A few years ago I had the privilege of interviewing Billy Corgan, lead singer for the Smashing Pumpkins. It was a riveting conversation which explored so many topics including music (of course), family history, karmic relationships, and the idea that in order to create meaningful art (in his case, writing songs), one had to be in a state of suffering be it depression, heartbreak, grief etc. Corgan said, "there's a long established concept that misery makes for great art. You're basically saying that suffering is good for business...I think suffering or the gestalt of 'here I am ripping my heart open,' I think that lasts for about two or three albums. At some point you have to mature into the deeper work."
It is that deeper work by which I am fascinated. How creating art isn’t only a response to a depressive state or suffering but a compelling need to dig deep within oneself to see what is there, beneath the surface of what we consciously feel. To explore within that realm which inhabits the foundations of our thoughts, our habits, our instincts. It is within that space where we find all the things we need to see and feel about ourselves, things that sometimes we are afraid to see and feel but once faced there is a release and that release is, perhaps, what results in a work of art.
Artists of all forms of mediums have often talked about how their art was their outlet, their way of dealing with their pain, their life, their form of therapy. Some even say they can't create if they are feeling content or happy. Just this morning I was listening to an interview with Frank Parker of Tame Impala on BBC Radio 6 who said it is only when he is feeling angst or unhappiness can he make music. He says when he's happy his "brain doesn't need to be creative as much as when (he's) uncomfortable for some reason." He would go on to add that it was his way of "filling a void."
The singer songwriter Allison Moorer has said that she probably would have always been making music but it was dealing with childhood trauma that she said gave her music more "teeth." In an interview she said, "I don’t think you have to necessarily suffer to make great art, but the truth is that most great art is born of it.” For Moorer it wasn't a question of not creating but more about how deep she could go. In a new memoir and a ten song album, Moorer explores her family's tragic past but also the beautiful memories and gifts given to her by her parents. The tragedy of her family (her father shot and killed her mother and then pulled the gun on himself) and facing fully and intimately the truth of what happened to her and her sister (the Grammy winning artist Shelby Lynne), when they were 14 and 17 respectively, allowed her to reflect, heal, and even see her parents, particularly her father, with compassion for his pain, saying, “Grief never goes away. It might change shape, but it always has its teeth in you. Trauma you can actually heal from. Writing this book and making this record have gotten me closer to that than I’ve ever been. You’ve gotta get it out of you. You’ve got to tell your story."
Cynthia Erivo's release through her art is in the form of acting and singing. She currently plays the lead role in the biopic Harriet (based on the American heroine Harriet Tubman). For her the healing, if you will, comes in the form of a deep determination to be strong and portray strength. The talented actress and singer who has already won an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony, was born in London and raised in the city by her mother. Her father, often absent, abruptly "disowned" her and her sister one day and they never saw him again. She says in an interview, “We all have small things that affect our lives. I don’t know that that is a trauma. And if it was, I learned how to deal with that trauma. I think it comes out in the roles I choose and the decisions I make." There is a great profile piece about Erivo which you will find in #Repost this week.
At the core of creativity in whichever form it is manifested, is a desire to make sense of an overwhelming feeling inside oneself. It is a desire to communicate our hopes, fears, pain and purpose. It is a way to tell our story of who we are, what we feel, and who we want to be. It is a means for us to express what we see or what we envision what could be. In whichever form creativity is unleashed it is a gift because as Moorer wrote so beautifully in her memoir, “To see an artist in her full glory renders the world bearable...Putting a creation into the world is asking to be understood and loved. The answer is not always yes.” She would go on to add in the article, “Sometimes people just don’t respond. But I was in my forties before I understood that the doing is what matters. What we leave behind is important.”
It is with that same respect that Andrew Onwubolu wrote and directed Blue Story, a film about two friends who try to navigate their way through gang warfare in their neighbourhood in South London. For Onwubolu, who goes by the name Rapman, it is about wanting to share a difficult past, a history, in the hopes that it will save lives in the future. It is expressing himself in an art form through rap and script that he is able to find his purpose.
I am often envious of people who are artistic. To be able to channel what we feel and see into a song, a book, a painting or a building, anything really, is a gift. Even telling a story in the form of an article requires insight into oneself and others around us. Take for example journalist Ellen Barry's brilliant piece in The New York Times about a mysterious man who called himself "Prince Cyrus" and who lived in a crumbling old hunting lodge in a forest in Delhi. His family's history became urban legend on the streets of India's capital for over 40 years. Stemming from a bizarre decade long sit-in staged by his mother in the 1970s at the city's railway station demanding acknowledgement and reparations for what she claimed was the theft of her palace in the Indian state of Oudh. She claimed she was the Queen of Oudh. It is a fascinating story and journey that takes the reader through decades and countries. A journey the takes us into the heartbreak of a family torn apart by politics, and of a mother who never recovered from a loss of her identity.
I agree with Billy Corgan. I don't believe we have to be in a state of suffering to make great art, although there is no denying those who have created masterpieces out of their pain. I do believe in digging deep inside ourselves to figure out who we are, to live more aware of what is going on within us. And more often than not what helps us make sense of what we find, is creating something even if it results in the form of a more conscious and meaningful way of living.
For the audio version click here.