Friday, February 07, 2014

Art and Suffering

It is said that artists suffer, perhaps more than others, or perhaps just in a particular way, but that suffering is, in any case, central to their work. In fact, if we were to meet a Wall Street banker who suffered in that same way for her job, we'd be likely to describe her as an artist.

An artist is, crucially, someone who tries to accommodate the world to his suffering. Not the other way round. The artist tries to present a particular moment of private suffering and "make it work" publicly, so that he may henceforth, I suppose, live in the world without that particular species of shame.

One problem with "the arts", i.e., the institution of art, is that is offers "blanket" accommodation to the suffering artist. It says that as long as you are willing to be known, universally, as "an artist" you don't have to be ashamed of your particular moment of suffering. Instead of being frightened of or confused about your behavior, let them understand you in perfectly conventional terms. "Oh, don't worry about her. She's an artist!"

("…and a good one, too," they'll add for extra comfort.)

But the whole point of art is to find a way to accommodate what has hitherto been incommodious. The troubadour, to take a simple example, needed to find a way to accommodate his desire for an unattainable lady. He produces a "great" poem if he finds a way to accommodate a general passion, i.e., if the problem of desire for unattainable ladies is widespread. Naturally, the attainability [and desirability] of ladies is not determined by the ladies themselves alone. It can be considered a social problem, sometimes a problem for the squires, but sometimes certainly a problem for the ladies. Sometimes because the ladies are not attainable enough, and sometimes because they are too attainable[, sometimes not desirable enough, sometimes too desirable]. I'm speaking here of the sorts of "advances" that are allowed and disallowed [and sometimes demanded] in the culture. The system by which shame is assigned to particular kinds of approaches and gestures.

A fair amount of good and bad poetry has come of out this complex of issues. It is, to my mind, the basic issue of the arts. The artist has a feeling and the feeling is, culturally, inexpressible. It may be outright suppressed, or it may just be baffling to the masses. In any case, the artist suffers. And the work of art results as an attempt to accommodate the suffering.

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