“How many times have people used a pen or paintbrush because they couldn’t pull the trigger?” asked Virginia Woolf.
She herself struggled with bipolar disorder and periods of depression throughout her life, suffering the deaths of family members in her youth and grappling with mental illness into adulthood. Yet it was not Woolf’s sorrows that produced her seminal writings. It was not crisis, but a spirit and passion for literature that gave rise to her seminal writings; in her we see how a love for art eases the burden and lets one cope with life’s hardships.
In her memoir, Sketches of the Past, written shortly before her death, Woolf describes an “obsession” with her mother that only ceased upon the writing of To The Lighthouse, one of her most influential novels and a seminal work of modernist fiction. Woolf’s suffering therefore formed a part of herself and informed her writing, but it was her crisis that demanded the creative process of writing, not the other way round.
The trope of the tortured artist is nonetheless a loved one, frequently glorified for its tragedy and romance. Among the most well-known of such artists is Vincent Van Gogh, who embodies the very role.
Throughout his institutionalisation, the artist used painting as a remedy, but crisis hindered his art more than anything, rendering him unable to work and create while suffering from episodes of depression. Undoubtedly his pain shaped his art, but it did not necessarily make it ‘great’. What rendered it prolific was his fascination for life and nature. His struggle in creating is not to be seen in his personal difficulties, but in the struggle to make something out of suffering.
The emphasis that is placed on suffering undermines how life-affirming art can be. In The Life of Charlotte Brontë, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, the grim existences led by the Brontë sisters — their extensive losses and hardships — are all shown to have shaped their creative talents and writing abilities. The biography itself opens with a description of the graves of the Brontës, their difficulties thus defining their existences. In focusing on Charlotte Brontë’s sorrows, however, we fail to capture the daring, innovative, exhilarating spirit of her writing.
Interestingly, Charlotte Brontë’s bereavements did not in any way directly aid her artistic endeavours. Brontë, upon losing her brother and two sisters within a period of eight months, was unable to write and complete her novel Shirley. When she did resume it, for the purpose of managing her grief, Shirley received a quiet reception compared to Jane Eyre, and never garnered the same level of success. Brontë’s case shows us how trauma can actually stifle and mute artistic expression and achievement as opposed to heightening it.
The process of making art is not only therapy for the artist, but a steady undertaking, a controlled labour. Yet at the heart of the matter lies the question: what does art demand of us? I would propose that it is not suffering, but passion. It remains true that in crisis, the passion and emotions intrinsic to art are intensified. What advocates of the necessity of pain fail to see is that passion does not come from torment alone, but any intense feeling: whether that be joy, a love of life, beauty, and human connection. It is this passion for life that is essential to the creation of art.
Again, I find myself returning to Woolf’s quotation. More than anything, it is a declaration. She argues that if one must continue to live, one must continue to make. To say that crisis is essential to art is reductionist; it fails to grasp the sheer exhilaration and passion of making, a passion that is felt by every great artist.
Art demands empathy and the acknowledgement of feeling: a recognition of life’s beauty as well as its pain. And how much better are our lives for the fact that the great artists of history had the passion and the urgency to continue the process of creation, not because of but in the face of their sufferings?
Illustration by Lauren McAndrew