Originally published on Hey Design, which has been down for a while, although I can’t tell if it’s officially dead. I wanted to preserve it in some form, but there’s really no reason to listen to the opinion of a then 25-year-old on this.
Yes, this is too big a subject to tackle in a blog post. Yes, it would stupid to even try.
Is it Pain? Pleasure? Passion?
A lot of people think it comes from pain. Other people say it comes from passion. Others say it comes from determination. All of them are thinking too small.
I believe it comes from emotion. Intense emotion. All-consuming, body-seizing, from-the-heart intense. The kind that drives you to share it with the world. But the specific type doesn’t matter.
Joy works: Think of how much of history’s greatest art has come from religious fervor, for example. Drugs are credited with a lot of creative works for the same reason, but I’d argue they’re an often dangerous shortcut to what you can achieve on your own with some effort. And I think we’d all agree that, in the long run, they take way more from artists who get hooked than they give. Determination works, too: The drive to make great art is itself enough to drive you to make great art.
Anger, giddiness, desire, boredom, pride, fear… Anything you feel strongly enough that you just have to express it. I think that’s what gives your work that certain something we call “heart,” “soul,” or “feeling.”
But why do so many people believe great art comes only from pain? Maybe because it’s the most common type.
For example, there aren’t many opportunities to experience overwhelming joy. A lot of us live according to comfortable, unstimulating routines. Your average person won’t experience many adrenaline rushes, provided they obey the law: Extreme sports are expensive, entertainment’s lost a lot of its impact from oversaturation, and society at large is slowly turning away from religion.
But our partners still cheat on us, our friends still die, and we still lose jobs, get sick, and step on Legos. Pain’s guaranteed in life, and for a lot of us, it’s the most intense emotion we’re likely to experience more than a few times. So when people create art, there’s a good chance that’s what they’ll draw on. And arguably, now that we’re lonelier than ever before, depression is even easier to come by than in the past.
But it’s not all bad, of course. Plenty of great art still comes from friendship, love, and parenthood: the causes of the greatest struggles and the greatest joys in most peoples’ lives. And the last century’s also seen the rise of escapism as we become more comfortable turning to our imaginations to provide the emotions that real life can’t.
Plus, without pain, the joys and triumphs wouldn’t have meaning. Personally, my favorite books, movies, etc. are the ones with the most contrast, that cover the full spectrum of emotions instead of sticking to one end or the other.
“All sunshine makes a desert.” —Arabic Proverb
But It’s Not All That Exciting…
There are two factors, though. As you know, art is also a craft. Consistently producing great work still takes years of grinding practice and a thorough knowledge of what you’re doing.
We all know stories about the band that never practiced, or the artist who’d never picked up a paintbrush before, but created, if not a masterpiece, than something at least charming in its own way. But very often, you’ll find they only did it once. If they’ve released much other work, chances are most of it is crap. They never learned their craft, just happened to trip over the right combination of sounds or colors that make something brilliant.
I believe that both are equally important, though. Technical ability without feeling results in…
Most bad art isn’t eye-searingly awful, just dull. The most common complaint about pop singers and Hollywood movies, for instance, is that they’re technically perfect, but hackneyed and lifeless.
That’s because they have all the skill in the world, but nothing driving it. They’ve turned their art forms into paint-by-numbers exercises, using formulas to squeeze the most money out of the audience, and that lack of emotion comes through in the flat performances.
Likewise, you’ve heard the cliché that artists get worse as they age, especially successful ones. This isn’t always true: some keep improving until the day they die—but a lot don’t, and I think those ones have some things in common.
Skill-wise, they’re still on top of their game. Decades of working on their craft full-time made them masters. But all the joy they got out of it, as well as success itself, is gone: They’ve done everything and earned more money than they’ll ever need. But since they’re no longer struggling, they don’t feel particularly bad, either. And gone is the determination to make something incredible—they’ve already done it and resigned themselves to the fact that their best days are behind them.
In other words, they’re desensitized to happiness, shielded from pain, and have no reason to be determined. As their world becomes more comfortable and predictable, their work matches it.
Get Out and Experience Things
So, how do you fight that? Contrary to what a lot of artists believe, locking yourself in the studio 24/7 can be counterproductive. For your work to have meaning, you have to go out and experience things.
If your life’s lacking joy, start saving up for a road trip. Get a dog. Play with a kid. Visit friends you haven’t seen in a while. Have a night out. Just do something fun. Not so much that you become numb to it, but enough to break through the tedium.
If you find that you’re too detached from struggle, volunteer at a homeless shelter. Save some animals. Practice listening to other peoples’ problems and empathizing with them. Put yourself back in touch with the part of life you’re missing, even if it’s unpleasant.
And remember, no matter who you are or at what stage in your life, you still have it in you to create brilliant, original works of art. Don’t go quietly into the sunset. That’s taking the easy way out.