Tales of Despair: The Suffering of Artists

This is a slightly different take on Tales of Despair this week; rather than focusing on a particular artist, I want to address the nature of despair and depression in art – why is it that darkness forms such a large part of the things we create? What is it that drives the most wonderful among us to the brink of despair?

There was once a young boy who grew up in an idyllic family environment; a boy who enjoyed life and love to paint and draw. And then, when he was only seven years old, his parents divorced. No one spoke to him about it. No one asked him how he felt. His father promised not to remarry, and did. He had another child, and the boy felt replaced. His mother remarried, and was beaten, and abused, and hospitalized. The boy watched each time. The adults, they didn’t see him. They didn’t care.

He continued to draw, and to paint. His work grew dark. He learned to play, and his music was dark. He took drugs, and it took his mind away, and relived the pain for a short moment.

And when he left his home, he avoided people; he made few friends, and they shared his misery. Some of them played too, and they began to play together. Out of the depths of depression, the music they made lifted him; he wrote about his pain, and he sang it to the world. And the world – they drank it deeply, and said he was a great artist. They said he was the voice of a generation; they said he would change the world.

And he didn’t care for what they said. Each word of praise demeaned his writing, abused his art. His music hated the world, and they were too dumb to see it. And he lost the joy his music brought him, and he began to despair. He sank, and was consumed by the black, and knew the world, for him, was ended. One April day, he locked himself away, and killed himself.

He was twenty-seven, and his name was Kurt.

His death was untimely, and it is accepted as a tragedy. Yet it is a tale that is told, over and over again, throughout history and the world of creators.

We suffer, we despair, and the rest of the world asks, why? Of course, the rest of us understand it all too well; insight grants us the pain of doubt, the fear of rejection, the knowledge that all goodness comes to an end.

Yet, why is it that so many of us, so many of those who create, are so afflicted? Hands up if your are a happy artist. In this imaginary crowd, you may well be in the minority. Is it intrinsic, or wrought by outside influence? Do we create because we despair, or do we despair of our creations?

Perhaps it is some of both. When I write, I am lifted, as Kurt was, to a higher plane, a place where words and music float and flow, and the terrible visions in my mind find their way to paper and into sound in the air, and I am relieved of their pain. But when I come down, I look upon my creations, and I am filled with loathing: they are ignorant, they are plagiarism, they lack all subtlety, and are but a poor shadow of the great.

Perhaps the need to create is driven by the hopeless desire to express the inexpressible – how could anyone understand the absolute certainty that the things we create, that bring such value to so many, are inherently worthless? How could anyone understand what it’s like to be consumed by blackness, until your very vision is tinted and the world turns to grey? There are no words, no colors, no sounds that can explain how no bodily wound can equal the agony of a mind turned upon itself.

And yet we persist, we continue to try. We paint with blacks and reds; we write with heavy words that drag down the soul; we play in minor keys and descending notes, recreating the descent into the final, endless darkness.

And eventually, we may join the Kurts, the Vincents, the Ernests and the Sylvias and Virginias; and how could anyone understand the comfort of knowing that, in a world that is chaos and destruction and uncontrollable evil, we have at least the power to bring about our own ending.

We are doomed to create, and doomed to suffer; may we be at least also be doomed to see the beauty in the work of our fellow creators, if never in our own.

19 thoughts on “Tales of Despair: The Suffering of Artists

  1. I very much understand what you are saying in this post and I happen to agree with on all points but one, and well because of my bond with you i can not in good grace, tell you, the points all are very valid and are very true, but man one of these things is not like the other, a nursery rhyme from Sesame Street. You seem to have a very old soul and see depth in many things that I probably would not and without your insight into them I may never see the other side of the story or look at something from a different view, for this I am grateful to you and I have told you that before.
    Art is darkness defined and music made, to speak to others in the solitude of our own voices, the despair of the blackness surrounds us like slime from a pit, if only to use art and music, to help others see the misery in me.

    • Thank you! If you would like to tell what you don’t agree with, please do – I’m open to any thoughts! It’s interesting you bring up Sesame Street; something I’ve touched on before I think is that even our most celebrated comedians and entertainers have struggled with mental illness themselves. It doesn’t in any way demean their contributions to this world.

      • See look at you, you are a font of knowledge, i swear you do to me what my old Shaman friend did, he always kept me thinking. I will still keep my thoughts on this for my own counsel, perhaps i will follow up with a responding post and link it to yours???

    • Thank you for the kind words! Lately I’ve actually been fine with my own creations, but I can’t deny the preponderance of depressed artists.

      Having said that, there are probably just as many depressed non-artists. Heck of a world we live in, isn’t it?

  2. Dear Satis,
    I understand what you are saying, and it is true – great art has been created from the depths of despair.
    However, in my own experience, when that black cloud descends upon me, I lose all creativity – as in the last few days. I lose my words, I lose my colorful eye, I lose my sense of awe for the world and its beauty.
    It is only when I see these things returning to me, when I can pick up a brush, a needle or a nib, that I know I am recovering.
    And when I do start creating again, I think my artworks are amazing! I am constantly surprised by what my hands and mind can create, the limitlessness of my imagination.
    Perhaps the works you have created in the past do have beauty, perhaps that black cloud of your own is blinding you to seeing your creative genius!
    (P.S. I only came upon this post by chance, it seems your posts haven’t been showing in my Reader)

    • Oh, I’ve bookmarked your site because I don’t trust that reader farther than I can toss a shark.

      I am right there with you; in the depths of despair and misery, I can’t left pen to paper (or finger to keyboard). For me, however, when the depression passes and I am able to create again, I find my creations dwell on the despair, rather than trying to make me feel better.

      Lately I’ve been trying not to doubt my creativity as much. I honestly quite like my story, and I’m looking forward to going back to it to make it even better. I’ve never felt that way about any of my creations before – that’s got to be a good sign, right?


  3. I only wish I could be an artist, but I certainly understand and agree with the perspective. Even my worst writing lifts me a bit out of the muck of despair. Most days, I hope I am not doomed to be like this up to a miserable end, and it is up and down, so I try to be accepting of this plague in my mind. I started as a musician and when I was in college, a professor who is also a well known composer told me I needed to get a different profession. I have not been the same since, but at least he told me the truth.

    • You are an artist, Carl – your medium is music, but you are an artist nonetheless.

      I’m sorry to hear about your professor; that’s a shitty thing to say to anyone. Truth is subjective, and I would take anyone with a dismissive attitude with a pinch of salt.

      I hope you don’t abandon music entirely; even when I left studying music at university and joined the lovely rat race, I still play – if only for myself.

  4. The worst thing is a world that still hasn’t learned to appreciate its artists instead of being harsh and making them suffer is doomed in the first place.

    • It sometimes feels like there are two ways to be appreciated as a creator of things: die, or make a lot of money. So far, I haven’t seen any millionaire artists that anyone really cared about after they died.

      So much depends on so few people – you can submit your work to twenty different agents, and if twenty people – only twenty people in the entire world – happen not to like it, you’ll never get the chance to find out.

      All that’s left is creating for creation’s sake. Which is, ultimately, what we all do.

  5. Excellent write and a great topic. I have always wondered about the connection between being a poet and the darkness that many of us share… or rather the “arts” in general that’s tainted with a black rain cloud. I know exactly when my world shifted and it came to be with the first poem I had ever written. They went hand in hand.

    • The world is funny like that, isn’t it. Perhaps we are made by the things we surround ourselves with, but it seems to me that there are far more ‘dark’ works of art out there than there are ‘light’ ones. Particularly in poetry, in music and in literature – so many depressing stories are self-identifiable.

      I wonder if even the successful artists among us are victims of misunderstanding: that perhaps the rest of the world is hooked on our misery because it reminds them how happy they are.

      • Do you think that sometimes WE may be hooked on our own misery?

        I heard a song a couple of months ago (“Yin Yang Blues” or some such) which is very wryly funny and contains the line, “I thought I wanted happiness, but I want you more, I guess.” Tongue in cheek, but it still resonated.

Tell me something!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s