A Voice in the Dark: The Relation between Art and Suffering
This article was created in partnership with InterVarsity Press.
Art is an inspiration and an escape. Art soothes the soul, broadens the mind, and renews our faith in the goodness of life. And if art is such an ethereal and enchanting thing, surely artists and art lovers must live on another plane of existence altogether, high above the rest of us.
The truth is—as biographies, history books, and news stories reinforce over and over again—that artists and art lovers live lives just as messy as anyone else’s. Often messier. Painfully messy, in fact.It’s perpetually difficult for those who love their creativity to understand and to reconcile it with their dark sides.
Something in us, something that wants truth and beauty always to walk serenely hand in hand, rebels at the thought that the artist who painted that sublime landscape was a jerk to his wife. Or that the composer or writer whose work has pulled us through so many dark times had darkness in his or her own soul. How can this be true? How can two such extremes exist in one person? How, as the Bible would put it, can light have any fellowship with darkness?
It seems as if there’s something about the ability to see, hear, and feel deeply that makes life too intense to bear calmly. As The Scientific American put it, “More creative people include more events/stimuli in their mental processes than less creative people. . . . It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible.” But too much information can be, well, too much information. Few in this modern age are fully equipped to handle the deluge of sensory experiences and emotions that drive the most creative among us.
That intensity doesn’t always correlate with illness or lead to destructive behavior, but all too frequently, there is a connection. We all know the stories: Beethoven descending into deafness, depression, and rage. Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and eventual self-destruction. Then there are the stars, from Judy Garland to Marilyn Monroe to Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain to Whitney Houston, all succumbing to drug or alcohol addiction. We know about the selfish and unhealthy behaviors of many of our greatest artists, and their tragic fallout in the lives of others. It’s perpetually difficult for those who love their creativity to understand and to reconcile it with their dark sides.
But Christians of all people should understand, at least a little. We profess to believe that all of us have darkness within us—so much darkness that Christ’s death is the only hope we have. So when we see the struggle between hope and despair writ large in the lives and work of artists, we should recognize it. More than that, we should identify with it and know that it’s the struggle that makes their work, and its effects on us, so powerful.
In Sharon Garlough Brown’s new novel, Shades of Light, protagonist Wren Crawford is an achingly sensitive young woman, dealing with mental illness of her own even as she tries to help others in her career as a social worker. At the times when her suffering is worst, Wren clings not only to her therapy and medication, but to someone whose work and life are greatly meaningful to her: Vincent Van Gogh.
It’s not just that she’s attracted to Van Gogh’s art; Wren also identifies with the messiness of his life—his own battle against mental illness (so much less understood and less treatable in his time), the strain it put on his relationships with his loved ones, the way it damaged and finally ended his career in ministry. Like Vincent, Wren sees and feels with an intensity that can deepen her compassion but also spill uncontrollably into all areas of her life, becoming more than she can handle on her own.
“She’d even written her college honors thesis on the potent spirituality of his art and the chiaroscuro of his sorrowing, rejoicing life,” Brown writes, “the shadows of despair streaked by what he called ‘a ray from on high.’”
“Chiaroscuro” derives from the Italian words for light and dark. Van Gogh had an intimate knowledge of the painful clash between darkness and light—how it fuels one’s art even as it fractures one’s life. Many artists share that knowledge. Sometimes these forces can harmonize; sometimes they grow dissonant and clanging. Sometimes they seem to do both at the same time, like the late Beethoven string quartets that shocked and appalled many of his contemporaries but now are hailed as avant-garde.
Sometimes we can be brought back from the brink by the reminder that someone we admire felt the darkness too. The pain, anguish, and darkness of great art and great artists can even point us to the cross where Christ, whose own light was never dimmed, had the worst experience of darkness that anyone ever could.
Art—and artists—may not always have escape, comfort, and light to offer. But even when they don’t, they may have a voice that reaches us in our own deepest and darkest places.
Sharon Garlough Brown’s latest novel, Shades of Light, published by InterVarsity Press, is now available.