As Robin William’s character John Keating famously said in Dead Poets Society, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.” Some people may dismiss poetry for its lack of practical application, unlike the “noble pursuits [that are] necessary to sustain life,” but poetry and similar artistic pursuits are “what we stay alive for.”

While I don’t really think of myself as an artist — I am far too undeserving of the title — I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the nature of the artist. More specifically, I’ve really started to wonder whether the greatest art really does come from a place of pain. The artist who is struggling or facing hardship can channel that experience into something greater than him or herself.

From Stage to Screen (and Everything in Between)

We can see this at work across so many different disciplines. Chris Farley was outwardly one of the most expressive and animated cast members of Saturday Night Live, but he battled a lot of inner demons. Robin Williams suffered for years with depression. Was it despite of or because of this pain that he was able to perform so admirably in everything from Good Will Hunting to Mrs. Doubtfire?

More recently, we’ve been offered much greater insight into what comedian-turned-painter Jim Carrey has gone through and is going through. If you haven’t seen Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond on Netflix, which documents how he fully embodied the role of Andy Kaufman for 1999’s Man on the Moon, I highly recommend it.

Examples from the music world, particularly from the genres of rock and alternative, are numerous. We don’t need to look far to see individuals like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. We can feel their emotion coming through their songs and that’s a big part of why we are drawn to their music in the first place.

From Pablo Picasso to Vincent van Gogh, Leo Tolstoy to Sylvia Plath, great artists have suffered greatly and the net result is some of the greatest art this world has ever seen, heard, read or felt.

Do We Glamorize the Tortured Artist?

Maybe it’s just a trope, but it’s become a trope that we all accept: the tortured artist. When Natalie Portman’s character goes off the deep end in Black Swan, she delivers the greatest performance of her career because she totally loses herself on the stage. When we see an artist literally bleed for his or her craft, we admire that level of dedication.

Black Swan

And on some level, it’s almost like we expect that level of torture, self-inflicted or otherwise, to be some sort of prerequisite for creating the greatest art possible. If you are not sacrificing all of yourself for the art, if you’re not truly giving it your all and utterly destroying yourself in the process, are you really producing your greatest work?

I believe it was Sarah Andersen from Sarah’s Scribbles who said it’s a societal myth that the formula for great art is artist plus sadness. Instead, she argues the reality of the situation is that combining sadness with the artist only produces an uninspired, sad artist. And an uninspired, sad artist is far more inclined to retreat from the world than to put in the work.

Suffering for the Greater Good

I’m not entirely sure what conclusions can be drawn from all of this. To some degree, I agree with Sarah. There are plenty of tremendously talented artists who are perfectly happy and well-adjusted (or at least they appear to be), producing some truly tremendous art. Tom Hanks comes to mind. Maybe Tegan and Sara too.

Happiness is great, except perhaps it is too simplistic. Despair and tragedy and angst lead to a greater exploration of the human condition and the inherent struggles we all face in some form or another. From Hamlet to Her, we learn more about ourselves by examining the lives of fictional characters. In this way, maybe it’s not that the greatest art must come from a place of pain. It’s that it must come from a place of close examination and great introspection.