Saturday, September 03, 2005


They say if you want to play the blues, first you have to suffer. While this may seem like a cliché or an oversimplification, if you study the lives of all great artists, it is true that many of them led tragic lives. Early deaths, tormented love affairs, unfulfilled desires; secret sorrow, self-destructive behavior and mental illness are among the many things that have plagued the lives of great artists. (But the mark of a great artist is not in the facile technique but in the depth of the feeling expressed.)[1]

If you are an artist and you aspire to greatness, along with the mechanics of your art, you must also gain life experience. This is accomplished by keen observation of the experiences of others and by examining your own feelings and the outcome of your actions.

There is a popular image today of the successful artist being a young upwardly mobile professional person (yuppie?) who lives in a chateau, works in a trendy downtown loft (rented by the square foot), drinks Perrier, drives an expensive sports car, and makes loads of money. In contrast to the bohemian image of the 1960’s he lives a seamless existence, without flaws, free from risk. But this is not a true picture, and artists who live like that may make a lot of money, but they will not be remembered for their art.

True art is achieved by facing the unknown. By confronting your demons and backing them down. It is achieved by overcoming the obstacles or adverse circumstances that keep him from achieving his goals and cause him to suffer.

If there are no external circumstances that cause him to suffer, he must induce suffering in himself by his own behavior. By his excesses, both emotional and physical. By his addictions and self-destructive behavior. By his refusal to adopt social conformity or live according to conventional standards of belief and morality.

Life without suffering would be like eating meat without salt. Like a rainbow without a full spectrum. Without struggle, life’s successes would have no savor.

Also, a sense of loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of home, loss of job or money. Loss or stature. Loss of freedom. The experience of loss teaches you to not take it for granted when the loss is regained. Loss allows you to experience depth of feeling and builds character when it is overcome.

The blues, especially, but all great art is concerned with telling the truth. It is about experiencing deep feelings and being able to reveal them. It is this component of truth in all great art that strikes a chord of understanding in all who perceive it and causes them to identify with it.

How can you tell the truth if you don’t know what it is? If you don’t know the truth, you must seek it. How can you appreciate life if you don’t know the closeness of death?

Also the element of compassion is activated and heightened. Because you can’t really know the suffering of others until you have experienced it yourself. The experience of suffering is a means for the artist to gain insight into the condition of his fellow man and gain a sense of oneness or unity with the human race. It is both a humbling and ennobling experience. It is the element that makes possible compassion. And compassion, along with courage, are the most important components in all great art.

So, armed with these realizations, it should give you new insight into the appreciation of the works of great artists past and present. And should help you face your own suffering with greater dignity and respect. Because not only will it help you to aspire to greatness as an artist, it can help you become a better human being.
[1] For example, among jazz vocalists, Ella Fitzgerald had prodigious technique and great popularity during her career. But it is Billie Holiday, who sang without embellishment and little or no technique who typifies our concept of the greatest jazz singer because of the depth of emotion in her singing.


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