The art of suffering

It is a real testament to Amy Winehouse’s impact that reportedly 20 million tweets were sent about her untimely death. Her personal struggles undoubtedly colour one’s appreciation of her music and it seems fitting that she will be subsequently canonised as a great artist.

It scares me a little that artistic endeavour might depend on struggle and suffering. Perhaps the 19th century model of the artist as removed from society is one that continues to fuel our images of artists today. If the tortured genius is the only way a genius can exist it seems likely we are to strive for the suffering as some believe creativity cannot exist without it. Anthony Storr’s writing on Churchill and his ‘black dog’ is compelling – I can see that creativity can stem from depressive tendencies and that artistic creations somehow allow those with such tendencies to cope. That such art can come from struggle is remarkable and it is perhaps unfortunate that the creator endured such toil to give us works of such beauty.

Beethoven must surely have commenced the stereotype of the tortured genius. The BBC documentary on the composer portrays this stereotype with aplomb, and the actor playing Ludwig is made to capture the grimace found on the famous portrait of the composer. The angst for a musician who is progressively lose his or her hearing is inescapable, and the documentary captures at the start something of the torment to which Beethoven was exposed. It was not until recently that I discovered how Gershwin died and I was left feeling rather low that his rapid rise to fame was balanced by a rapid decline in his health. There are undoubtedly huge numbers of artist biographies that feature such tragedies.

Anthony Storr’s writings on music and creativity are fascinating, and for me represent essential reading for those involved in teaching. We need to ensure we are conversant with the power of creativity and how many use it as an outlet for difficult thoughts and experiences. It will prevent us as teachers from not recognising when a pupil needs further assistance, or is struggling with issues beyond their control. It is also important to recognise that all artistic creation – however complex or sophisticated – comes from within us and should be acknowledged with respect and care.

I would hate for young artists to believe – from the wealth of tragedy in the art world – that they must endure suffering and hardship before they can truly create. Let’s hope this is not a necessity and merely a coincidence. I am indeed grateful for the beauty that has come from artists that have endured difficult lives and it is wondrous that we can celebrate their existence through their works. Amy Winehouse left work that should be celebrated and I hope it will be a legacy that overshadows the struggle.

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