Art from pain?
Why does so much biographical art center on pain? The list of personal narratives that spotlight pain, frustration, disappointment, and hardship is probably as long as the history of art. In contrast, I can’t think of any artworks which center on a personal story that is marked by happiness, success, or comfort. Sure, there are many that end that way, but the hero of the story has to get through a lot of hardship and stress to get there.
Why is that? Does it feel more honest to hear of a protagonist who has to deal with adversity, than to hear of someone whose life is peaches and gravy all up and down? We all know that life is full of struggles, disappointments, failures, terror, loneliness, etc., etc. Don’t we get tired of it enough in our own lives? Why do we want our art to tell us something about human experience that we already know too well?
Maybe the reason is because life is so full of pain, that hearing of someone’s happiness seems like a deliberate deception. We do not want to believe someone's account of true-to-life happy experiences because
But why is it not the other way around? Why do we sense that pain, and not joy, is the reality of experience, and joy is at best a surprising reprieve, and at worst a lie? What if pain were considered the lie? Are artists selling a narrative of despair when they make art out of pain? Is all art merely “selling something”?
Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is a graphic novel which details the author’s complicated and emotionally fraught relationship with his father, set in the course of his father’s retelling of his own painful experiences as a Jewish victim of the Nazi concentration camps. It is considered one of the masterpieces of the form, and won a Pulitzer Prize. An enormous amount of the work’s power and resonance comes from its honest portrayals of the characters’ pain—with Art Spiegelman’s painful family dynamics presented as no less significant than his father’s torment in the death camps. Everyone’s experience includes suffering, and everyone’s suffering legitimately affects them. Perhaps this is the reason for art from pain—to serve as a reminder that our own pain, while unique to us, is not out of the ordinary of human experience. Knowing the pain of another, rather than being an opportunity for schadenfreude, can help us overcome some of our existential loneliness.
Another reason is that making art out of pain puts that pain to good use. So many artworks are about Dealing With Something, and that Something is usually not something happy. Characters are expected to learn and change, and that doesn't seem to happen in the artworks as a reaction to a pleasant event. “That time when everything was going well for me, and there wasn't any stress in my life, really made a huge impact on me”—said no character that I know of. Even Pollyanna and Heidi—the two great apostles of cheerfulness from 19th-century children’s literature—derive their value from the way they transcend the pain around them, from how they grow and help others to grow. By doing so, their stories (and other stories of pain) can model ways in which we can gain perspective and experience from our own adversity.