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Suffering writ large…”The Two Fridas”, by Frida Kahlo

Among the 15 or so personal questions I throw at artists for the weekly G2 interview Portrait of the Artist, there is one that tends to make people think more than any other – do you suffer for your art?

“Yes,” said both Jane Birkin and Michael Ball without missing a beat – they get crippling stage fright. Painter Lucy Jones, who has cerebral palsy, admitted that she is often in a great deal of pain after kneeling for hours before a canvas. But Herbie Hancock didn’t like the question. “No,” he said. “I just don’t look at art and life that way.”

I was very interested, therefore, to hear what the panel at yesterday’s debate at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, called “Should artists suffer for their art?”, would make of the issue. As the art historian and curator Tim Marlow was quick to point out – addressing the packed room alongside collector David Roberts, sculptor and curator Soraya Rodriguez and performance artist Mark McGowan – the image of the penniless artist quietly expiring in a Parisian garret assumed its emotive power during the Romantic period.

So do we, as today’s consumers of art, still expect its creators to suffer? Do we still picture them in a modern-day equivalent of the draughty attic?

The panel agreed on the fact that the vast majority of artists – with big earners like Hirst and Jeff Koons as notable exceptions – find it very difficult to make a living from their work. This fact can be both liberating, allowing them to further push the boundaries without worrying about whether or not the piece will sell, and galvanising, preventing them from settling into complacency and becoming stale. Mark McGowan’s own provocative (and innately difficult to sell) works have included pushing a peanut around London with his nose, and crawling the streets of New York wearing a George Bush mask and an invitation to “kick my ass” (many people took him up on it). He said that artists should strive to preserve art’s “economy of the spirit”, rather than thinking about how to earn a living from it. Soraya Rodriguez agreed – although she said she’d rather refer to the artist’s necessary poverty as a “struggle”. “If life is easy for an artist,” she said, “will their art be any good?”

By the same token, an artist’s more profound suffering – whether emotional or psychological – can often seem to enhance their work. Some works (the paintings of Van Gogh or Goya, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse, to name a few) are inseparable from their creators’ personal pain. We are – as Marlow said last night, quoting Damien Hirst – a “trauma culture”, expecting to watch an artist’s suffering play out on canvas or stage or screen – and relating to them through it.

They may not all call it suffering, but every artist I’ve spoken to for Portrait – even those whose art has brought them fame and fortune – has described the real sacrifices, whether personal or economic, that they have made to dedicate themselves to their work. Yet very few of them have said they regret them.

As the ICA panel concluded, for the best artists, the drive to create is so strong that it can withstand almost any amount of suffering – and the life experience it gives them serves only to make their works more powerful.

Laura Barnett
Guardian Unlimited