The Essential Sadness of Art

Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
—Ernest Hemingway

Have you ever seen a movie that broke your heart? Heard a song that shook you to your core? Ever experienced something so profound it called attention to some issue you’d rather forget? Call me crazy, but I believe this is what good art is supposed to do: disturb us.

Boy crying
Photo credit: Piers Nye (Creative Commons)

The other day, I overheard a conversation between two men sitting behind me at a local cafe. And frankly, it bothered me. Here’s what they said:

“They did a really dark play… The Glass Menagerie?”

“That one by Tennessee Williams?”

“Yeah, I guess. I dunno. It was really dark.”

My soul sank. I love that play. The guy who saw it proceeded to talk about how he didn’t “get” it, and the other concurred. Both didn’t like it because of how unsettled it made them feel after watching it. But that’s the whole point.

Pardon me while I get on my soapbox, but I take issue with the idea that comfort should be a determining factor for what makes art “good.”

Making you comfortable was never the intention.

Art tells us what’s wrong with the world

Some of us are not content with the status quo. We know something in this world has gone wrong. We sense this deep in our bones, in our heart of hearts, and it bothers us.

This discontent leads to a distrust of cliches and predictable plots. Those are not enough to describe the situation in which we find ourselves. We need something real, something that sparks our imagination and addresses unresolved conflicts.

I watched Midnight in Paris again the other night, and I noticed this line I hadn’t heard before:

Life is kind of unfulfilling.

That resonated with me. How true, I thought. Part of the artist’s job is to make sense of a broken world. To try to fill emptiness we all feel.

And what better way to narrate a soul’s journey than with words and splotches that speak to this dissatisfaction?

Good art is messy

When you create something that doesn’t acknowledge this fact — that life is Act 2, not Act 3 — your audience knows it. They can tell when you’re being disingenuous. It feels too clean, too literal. Our souls thirst for more.

We want broken and beautiful, real and raw. Sure, we want abundant life, but we know it comes at a cost. And when you don’t illustrate that cost well — with sacrifice and toil — we don’t believe the story.

Just as God formed creation from chaos and babies are born amidst blood, art emerges from the pain of a broken world. If it doesn’t break your heart or cause you to ache a little, then it’s not art. (Tweet that)

Sad, but true

There is an underlying sadness in all art, a melancholy we feel when we face true beauty. It’s that ache, that longing, that we can’t quite describe when we witness something truly wonderful.

Where does this come from? I believe the reason that this theme of sadness, of wounded-ness in art, is so universal is because humanity is not whole. Something is wrong with the world, and we can’t fix it.

That’s why I love Tennessee Williams. And Adele. It’s why I resonate with the whine of Marcus Mumford and resonate with that unsettled feeling I get after finishing a Mad Men episode. All these stories and songs are trying to teach us something: We are not done yet. 

What a beautiful mess this life is. Beautiful and broken and begging to be redeemed. And for those who are listening, this is a truth that resonates.

A challenge to those who would create art

If you are an artist (and you probably are) — if you create or consume creative things — I hope you face this fact. The point is not that all art is sad, but that melancholy is a sign. A call to something more.

I hope you remember this as you catalogue your own story. Honest art moves us closer to the truth. And those who are willing to be honest and vulnerable are the voices with something to say.

I hope you embrace the fact that you are a wonderful work in progress but still fragmented at the core. And I hope this compels you to make things the world has never seen. Things that are wonderful and true and, yes, even a little sad. Maybe in doing so, you’ll lead us into a deeper story.

So here’s a challenge: Do something today to remind yourself and the rest of the world that you’re not finished (none of us are). There’s still healing and wholeness to happen. Still stuff that needs fixing. After all, this is the difference between a message that rings hollow and one that hits home.

Do you think all art has an underlying theme of sadness in it? Why or why not? Share in the comments.