“We have difficulty imagining it, yet it will come to pass and be quite natural—art without suffering, psychologically healthy, that confides without solemnity, that trusts without sorrow, an art that is on a first-name basis with humanity.”
Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus
Published in 1947, Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus delicately meditates on the inarticulateness of art and its relation to culture and humanity. In the middle of the novel, Adrian Leverkühn, a brilliant composer, questions whether art can exist without suffering. He concludes that in the future, art will exist without having to come from the dark trenches of society.
Almost seventy years later, the question remains: can art exist without suffering? Some of the most beautiful works, from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est” to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes,result from the artist’s own endurance of situations of war and poverty. Other pieces of art, perhaps not necessarily inspired by the artist’s own life, grapple with grief and torment and gain incredible recognition along the way.
From an emotional examination of Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (2004)toa harrowing account of soldiers in A Hurt Locker (2009) to a heart-wrenching tale of American slavery in 12 Years a Slave (2014), the Best Picture winners of the past ten years have consistently dealt with issues stemming from suffering. The current #1 New York Times Bestseller, Hope to Die by James Patterson, also follows the trend. The novel trails Detective Alex Cross as he desperately tries to track down his kidnapped family, risking his life and making sacrifices in the hopes of saving them. In music, Taylor Swift’s gothic-inspired tale of love-gone-wrong “Blank Space”tops the Billboard Top 100, while Irish musician Hozier’s poignantly stirring “Take Me to the Church” holds the #1 spot on Spotify and has been nominated for a Grammy for Best Song of the Year.
With these receptions, nominations, and awards, it seems that American society continues to recognize those works of art that reveal and investigate an element of anguish. Art with suffering, art because of suffering, suffering made into art — all of these creations still define what are considered to be the highest works of art. Certainly, art that refuses to focus on suffering, such as Pharrel William’s #1 single “Happy” have touched Americans. But, it seems that there is an overwhelming trend of recognizing art that relates to suffering. “Happy” did lose the Academy Award for Best Original Song to “Let it Go,” a song which alludes to the anguish once felt by the singer.
Mann’s idea of “art that is on a first-name basis with humanity” suggests that art without suffering understands better what it’s like to be human. Suffering does release complex emotions: a chaotic tempest of feeling for art to mold into something organized, balanced, and delicate. Yet happiness also releases a wave of emotions that songs like “Happy” can frame into a toe-stepping beat. Today, then, we are left not only debating whether art can exist without suffering but also which art — art with suffering or art without suffering — appeals better to the human condition.