Always Move Toward Pain When Making Art

Saint Sebastian
Il Sodoma – St. Sebastian

Apparently JM Coetzee said this, and it’s where Jonah Lehrer ends his essay about the way negative emotion heightens creativity.

Lehrer’s citing from a new paper in which subjects were given either positive stimulus in the form of a smile and a vertical nod, or negative stimulus—a frown and horizontal shake. After stimulus, subjects were asked to make a collage. When the collages were evaluated by professional artists, it turned out that the frown-and-shake crowd made more interesting and thoughtful work. Lehrer ties this to Steve Jobs’ capacity to deliver devastating criticism to employees, and suggests that the feeling of sadness improved the subjects’ ability to focus and made them more capable of persisting with a creative challenge.

This resonates on a number of levels, and presents a number of problems.

I come to my work as a practicing artist, and I’ll admit that my own patience for making art just sorta naturally waned as my personality lightened up and I became happier. And it’s true that my creative life is still driven by negative feelings like fear and outrage. Joy is liberating, but emotions you don’t like make you do something.

I also believe strongly in art’s capacity to transform negativity. Artists are the Cassandras and Court Jesters of our society—the ones who relentlessly and honestly show us what we cannot, but must, see. Talented artists can look at an event or scenario in a suspended, indeterminate state, separate from logical or reasoned frames of reference. New insights and concrete innovations come from this suspended state—it’s a magical place. Keats called it negative capability, and being in it is uncomfortable and elusive work. Looking at the world without reconciling it with logic or rules hurts your head! It generates lonely distance and intensely critical internal dialogue.

So yes. Negative emotions generate creative energy, and this creative energy, when it’s working, generates its own negative emotions and sensations. It’s a powerful creative cycle.

But does the creative cycle of negative capability equate to the stereotypical starving artist and that cold-water-flat-garret-type living? If an artist is already engaged in this negativity cycle that’s inherent to art, isn’t economic pain overkill? Does one feed the other? Or can the economic pain kill the creative pain?

Hat tip: Daily Dish

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