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.

159 thoughts on “The Essential Sadness of Art

  1. I think in so many ways that what you say is so true – at least that a story that truly partakes of art, that has a truly artistic purpose, will be a journey of change and I guess you can’t change without something giving way. However, just shocking and offending people doesn’t make something art. Art has, in some way, to address our experience of pain and sorrow, explore it, transform it, not merely throw it back in our faces. And of course, there are times when art should simply elevate the mind and heart to goodness, to greater happiness, to peace. In short, yes, suffering is an important element of much art but I don’t think it is the definition. If there is a definition, I’d say it’s that art transforms. That it has that mythic power.

  2. Jeff, I discussed a conversation I had with someone a few days ago in my blog today.  It was funny and sad.  And yes, unsettling.  Not sure it was art, but it should make my readers think.

  3. Beautiful sadness. 

    We just want to FEEL something in a world where we often numb ourselves. 

    Good art can do that. (Loved the post Jeff–shared it everywhere I could)

  4.  This very idea that has been bothering me for a long time. I kept wondering, why did I feel shocked or baffled after I had read some book? And here’s the answer to that question. Thanks Jeff, you’re awesome.

  5. Great post.  I’ve always said the most beautiful art, songs, stories, etc., are often the most sad.

    I’m working on a recording project.  The most beautiful of the eight songs is called “Cascade Mountain Skyline.”  However, the bridge to the song strays from the melancholy beauty to complete angst and chaos.  It’s like I was painting a beautiful picture and then started throwing gobs of paint at it, letting it splatter everywhere.  The song then resolves back to the plain, simple beautiful melody.  I’m posting the lyrics to these songs on my blog, and will be posting the recordings in a couple months at

  6. Because we live in a fallen world I do believe art has an underlying theme of sadness. But one day…

  7. i believe we relate to that heady, joyful reaction of yes! i know that good feeling, that precious moment. AND that solid, weighted yes. i’ve had that hurt too.  and i find that they are both heart-breaking. and when our heart breaks open, what matters slips in.  –kris

  8. Agreed, Jeff. And as a writer, this is a good thing to accept because once I did, then people not totally agreeing with what I wrote was like a compliment whereas before I would feel bad for not writing something more “agreeable” with everyone.

    And to add to your post – besides breaking hearts or making people uncomfortable with art, I think that finding humor in things that people usually wouldn’t think to is art too. I’ve always thought that anyone who can make someone laugh is pretty brilliant.

  9. It certainly evokes feelings of some sort. I’ve never thought it art as sad though…but maybe it is. Something to think on for sure. Thanks for sharing, I know I can always be challenged here. 😀

    1. Next time you experience something that makes you feel, ask yourself: “Are there any themes of loss here?” Pay attention. Sometimes, the sadness is subtle.

  10. I don’t think all art has to have an underlying sense of sadness, but I do think all art is meant to evoke a powerful emotional response, whether it’s positive or negative. The real point of art is to make us feeling something.

    1. Hmmm… Interesting. Here’s my challenge to you, Grayson: The next time you feel something from an art form, pay attention. Are there any themes of loss or pain (even implicit ones)? Is there a cost to the joy you feel, some great sacrifice someone had to make in order for you to enjoy what was created? I’m not disagreeing with you; I just want to encourage you to look a little deeper. If you don’t find what I’ve found to be true, that’s totally fine. I’m open to the possibility of being wrong. 🙂

  11. This reminds me of something my daughter said shortly after we adopted her from Ukraine (she was 14 at the time). We were trying to pick out a movie, and she picked one off the shelf and said “I hate American movies. They all have stupid, happy endings. That’s not real.”  

    As a writer, I feel challenged to be real, to face that unsettling truth, yet still find hope–for me it’s way too easy to just put The Cure on repeat and wallow in misery. 

    1. wow. I love that. smart kid. and at the same time, a really sad statement. thanks for changing her story, Christine.

      The Cure, eh? What about the Smiths? 😉

  12. For a long time now songwriting has made me so incredibly sad. I actually stopped writing for a long time because I felt like there must be something wrong. Well there is, but its the content… true content that matters and needs to be expressed. I appreciate this article Jeff, it hits home. 

  13. My husband jokingly calls my writing “opening a vein”. We should also not loose sight, however, that in this brokenness we can find redemption, and great beauty.

  14. Are you sure you’re not fooling us all? You must be at least 80 years old. You have a staggering wisdom for one of light years. God bless and a joyous Christmas to you and your family. 

  15. A long time ago, in a book about writing Science Fiction, the Author said, “Just because you have An Answer does not mean that you have The Answer.”

    I’ve always taken that to mean that there can be more than one perfectly valid answer to a question.

    “Art should be Unsettling”




    It can also be Soothing and/or Uplifting. It can be “merely” Aesthetic or “simply” Thought Provoking.

    Much depends upon what Ayn Rand called the writer’s “Sense of Life”

    {Yes, she was an Atheist. I’m a Pentecostal. That doesn’t automatically invalidate everything she ever wrote…}


  16. I wish the arts would go retro in their methods of making us “feel” something. Too often these days, we’re reacting to the shock of a graphic scene. Who doesn’t “feel” something with that? But I like the old films that go for a graphic emotion by connecting with our universal human experience.

  17. Are Shakespeare’s comedies not art becuase no one dies? Lot of things can make us sad and it’s not art. There is far too much mopey-faced dystopian art that it makes me sad just to see it out there. Tragedies like The Great Gatsby and Les Miserables are great works, not because they are sad, but because they are hopeful. Fine art points out the perfection of this world and our exitence, and sometimes it does it by showing what we have made of ourselves and how it falls short. But there is still a call upwards. By perect, I do not mean that nothing ever goes badly, but that this world is perfect for the intentions that God had in making it. This involves blessings and sufferings. Art draws on both of these and refines our spirits to live better lives.

    1. I agree, Neal. But the beauty, the hope, the life of art often (maybe always) emerges from the sadness. That’s when it’s most powerful. My point is not that melancholy is beautiful, but that a backdrop of sadness often helps illuminate the hope to come.

      1. It may be impossible to hope in the future without it being somewhat sad in the present. Said another way, there is no need to hope in the future if the present is not sad. But I hope you agree with me that a hopeless sadness in art does not do anybody any good.

  18. Actually I don’t entirely agree with this.  While art is powerful and certainly has the ability to help us feel rather than just intellectualize life. I think the “art is sadness” is one-dimensional and can risk giving us, as artists, a false sense of True Insight, and dictating that insight. What we can do is help people see and feel beyond their vision.  While certainly good story-telling involves tension of some kind, that’s a technique a hook, not a stand-alone truth. We can also help the world feel and see joy and triumph and creativity and beauty. Personally, I don’t want to view art that strives to emotionally manipulate me. Just show me your truth (which is really all any artist can claim to show). Life includes sadness, tragedy, beauty, joy, faith —celebrate and show all of it, as you are called.

    1. Even though I really like this post and find it very interesting, I have to agree with Julie. I don’t think Art should be concealed from being created with all emotions we as humans experience. If we’re here to express ourselves then express every feeling that has impacted our lives and show that to those around us. I think it’s important to not just share what’s wrong in the world but also provide hope and inspiration for one another

      1. Agreed, Jethro. I think you proved my point. All I was saying is this: let’s be present to the pain, too. Maybe there’s a deeper message of hope buried somewhere in this sadness.

    2.  I must agree with Julie, as well. Art can be emotional and powerful but to inflect that “art is sadness” is too confining and, as Julie states, too one-dimensional. Are we to assume that Ansel Adams made his magnificent western landscape photographs out of some kind of sadness and that we, as viewers, should contemplate a kind of sadness, as well? I don’t think so. I rejoice and want to shout and exclaim the beauty and power of such art. I’m not caught up in any kind of tension or sadness but reflect on his majestic prints. I make art. When studying in school years ago, I was always amazed, when during critique sessions, others tried to make my pieces into more than they were. There was no symbolism involved, no hidden meaning –– I made a particular piece because of color, light, pattern, texture or subject content. As the famous photographer Garry Winogrand said, ” My only interest in
      photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have
      no preconceptions.”  While sometimes there may indeed be a touch of sadness when I view art, there are a range of other emotions, too.

      1. I don’t think we’re disagreeing with each other. I never said, “Art is sadness.” What I said was sadness is essential to creating art, because it’s an inevitable part of life. Without this acknowledgment of the reality of pain and suffering, your art will ring hollow.

  19. Great post. Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of both. As you articulated above, I believe art depicts life and life isn’t a bed of roses (pardon the cliche). However, I also believe art is also used as a way of escape from the mundane, not so much to cause pain or sadness, but to also bring joy. I was a theater major, this is when I wanted to become a famous actress, HA HA HA, anyway, I studied theater history and dissected plays from different periods. One thing we studied was Vaudeville. In this era, Vaudeville entertainment was to lift people’s spirits and make them laugh, because it was during the Great Depression. Art can bring truth to light, in the world which we live and it can also cause us to weep with joy by experiencing beauty which elates the heart and spirit. If I was to read deeper into what those gentlemen were saying is that they don’t want anything depressing them. In all honesty, there is a lot of depressing things going on in this world, like that of the recent massacre in CT. I think people are depressed and just want to be uplifted or inspired to get up and face the world in the morning, when perhaps their life is difficult and hard. Anyway, this is my take, Jeff.

  20. Hey Jeff, great post, thanks.

    In my `Game Writing & Design’ lectures, I sometimes open with a quote: 

    “Art has to move us; Design does not. 
    (Unless, it’s a good design for a bus.)”
    – Some Random Guy

    Jeff I agree with all you say, and further to that I would even maybe suggest that Tragedies tend to `resonate’ emotionally more (exactly as you describe, above), and, tend to be more memorable. One (tragedy) film that always tears me up (devastates me) is “The Razor’s Edge” (the Bill Murray version). It’s as heartbreaking as The Great Gatsby and The Glass Menagerie. (Gatsby is my favourite novel; though I do not really like any of the film versions though I desperately wanted to; I tend to agree with the assessment by Peter Bart in an open memo to Baz Luhrmann in Variety, 2009: “Fitzgerald’s gorgeous writing doesn’t translate to the screen.”) But of course – I hope Luhrmann pulls it off-! (I have very good friends who are working on that movie – and I certainly wish them every success int the world; I think it is a very very difficult task! if they all pull it off it will be an utterly monumental achievement, in my humble opinion.) 

    Also (I’d tend to agree with some other commentators below) just in my own personal opinion again – I would even possibly add that `feelgoods’/comedies can certainly be `Art’ as well; they don’t necessarily require  the emotional sadness (even emotional devastation?) that comes with a Tragedy, yet I still consider them to be Art. (Just me) 
    My award-winning short film `Rocket Man’ is a tragedy – and often leaves people feeling devastated. The tone is `bittersweet/melancholy’. It’s here, if anyone is interested (10 mins, but a small warning, Rated R, for one instance of language)

    Anyway, great post Jeff, and very thought-provoking, thank you.

    JT Velikovsky

  21. Fantastic Post! I agree that all art has an underlying theme of sadness in it.  Sometimes the sadness that we see is not the same sadness that the person next to us sees, but it’s there and it’s real.  Art is the mirror we bypass by in the busyness of our day but are compelled to stop and take a look at where we are and what we’ve become.1.      Fantastic Post! I agree that all art has an underlying theme of sadness in it.  Sometimes the sadness that we see is not the same sadness that the person next to us sees, but it is there and it’s real.  Art is the mirror we bypass in the busyness of our day but are compelled to stop and take a look, at where we are and what we’ve become.  Ukela A. Moore

  22. I remember Sting talking about being the King of Pain. He reflected on how much his music was driven by anger. After the Dream of the Blue Turtles, he wasn’t mad at anybody (‘cept Copeland, maybe) and his music took a turn towards story. Pain brought out the Police. Joy gave us Nothing Like The Sun. 

  23. Thoughtful and insightful post Jeff, but I’m gonna take an op-ed with your conclusion on this one.

    As a creative artist – and most of us in this conversation would fit that bill – I certainly feel there’s an underlying sadness behind the artist (at least this one).

    But not necessarily behind all art.

    Would the flip side of your premise be – if it makes you smile or feel joyful, then it’s not art? Nah – art will also show what is good, right, funny and beautiful with the world.

    The art coin is heads and tails.

    1. Agreed. But without a head or a tail, you don’t have a coin. Of course, art can make you smile or laugh, but, Rob, are you telling me that as a musician sometimes a little dissonance or minor feel doesn’t help create joy in the listener? Here’s what I’m saying: we need contrast.

  24. Jeff, this is probably my favorite of your posts.
    I remember one of Rich Mullin’s friends saying Rich had told him that all the songs were in him, it was just a matter of whether or not he had the guts to pull them out.  I wonder if that is why some of us avoid our craft, because it brings us into close contact with the deep hurts and deep aches in us.

  25. Dear Jeff, this post is incredibly encouraging and timely to me. At some point in their career artists ask themselves “what’s the point, I’m just making pretty objects,” and if we can’t combat that with “this work has meaning and purpose, and I can’t NOT create it,” then perhaps it is due to an effort to please man (or ourselves?) rather than God. 
    For my work, I know I have to create authentic pieces, or the relationships and connections made over my work won’t feed back into the loop. At a recent show in Scottsdale, several people commented that my work was sad, depressing, even dark, but the people that were drawn in by it had such beautiful stories and insights to share that both artist and audience reached a place of vulnerable resonance with each other. I was struck with the fact that my work will NEVER appeal to even many, certainly not all, and the people who do value it are totally worth that sacrifice. 
    Sadness, hardships, tragedy – who can put words or visuals to others’ sufferings? I firmly believe that God can and even longs to use fearless art in every form to speak to our souls. We are omitting a great pleasure by creating inauthentic art.
    Thanks again for the encouragement, it was much needed.
    Johanna of Johanna Rachel Fine Art

  26. Jeff, though you are a good writer, this post expresses a very limiting view of art. And I think you miss the point of Hemingway’s remark.
    Artists do need to reach deep inside  themselves, bring all of themselves to their work, to think originally, to act and create from a source of power. And from that place they made bleed onto the page or the canvas, they may sweat, they may shout and they may whisper. But the art itself does not need to bring the viewer, the reader, the other to that place. Art can help us see differently, experience differently. I give thanks it can do so with joy and beauty and truth as well as heartbreak.
    Monet does not break my heart. Van Gogh’s life breaks my heart, but not his art. It inspires me. Jane Austen offered amazing observations about the life around her, but her books do not break my heart.
    Dickens wrote from a place of sadness, or heart ache from experience and observation. Maeve Binchey did not. In fact she described her childhood as a pleasure. I enjoy reading both authors.
    So no art does not need, nor does all art have an underlying theme of sadness. It is true we are not done, but only walking with sadness blinds the artist to the wonder all around.

    1. Catherine,

      This made me pause for a moment. You said, “Artists do need to reach deep inside  themselves, bring all of themselves to their work, to think originally, to act and create from a source of power.” So true. And I think that the ability to bring about exceptional art has some degree of pain sitting below, upholding it.

      I’m inspired and amazed and brought to tears by Michelangelo. It’s takes me to that place which seems beyond human. The struggle, the time, the work, the mistakes, the talent … the pain. I hear it in Frank’s voice. Or Hendrix’s style.

      It enables the exceptional. It helps us to “…see differently, experience differently,” as you said. But does it move us to pain? Perhaps in that struggle it does. It makes us wrestle with the fact that we’re always incomplete. As Jeff said, “We’re not done yet.”

      It’s certainly a fine line.

      1.  Garry, Thank you for responding to my comment. And I do agree that creating, and experiencing, art exists on an edge between sorrow and joy.

        Even songs, paintings, stories which move me to tears are not necessarily from struggle and pain, but may be from the amazing new awareness I have been gifted. A momentary glimpse of divine manifestation.

        I am glad I am unfinished. Raw. Needing of tempering. It makes life exciting. However I don’t consider all art to be best conceived from a broken world. Sometimes it is the scent of a rose which stirs my imagination.

        1. A rose with thorns of pain. 😉  I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’m just cracking myself up….

          Thank you. I believe I see your point.

          It’s a very personal matter. Its involvement in both conception as well as perception of art relies on our interpretation of pain; of the struggle. And yet I don’t think it always must exist to deeply move us.

          I do tend to agree with Jeff in a personal sense in that most of what I do creatively does contain struggle and pain to be birthed. He helped me see a little more why. And to acknowledge the struggle of incompleteness.

          1. Love the conversation here. It’s an honor to simply host it. I’m fine with being wrong and appreciate the levels of nuance people have added to this discussion. Thank you all.

            1.  You are a generous host  Jeff. The conversations have been amazing. And I appreciate the time you have given to responding to our comments whether we agree with your premise or not.
              This is what art is all about. Thank you.

    2. A quick question about me, about you, about Hemingway, about Van Gogh: When we reach inside ourselves what do we find?

      A little sadness, no?

      When I look at “Starry Night,” I want to weep. Is there a better picture of darkness and light and the need for both?

      When I read Austen (which doesn’t happen very often), I’m amazed at how love often comes with a cost. Her books are rife with themes of incompleteness and loneliness, a fear of and fascination with solitude. Often, these themes are juxtaposed with the social convention of marriage. Many of Austen’s characters fear being alone and at the same time demand their freedom. Is this not a picture of her own life? I think it’s significant that she never married and yet this is the theme of many of her books. 

      Regarding Binchey, here’s a quote from one of her novels:

      “I’ll understand if you don’t want me. But I will be heartbroken. You are all I ever dreamed of and hoped for. You are much, much more. Please know that I didn’t think I was mean-minded. But I realize I am. I don’t want you to put your arms around me and say it’s all right, that you forgive me. I want you to be sure that you do, and my love for you will last as long as I live. I can see no lightness, no humour, no joke to make. I just hope that we will be able to go back to when we had laughter, and the world was coloured, not black and white and grey. I am so sorry for hurting you. I could inflict all kinds of pain on myself, but it would not take back any I gave to you.”

      You might say that it’s one thing to make a character sad, but that doesn’t mean all art has to be sad. But I would say you can’t have art without sadness. The melancholy isn’t the final note, but it’s an important one. And without it, we distrust and disbelieve the art, because it cannot speak to our reality.

  27. I concur. While going through the very painful breakdown of my marriage and the divorce that followed, my natural inclination would have been to withdraw emotionally. Music wasmy doctor. Listening to music forced me to feel and process the pain I so wanted to avoid

  28. I really like that. Well done.

    Tozer said, “Every good and beautiful thing which man has produced in the world has been the result of his faulty and sin-blocked response to the creative Voice sounding over the earth.” He said creative geniuses are responding to “vague stirrings toward immortality.”

  29. It’s an intensity – and that can be sad, but it can be joyous. The line between tragedy and comedy is very fine. When we connect with people, when we challenge them and change their thinking, it is through this intensity. Is it passion? Sadness is a big part of it. I know if I am writing something sad, my writing is at its best if I can feel the raw intensity of the situation. I will sit there with tears streaming down my face (this is somewhat exhausting, however). The same for joy and wonder. Harnessing that – whatever it is – is golden.

    I also know not everyone experiences it, which is where it is the job of the artist to use it to challenge people’s thinking. When on our honeymoon my husband and I went to see a talented orchestra playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires by Piazzolla. Afterwards, I felt I might suddenly take off, grow wings, take a leap into space. My husband thought it was ‘pretty’. But the ear cannot be an eye, and a toe is as valuable as an elbow.

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you 🙂

  30. Art is the communication of truth that leads to an emotional reaction. Just because someone doesn’t like the emotional reaction doesn’t make the art any less valuable. I think we need to remember that we live in a broken world – yet this needs to be complemented with the hope of better things to come.
    So these two sides of art aren’t opposed but just two sides of the same coin.

  31. A universal underlying theme of sadness? I think if there isn’t some bit of sadness somewhere, then the joy is lessened. If hope isn’t also there somewhere, then we are failing as artists. The contrast is necessary and the conclusion should offer incentive to look up.

  32. Love this post! I know I connect with the dissonance in Art. But I don’t think ALL art is based from or made in sadness, but most is. I think the reason is that because we are a broken people, the sadness resonates more. We are looking to see if others are like us because we often feel alone in our brokenness. I have seen art that has pure JOY all over it, I believe this comes from finding our Savior and knowing our broken lives will be whole once again.

  33.   As writer and painter, I feel art has two components.  One, to show the reality of life and all it’s dark brokenness.  That art draws people in because it tells about the human condition and well can all relate to that.  The other part of art is to show beauty and light.  When God created everything, it was all BEAUTIFUL.  When man sinned, darkness overshadowed all the beauty and colored it “off”. So beauty is still a big part of art.  God wants us to see the beauty that was left after sin ruined everything.  Someday, all of creation will be redeemed and brought back to it’s  original beauty.  In the meantime. my primary role as an artist is to show beauty and bring pleasure to the viewer or reader.  It’s a reminder of Who God really is. If an artist wants to use human conflict and a natural world under the curse of sin, that’s okay, but there should always be resolution and rememption somewhere in the piece.  Strive for excellence and give the recipient hope.  That’s what God does.

  34. Jeff,

    This post really hit a sensitive nerve.

    I’m reminded that we are not perfect, but being so has shaped us to become beautiful.

    Our scars and traumas have made us imperfect, but they are also the tools we can use to become perfect.   


  35. I have to say that I don’t agree with your main point. I think that there is a place for sad art, but for the most part the best art is uplifting. Everyone knows there is bad stuff in life, but some of the best art lifts us up to see the good! I think it is very easy to look at the glass half empty, but seeing the glass half full is inspirational, life giving, actually more authentic and a real accomplishment.

  36. Love this post Jeff.

    It’s definitely something that I can align myself  with. I love the creativity and art that everyone is capable of producing. Art is where we can gain the inspiration and motivation to change ourselves and the world. 

    We can’t have overwhelming joy if we have never endured sadness. Pleasure and pain my friends. 


  37. This is so undeniably true it makes me cry. What stops me from bleeding all over the computer and piano keyboard while I compose on both, is the family and church employers  that might be reading over my shoulder. How do I get over that?

    1.  Just get over it.  Ha ha…. No.  Just continue to compose, and to write. If something seems too “unacceptable,” let it sit for a while, look at it again, and have just a small group of people listen to or read it.  I have written some poems that are too raw for public consumption. I’ve let just a few friends read them.  They are there, nonetheless, and I may draw upon them or use parts of them some time in the future.

      I’m on a bit of a U2 kick today (when am I not? I study them…), but when the band started to become popular in Ireland, the Christian fellowship in which three of the four of them were involved told them to drop the band stuff, because rock-n-roll was not acceptable — especially popular, heartfelt, rock-your-soul rock-n-roll.  They were torn. They nearly quit the band.  But they didn’t.  God gave them a gift, and they kept it, practiced it, shared it, weaving in scripture and hope while creating music about the realities of life like no one but they can.   Grooving the way God made them to groove.  I think this is why so many can relate to their music. They are not perfect, which is one reason why they are popular. They are courageous in their imperfectness. I can only take so much from those artists who stay in the safe, Christian music ghetto with their happy-clappy stuff.  

  38. Thanks Jeff, spot on as always.
    The thing I love about art is, it can have underlying sadness, make people think outside their usual square, offend or generally set off some kind of chain of emotion. Also it can create a sense of understanding, reach people who may have been blind to your message. But most of all the beauty is, we all take something different away from a story, a poem or a work of art. Thats what keeps life interesting and pushes us to be better individuals.

  39. Really amazing post.
    That unsettling feeling you speak of is something that I’ve only recently discovered through watching series like mad men and the walking dead.
    At first I contemplated to stop watching , because of the feeling I got from it. 
    But then I realised, that feeling makes it even better. And having the ability to make people feel that way, is like you say true art.

  40. Jeff, strong post. The best art pulls from the deeper parts of our selves, and pushes us to look past the surface. There’s instruction in the pain of life, the losses and the longing. And the not-knowing of what’s to come. (Thank God for chocolate!)

    thanks for the affecting and thoughtful post. 

  41. Jeff, while I believe that sadness is part of our life here on earth, I believe in much more than that.

    Even when we share and draw and express the sadness of life as artists, I believe those that know the God of hope, ought to allow His hope to shine through their art as well. I think our story does not end with sadness so i tend to think that we need to tell the whole story, not just bits of the story.

    1. I agree. But I think it’s the melancholy that makes the hope so powerful. It’s not that we need the dark to see the light, but it is a reality. What is a resurrection without the cross?

      1. So true Jeff, melancholy does make hope/victory powerful.
        The “hope” part is what is i was trying to bring across. The cross has a resurrection. So i think it’s about balance? Pull out the agony yes, but pull out the hope too 🙂

        1. Of course, Ngina. It’s not the sadness that makes us move; it’s the hope of redemption, of healing. But without the melancholy, the hope is false. It’s disingenuous.

  42. Great post. The whole point of Art is to inspire an emotional response from those who observe it and the artists job is to create that emotion.

    Without emotion Art would be dull and at the very best just o.k.

    It has to move us whether it makes us cry, laugh, love or hate that’s the point of Art.

  43. Well said Jeff, just as our world is imperfect, art needs to be as well! (in all forms of media) It’s relateable. Personally, there’s nothing better than a “sad” thought-provoking movie.

  44. What a great post! I totally agree with you, real art “speaks” to you, tears your heart out and exposes every raw nerve! That’s what it does to me, anyway. Thanks for sharing!

  45. I’ve been learning to watercolor, a medium that I have always loved. I think it is the imperfection, the lack of precision that resonates with me. No extra layers, no ornamentation, it’s raw. So after working all day, I look over my work and realize I have a ways to go, more toil and time before I approach the depth I see in other work. My writing is the same way. I can tell when I don’t have it because it’s shallow or covered with gobbledegook . To get to that level it takes work and getting in touch with the pain of life.

  46. One of my favorite works of art was an artist’s rendition of Jesus with the little children. He was laughing. Not just a little smile but a full laugh with a twinkle in His eye. I loved that work of art. It showed Jesus as approachable. I didn’t see anything dark or sad in it. 

    I like art that stirs the emotions but sometimes the emotion that is stirred is joy. So I personally think that we need both. 

        1. I don’t think it has to be a specific emotion. Sometimes art brings joy, peace, sadness, anger, etc… If it elicits an emotion it’s done what it’s supposed to.

    1. Interesting. However, isn’t what makes that joy powerful the fact that Jesus is on his way to his death? I don’t want to be macabre here, but sometimes the sadness doesn’t have to be explicit for it to be present. For example, he knew where he was going, even if those children didn’t.

      1.  But, here, aren’t you talking about the “experience,” not the “art?” In my mind, “art” is in itself.

      2. No. Jesus was on his way to eternal life. He faced temporal sadness and pain and chose to look through to connect the joy beyond to the joy-filled moment. He didn’t use his fate or his dire present as an excuse to give up or wallow in darkness for very long. I think we connect to these joyful images of Jesus because he seems whole, centered, and happy and this presentation challenges our conventional ideas of how someone with that fate should behave.

        It isn’t his fate that gives the image its poignancy; it is that we are provoked to ask a good question: “why is this doomed man smiling?”. The answer to that question probably radically altered a fair number of lives, and (assuming an archival quality image executed with craftsmanship, and that the image was not a stereotype), I’d allow this work might be art. The _lack_ of sadness gives the work potential.

        I agree that a fearless engagement with our pain and brokeness is essential to creating art. I agree that true art moves us from where we are to some other place, that we are never quite the same for having encountered it. But I do not agree that the art itself needs to be sad, or even have a sad sub-text.

        Cognitive, emotional, perceptual, kinetic, sensory — the types of responses we may have to art are so varied and rich, I wonder, Jeff, why you chose to focus solely on that single emotion as your common denominator. If you are suggesting that an existential angst permeates human existence, and we must be in touch with that to make art, I would agree– but I think “sad” is a weak word for a weary motivator.

        I believe we have fallen into a place where ugly, dark, dirty, and fearful images pass automatically for art, that wistful, hopeless poetry, and stories with poorly-behaved people making fatal decisions have automatically earned “art” status by dint of their ability to jar our sensibilities. But these works have become commonplace and glib; they seldom move me, except toward compassion fatigue and despair.

        Sad is easy. Art is challenging.

        Art asks questions, questions worth answering. When, in our lives and in our creative efforts, ugliness points to beauty, chaos reveals patterns, and brokenness emerges as part and parcel with rebirth and completion, the best of art unites us in a moment of epiphany that, however fleeting and fragile, offers up a place to go, a reason for hope, a call to action.

        And art reminds us that the reverse is also true, that completion, patterns, beauty all are ephemeral. We must stay alert and present to that joy-pain flash of epiphany or we will miss it. Art wakes us up, hands us coffee, and slaps a subpoena down on the breakfast table.

        We know when art hits us, because we we experience a challenge to our inertia and we take a stance. We move with it. We block its progress. We move in opposition to it. But we sip the coffee, pick up the subpoena, and face its challenges.

        If we yawn, crawl back to bed, and cry ourselves to sleep, it wasn’t art.

        It was just sad.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I believe the thing that moves us is what I call the Ache. It’s often pain or discomfort or something wrong that makes us move in some way. Maybe you wouldn’t call that sadness, but that’s what I mean here.

  47. I wonder, Ezra, how does an artist uplift your heart without acknowledging the pain? I would think that would come across disingenuous. How do you do this?

    1. It is no more disingenuous than an artist who creates depressing art without acknowledging the blessings in life.  All art is the expression of human feelings from soul to soul.  Some feelings are sad, some feelings are happy.  If you try to contain sadness in an expression of happiness you will probably end up with a muddled confusion.

  48. “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.”

    Wow. Yes. This is why I usually don’t like
    those end-of-the-year, keeping-up-with-the-Jones Christmas Letters. Life
    ain’t that easy. Tell me about your struggles, because it makes your
    triumphs all the more joyous.

    The ache. The melancholy. It’s a big part of being human. It’s what we know. This is why I am so drawn to U2’s music (and to a lot of Irish music in general).  This one, in particular, is one of my favorites. It’s about the death of Bono’s mother, when he was just a child.!/search?q=u2+tomorrow

  49. I’ve found that I create things based upon learning in life, which often surrounded some type of painful or trying event.  What is created will drive the consumer through a variety of emotions – sadness, unbelief, joy, & excitement.  Thought provoking post.

  50. I was listening to “All Songs Considered” and they were talking about The Who’s Quadrophenia, which, to me, defined most of my life as a young man; in particular, “Love Reign O’er Me” and one of the interns commented that she didn’t “get it.” I could have climbed through the speakers at that point to help her understand. I literally seethed.
    I also wrote a piece quite a while ago about my son enjoying the “moment” of his baseball games, and not worry if I see all his best plays, because those plays are in his life, for him, not me; I’ve got my own, like Quadrophenia. 
    So the moral is, if it moves YOU, fantastic. That’s the greatest compliment you give an artist. If it continues to move YOU, even after 30 years, it’s definitely art and you don’t have to worry about who gets it and who doesn’t; enjoy it for its own sake, it’s your blessing.

  51. Wow. Such an important post. It made me think of my life before and after I made the intentional decision to enter fully into the most painful situation I’ve ever faced – the death of my only child – and not attempt to PMA or PTL as a way of dealing with it. On the other side (0r as other side as I’ll get while my feet are still walking the ground of this planet) is an emptier but fuller life, enduring brokenness but unspeakable beauty, remainders of darkness but the bright light of Hope. My life isn’t either or anymore…it’s both, and. Mystery, paradox…closer to the heart of God…the master artist. I didn’t get here without intense struggle, embracing the messiness, the unsettling truth of my story. My brush and pen seem dipped in both blood and glory now, and it feel like home.

  52. This is why in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, George Macdonald (the character) explains to the artist why there is no art in Heaven. It’s amazing how landscape by Turner can leave me with such longing.

  53. Quite an excellent piece here, Jeff. I would add that for those who understand this the real key as an artist is figuring out how to celebrate the sadness and the depth of REAL life in a way that emotionally connects with readers. That’s not easy. In many ways you could say that Dostoevsky is the King of Sad. But it’s hard to emotionally connect to his work. He’s very intellectual. On the other side you have writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, where there is so much emotion and sad the reader wears down and has to fight a sense of life being all about defeat. I’m printing this one out and putting on my wall. I may just riff on your ideas as well at my blog. Stay tuned. Thanks so much.

  54. Yes, I agree, because as you said: We are all broken.  Art to me has become going deep and it makes me nervous at times.  But, that’s why I push on, because it’s kind of exciting too.

  55. I do not agree with you. I think, in reall life is enough pain and art should make reall life easier.

    Why watch some sad things, when I have enough of my own troubles?I hate art, which trying to play with feelings. 
    I really do.

  56. Art is an expression of emotion and thought. Happy, sad, angry, jealous, depressed, joyful, negative , positive … I do not not think all art need be birthed from the seed beds of sorrow. She is a great inspiration, no doubt, yet her sister Joy is also a great inspiration.

    And that CS Lewis quote about no art in heaven, tho it makes for a great line for a story, I cannot imagine our Creative selves in the everlasting Presence of the Creator ceasing to create … Without the presence of sorrow as a muse.

    Great reflective post.

    All your writing does not come from sadness does it?

    1. All my art doesn’t come from sadness, but all my art is an assault on meaninglessness and despair. So yes, the sadness is present, even as a foil for contrast.
      I think Lewis meant that art is about longing. And what need is there for longing in eternity?

  57.  This post is incredibly timely for me. I just released my first novel and the very tension you describe is very much with me. I reveal my brokenness through the story, and that’s a little unsettling for a recovering perfectionist. Thanks for this!

  58. Thank yo u this newsletter that comes from truth. I still remember well,when you wrote about writing the truth because the world is filled with  lies and  false flatteries, so where do we look  fo r truth? And we do crave the truth. From art: wrinting, art. T hink of Picasso’s Guernica. It ssays  more about war then a lot of exposition  lacking  the depth of truth and in this case  (Guernica):  great  sufering . We feel the same pain in our hearts and  we feel  connected. . The paadox is the very expression of, letting it out .from our soul: rich with our own imagry, vision, etc. (not lazy )  we open ourselves to  joy. I thnk sadness and exilaration are one and the same. I am toldI Iam one who is in awe of this universe and I am: from plums, poppies,jacaranda  trees to the imagesI see from the Hubble Telescope. ) ,  Those of  us who are consciously  in the process   of creating a new world  ,  involved in that  spiritual process, are  aware that we trqansform through the avenues of pain,obstacles to our desires ,. If we are   aware , we will discover that  liv ing through the dark, we do indeed transform,  we are able to experiene more  gratitude joy and the journey continues. In the creating a new world, we are  no t speaking of continual happiness, we are realizing we  will  perish if we contine to destroy the physic al world of  nature, if we to do very little regarding  ending war andviolence.  Our hearts c an hold it all. the sadness, th e fierce devotion to ridding of that which can destroy us, the ecstacy from looking at  a   single flower   or child’s face   and  our stories and  poems can hold  it all . And isn’t that which we artists are caled todo? We are summoned bythe mystery and in so doing healing those who encounter  our creations ,whether they are  love  stories    (which would include sadness)  or losses through death and painful separations.  .   I not onlywrite, I teach writing to adults and these concerns are an advenure for me. Thank you for holidng up this insight  to our  open eyes,     

      1. I saw some the last works of Van Gogh at the Frist a few years ago and it was terrifying. I got a feeling of suffocation and horror. I’m pretty sure I came out of there crying and stunned. Yet it was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

  59. I agree that the best art leaves you unsettled. The best stories go down deep, ruminate in soul. You turn it over and over in your mind and in your heart. The best stories haunt you like your favorite ghosts. After I watched Lincoln I wasn’t free of that story for at least a week. They haunt us, but that is how we change, grow, move forward. The best art, the art that sticks with us will always be more than simple entertainment. To quote one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes “…Sad is like happy for deep people.”

  60. This is probably one of your best posts, Jeff.  There is always a tragic element to art, a mourning over some sacrifice.  No sacrifice, no art.

  61. I like this post very much. Its reflective and thought provoking. Art indeed is used to communicate both hope in a decaying world at the same time bring out that decay to the surface for those who are blind to it. I personally think that when you have a gift that is artistic in nature, it behooves you to point humanity to all that is good, just, right, noble, virtuous, gracious. Its time we changed our story from the vices and negative themes of the world. Our news stories since time in memorial habitually focuses on the negative and nothing ever changes . Its only when we point humanity to that which is good, noble, gracious that the turn will eventually happen and true change and hope within ourselves will begin to arise.

  62. Good post and gives much to think about. I do think sadness is one emotion that art can evoke that can move people in different ways. The thing about sadness is that it’s an emotion that we typically can enjoy in art but not enjoy when it hits too close to home. Perhaps those who can enjoy sadness in art the most are those who can separate the sadness from art from the sadness in personal life, yet who can also allow themselves the freedom to feel sadness. The beauty of art in whatever form is that it can evoke not only sadness, but also a diverse range of emotions from hate to love, sadness to elation, fear to hope. That’s its magic.

  63. Thank you so much for this. I am at a really rough spot in my art and this really spoke to me. You are wonderful.

  64. Thank you for this! I’m working on a story I’m really passionate about that is also turning out more disturbing than I thought. Today while working on a crucial scene, I came away deeply depressed. Not because I couldn’t write it how I wanted to … but because I COULD. And that way was CREEPY. I asked myself, “Is something wrong with me, for writing something so sad that it makes even ME the writer feel totally disturbed?” Then I thought about Lovecraft who, from a technical perspective, is not the greatest writer (in my opinion) but always manages to mesmerize me with his use of emotion, particularly leaving me feeling edgy and disturbed, contemplating parts of life I’d rather sweep under a rug. Maybe my work wants to go down that vein. Maybe I should let it.

    1. Let it flow and go where it wants, just my opinion, but you might surprise yourself if let that control go. “Art should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed” lol

  65. People that find it easy to fall in the herd and perfectly happy being part of the machine, working 9 to 5 paying people for what they already have, taxes with no say where it goes while politicians line their pockets, drive their car (which is a neverending bill that constantly deprecates in value) because they saw M. Mconauhey drive it on tv (Lincoln sales went up 25% from that commercial), talking on their iphones they slept outside for, etc. etc. Wtf could they possibly have to get out on paper or on a canvas? It’s like a programmed printing press, I imagine it would all be similar. The best Artists, Writers, Poets, Philosophers… in my opinion, had that inner-darkness and demons and pain that they had to find some creative outlet for that emotion. As you mentioned, bullsh*t is easy to smell, and good art is messy. It can’t be perfect unless perfect in its imperfection. I’m “clinically depressed” and more than medicine or anything, art and writing has been my salvation which also meant embracing the darkness rather than a constant battle. *Side Note: Anyone reading this that also suffers from depression, find a couple writers, poets, art styles/forms, and/or artists “creation from chaos” – dive in head first.*
    As I was reading the good art messy part it brought to mind the difference between lions in the zoo being thrown a steak every day at the same time versus lions using their full natural ability and hunting in the wild because they have to, they have no choice. If you get the comparison I’m tryin to make.
    But I’ll shut up now cause I’m on a mobile phone rambling and trying to do 2 things at once lol. By the way, for me that says a lot about what you wrote and it was thought provoking or I would’ve kept it moving without saying anything. It will probably help me write later too. Good job and I’m not even a big fan of plays.

    “Better to be slapped by the truth, than kissed by a lie”

  66. It’s pretty obvious. The best writers were really fucked up in life (sorry my language)
    But that’s true. Virginia Woolf – drowned herself and in a letter to her husband she said that she felt she was going insane and didn’t want to spoil his life too; Edgar Allan Poe – didn’t kill himself, but had a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and depression and died of “acute congestion of the brain” (whatever that is); Hemingway – “quite deliberately” shot himself with his favorite shotgun, which I totally understand cause of the life he had and all those crazy shock treatments. At this point in my life, I believe that greatness comes with tough life struggles. Happy ppl, I suppose cannot just write as good as sad, miserable, sometimes depressed ppl.

  67. This is nothing more than a fifty dollar way of saying that misery loves company. There is nothing artistic or ennobling about being dismal. To claim otherwise is what is known in the real world as a “scam.” The medieval world had its theologians debating about angels and transubstantiation,. The modern world has its “artists” leaching off of private foundations and the public dole. Both classes of people are parasites, and the world would be immeasurably better without them.

  68. I don’t want to have to wear my underwear on my head to prove I wear underwear. Everything has it’s purpose and legitimate place. Same goes for pain, suffering and the ugliness of life. We’ve become a culture that mostly responds to the exaggeration of beauty and ugly. Even our computer screens have over saturated colors and distort many truths. Art schools praise those that splash red paint on a portrait of Hitler and dismiss the quiet and more subtle images that raise our hearts gently.
    Everyone gets what they need. If you need messy to validate your experience, maybe enhance your view of messy and make you feel alive…so be it but that isn’t a qualifier or a definition of what makes art great. In the end, when you look at art, and you like it, you’re looking at a mirror.

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