may be very culturally distinct, but I feel there are many artists who prefer to be in denial when it comes to pain. Mind you, I don’t enjoy it either, but I can’t deny it when it’s there. I have tried denial on occasion, but it usually turns into overcompensation. Say, you’ve hurt your foot. You have it all plastered up, you’re taking all your meds, but you choose to forget about it by watching your favourite TV show. And you just might, for the next 7 or 8 hours even, but that pain will come back to you once it’s over. Or add other pains to it, like eye strain, headaches, body cramps from sitting in the same position for too long etc.

And even if it isn’t a one-off like this, I’d ask you to keep a pain diary for a day, noting everytime you felt it, whatever for and in whichever manner. And, if you keep at that diary for a week, month, year, you might even have enough material for your art. I am a long-time diarist, and I’ve noticed on pain-moderation days, I’m particularly introspective. Pain-light and pain-heavy days, I hardly jot down a couple of lines, if at all. That’s why misery, i.e. pain-moderation, just breeds writing. You’re in just enough pain to contemplate anything, anything at all. And just strong enough to put it all down on computer, or chisel, or dance routine. I’d make a gross assumption and say, pain-moderation is the most frequent state of being, which is why it is possible to empathise with Adele no matter how many times “Hello” comes up in the atmosphere.

I’ve been rather facetious in writing this essay so far. I’d tried writing it in other moods, especially after watching the documentary on Amy Winehouse, Amy (2015), which I found deeply moving. I feel we, as a culture, have grossly behaved towards her life and music. I wasn’t even as aware of her music when it was contemporary, but all too annoyingly aware of whatever the media chose to highlight on any given day. I’d have preferred to listen to her more on a music programme than a news one (we got a very filtered-down, or perhaps, high-priority side to her celebrity here in India), because then it would have prevented me from unconsciously clubbing her with any other modern celebrity famous for something like stepping out of a club at 2 a.m. with a pumpkin on their head.

More than talking about our pain when making art, I really want to stress on our attitudes towards artists who make art out of their suffering, or are in suffering. Somewhere in our empathy (for their art would not have hit a note with us otherwise), we also feel obligated towards extreme forms of judgement and emotional voyeurism. There are many artists who write specifically of their pain not only to exorcise themselves of it, but because it encourages that public voyeurism, which in turn raises enough interest in media promotion. The media is the fish here as is the public, taking bait because something sensational comes readily on a plate. But, Amy Winehouse didn’t need any of that. There was already too much talent, too much emotional authenticity, to require cheap publicity. She is in a long line of people who may have tasted recognition and success, but weren’t rid of their propensity to derive emotional authenticity in their work through their life.

Just because I choose to make something when I am miserable, it doesn’t make my misery a commodity. That piece of art is a commodity, not my emotions. And it won’t even matter if it didn’t render true with some people, at least. And that is it, really. Truth. For which you have to include the entire range of human emotions, not the enterprisingly positive, pain-denial one that my comedy writer friend chose to emphasise. I don’t even like comedy that’s too happy. There have been studies , both scientific and humanist, that link comedy to the darker side of the emotional spectrum. And rightly so, for why would comedy be interesting, let alone funny, if it didn’t come from the things that we find painful? The key word is “we”, not the specific pain that the comedian faces, and what judgement we pass on him on the basis of it. To paraphrase that old great Shakespeare, all art holds up a mirror to nature. And nature, us, isn’t  altogether pretty. I’d like to believe it is beautiful none the less, but it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t so riddled with interesting cracks and ridges. That’s where the art is. In those cracks and ridges. In that pain.

Do you make art from your pain?



Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

17 thoughts on “Of Art and Pain

  1. I absolutely do. I find it harder to produce when I am not consumed by some kind of upset. Writing rants is how I deal with my opinions on things. Writing poetry is how I deal with my emotions.

    Lovely picture of Amy. I have always loved her voice and style and hated how she was overshadowed by her own demons.

    Another thought-provoking piece, my friend.

    1. I hated how she was in the papers everyday, but rarely if ever, just for her music. She clearly had her own issues, but I don’t understand why that had to be the butt of jokes for all talk show hosts, journalists etc. I think the only positive piece I read about her here before her death was in a fashion article, with a designer taking inspiration from her look. I definitely recommend that documentary on her, if you haven’t seen it already. Even if you choose to ignore all the people who were around her trying to defend themselves, there is enough footage of her that gives a much greater perspective on the wonderful woman and true artist that she was.

      1. I read a biography on her, though it was horribly biased because it was written by her father. I haven’t seen the film yet, but am looking forward to sitting down with a box of tissues and indulging soon. The media really enjoyed her problems, they sold a lot of magazines because of them. But in the end, her music, her art, will live on. She was quite timeless.

      2. I’ll definitely steer clear of anything her father and her ex-husband make about her. You will definitely need a box of tissues. I don’t even know her work that well, and I cried many times. And it stayed in my head for days. It is a very well-made documentary, focusing on every aspect of her life and work. I didn’t know much about her personality, but I ended up adoring her as I discovered it in the film. She also talks about her process in writing music and lyrics. Now that I have listened to more of her music, I agree that it is timeless and will live on.

  2. Stellar effort here again. You draw interesting conclusions here. I would not say that pain always has to make great art (in whatever form) because I think it can also come from joy and happiness as well. But towards the end of this piece you make an exceptionally good point about our attitudes to artists making art out of their suffering. Often I sit back and really try to come to grips with the pain the artist (which does not have to only be music) was feeling in the creation of a work. To understand how the emotions poured out. Art can be cathartic as everyone knows, and sometimes in the course of a work you can see the stages of the art come out. Or sometimes you hear how it is trapped within various vices that don’t go away. This morning I was listening to a Christmas present (a box set of many different artists on Stiff Records) and the Pogues came on. I went through my phase with them, and still like some of it, but I had to stop listening to newer music by Shane MacGowan because on some level I could not bear to hear the struggle that is his life anymore. And that is not bound by whatever tabloid article there is about him, but more about the personal pain he continues to live in. By his own account he has not been sober since he was a kid. It makes me feel uncomfortable and almost as if I am enabling him. Yet, and oh yet….the man writes some brilliant lyrics.

    As to your question, I would say as a photographer there is no element of ‘pain’ present, but I have explored it in some of my blogs and will continue to let it escape. I wrote a very early blog about some of the loneliness I felt and in one of my biography series I wrote about the worst time in my life, and there was a lot of emotional pain I got out on the screen. Great post as always.

    1. That really was my agenda, but I felt I needed to personalise it a little as well. I have to go through “serious” criticisms of artists on a regular basis and what annoys me is the amount of speculation made about their life in connection to their work. For example, all the conclusions formed about Shakespeare’s work because of his speculative sexuality, or Jane Austen’s because she was unmarried. Biography is different from artistic production, and only the artist could ever tell where the twain met.

      I have a friend who refuses to even read or watch interviews because she wants to concern herself only with the art. I admire that. I definitely feel the need to know more about an artist, preferably in their own words. But, I try very hard not to let it influence my perception of the art, even if it is confessional art. I personally feel it takes something away from the art, though many feel it enhances it. Ultimately, to each his own.

      1. I understand the need to personalize it here in this piece. I too like to know more about the artist on some level, but I can distance myself from it as well, and what your friend does is admirable. Especially because I think a lot of artists would only prefer to be known by the work itself. As in you want to know what I was feeling with this play/painting/song…or throughout a certain time frame? The answer is right there in the work. That is the type of thing I think most artists wish they had to deal with, but instead it becomes more of the tabloid stuff, or maybe almost as bad, total indifference.

      2. I think many would prefer total indifference to gossip. I feel that’s the way with many underrated artists. Not because what they do is different and more intelligent than what’s top of the charts. But, because they are afraid of the kind of attention fame would bring. There are so many people I admire, whose interviews I actively gorge on. But they rarely get to talk about their work, their process on a technical level. I really don’t care about listening to what the world makes of it, which is what interviewers usually ask. I want to know what inspired the artist, how he went about it etc. And there is too little of that.

      3. Totally agree with that assessment. The other thing I strongly dislike is when someone well established, with a career of 20 or more years has to deal with an interviewer asking about everything from the past rather than what they are up to at the moment. It is a huge time waster for me. If they put a new spin on the questions that is okay, or ask them within context, I think it can be interesting. But that history is just that most of the time…history. I want to hear the creative process of what they have just worked on instead!

      4. Totally. There is a comedian named Simon Amstell who used to host music programmes like Pop World and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Because he wasn’t interested in music but was, bear with me, adorably sardonic all the time, he got some hilarious interviews with new as well as established artists. In fact, his interviews with Amy Winehouse are the only ones I can watch of her, even if he didn’t shy away from commenting on her media perception. He, sort of, dismantled the geeky, self-important aspects of music journalism, and any artist with a sense of humour about themselves actually enjoyed his ‘non-interviews’. If we can’t have interviewers asking intelligent questions, might as well have that!

      5. I also love musicians interviewing other musicians because they get to the heart of the matter and key in on the elements that are important. I’m not convinced Jools Holland is a great interviewer per se, but when he sits down at the piano and gets artists to relax it winds up being great. One of my favorites is a little piece he did with Jimmy Cliff. I learned more about the start of his career from that brief interview than anything I had seen by anyone else!

  3. It’s an interesting question, whether great writing only comes from pain. I can see how it often comes from pain. Anguish and problems are great motivators — the desire to alleviate pain, Or catharsis in expressing it. I think pain creates a great deal of introspection in searching — leading us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise. But I read something not too long ago where a great artist had created something while not in pain, so I guess that’s possible too. Just wish I could remember who it was.

    Personally, all of my writing is inspired by a desire to move away from a dominator world — which creates a lot of pain — and into a partnership world.

    1. I see it like that too, to some extent. I feel writing has for long been provocation, and for me it has to be accommodation. I personally don’t believe writing comes from pain alone. I touched on this in the essay, but it must be natural for art to be inspired by the entire spectrum of human emotion. I personally don’t look for solace or catharsis in art. I don’t want to be rid of the misery as much as understand it. Great art can perhaps come from true feeling and thinking, which can only arise from artists who are unafraid to explore what it is they feel.

  4. There’s this quote from Ann Sexton in Dani Shapiro’s “Still Writing”: “Pain engraves a deeper memory.” I didn’t realize how much of it I was carrying around (both pain and memory) until a few months ago when I was looking back at all the things I’d written (or rather, I attempted to note them all down, with short synopses, to see what I’d done so far in my practice) and I found so many recurring themes. Disability. Rejection. Broken hearts. Solitude. I look at my journals and wonder how come I struggle to remember happy times, but I write about this one slight over and over again.

    So yeah, I absolutely make art of my pain. There is no other way to exorcise it, really.

    1. That is so true, and I’ve read some research about memory and dwelling that points to that very fact. I have written down happy events in my diaries in the past, but unless I actually come across them in the present, I rarely remember them. On the other hand, experiences that are/were too painful to put down, keep coming back once there’s room for rumination. You can’t help it, that’s how inescapably unpredictable the human mind is. That’s not to say that making things out of your pain eases it in any way, but something worthwhile does come out of it.

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