With great suf­fer­ing comes great art

All ac­claimed artistes have found in­spi­ra­tion from ad­ver­sity

New Straits Times - - Opinion - izham@me­di­aprima.com.my The writer works in the pro­duc­tion of TV, film and mu­sic con­tent and gets pan­icky try­ing to fig­ure out his next tweet

THE av­er­age Malaysian is eas­ily dis­mis­sive of the arts in Malaysia. They are quick to per­ceive lo­cal mu­sic as in­fe­rior, lo­cal films as some­thing they would never see, al­ways pre­fer­ring an in­ter­na­tional brand name.

Make no mis­take, Malaysia has had mo­ments of artis­tic bril­liance, from the inim­itable ta­lent of Yuna, to the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned Michelle Yeoh, to the beauty of Yas­min Ah­mad films, to the jazz artistry of Michael Veer­apen, to the sublime art col­lages of Ibrahim Hus­sein and even to the uni­ver­sally ap­peal­ing comics of Lat.

How­ever, these artis­tic gi­ants are ex­cep­tions in the vast ocean of medi­ocrity in our arts. I re­ally can­not fault the av­er­age Malaysian for be­ing dis­mis­sive of Malaysian arts as most of it IS sim­ply av­er­age.

Is this due to a lack of cre­ativ­ity? Or, a lack of funds to drive in­no­va­tion in arts? Or, a lack of pro­fes­sion­ally trained artists?

We could blame our­selves for dis­cour­ag­ing our chil­dren from study­ing arts and push­ing them to a “safer” ed­u­ca­tion. We could blame the scarcity of mu­sic venues and art gal­leries. We could blame a lack of in­vest­ment to be able to cre­ate great art.

We could. But I feel there is a more fun­da­men­tal rea­son.

I buy into the be­lief that all great art comes from great suf­fer­ing. The blues orig­i­nated from a tra­di­tion of work songs sung by slaves in Amer­ica. It was their way to ex­press suf­fer­ing. It was their re­spite in the gloom of hu­mil­i­a­tion in life. The blues comes from such pow­er­ful emo­tions rooted in se­vere hard­ship that it be­came an in­cred­i­bly po­tent pri­mal force re­spon­si­ble for giv­ing birth to mod­ern mu­sic.

The en­su­ing racism faced by black artistes in the 1950s in­spired their pow­er­ful songs, iron­i­cally en­abling com­mer­cial­ism of black mu­sic in white Amer­ica. Mo­town was a stand­out, pro­duc­ing important artistes like Marvin Gaye, Ste­vie Won­der and Smokey Robin­son.

Our Malaysian lives in com­par­i­son have been rel­a­tively calm and pleas­ant. We can get Star­bucks at nearly ev­ery cor­ner in the city. Or take the mass rapid tran­sit. Or see a BMW or Mercedes just about ev­ery­where, or just walk around enor­mous shop­ping malls dis­play­ing new col­lec­tions from Louis Vuit­ton or Typo, and then later have teh tarik with our friends in the mid­dle of the night with no fear of any­thing re­ally bad hap­pen­ing.

In many ways, we haven’t suf­fered enough. No op­pres­sion, no bombs go­ing off, no bloody fights in the streets. Ba­si­cally, no in­spi­ra­tion from suf­fer­ing that can be turned into great art.

Art is a mir­ror of hu­man­ity. It is a re­flec­tion of our­selves. There­fore, art that is cre­ated from one who has had to over­come ad­ver­sity will touch our very soul. That emo­tional con­nec­tion makes it great art.

Iran is home to some of the most amaz­ing film­mak­ers around. In fact, As­ghar Farhadi just won his sec­ond Os­car. Abbas Kiarostami, an­other ac­claimed Ira­nian film­maker who thinks the rea­son for qual­ity Ira­nian films is BE­CAUSE of the heavy cen­sor­ship and strict en­vi­ron­ment in Iran, re­cently said: “Dif­fi­cul­ties have al­ways ex­isted in our life­style and our role is to sur­pass them.”

I think the ma­jes­tic beauty of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony was not in spite of him be­ing to­tally deaf when he wrote it, but BE­CAUSE he was to­tally deaf. That frus­tra­tion of not be­ing able to hear his own mu­sic must have driven him to write that suf­fer­ing out into a mas­ter­piece.

Bill Evans and Char­lie Parker, two of the big­gest gi­ants in jazz, suf­fered through­out their lives but in that suf­fer­ing made mu­sic that be­came an in­te­gral part of jazz his­tory. Kurt Cobain hated how Nev­er­mind sold mil­lions which to him meant he was “sell­ing out” and wrote the next al­bum In Utero to be to­tally “non-com­mer­cial”, but in the process cre­ated an even greater al­bum.

All these artistes turned their dif­fi­cult lives into great works of art. I’m not say­ing that you can’t cre­ate art with­out suf­fer­ing. You can, but the art that comes from con­flict and pain will al­most al­ways be great.

But, how do we do this? How do we cre­ate suf­fer­ing? Aren’t we sup­posed to avoid suf­fer­ing as hu­man be­ings? I ac­tu­ally have no an­swer. The clos­est one I can think of is for us to step out into the world and ex­pe­ri­ence those go­ing through strife. Feel what they are feel­ing.

It won’t be the same, but at least it will in­ject us with new emo­tions that may help el­e­vate our art to the next level. And, we can sip our Star­bucks while work­ing on it.

(The new movie J Revo­lusi, show­ing in cin­e­mas now, is a great ex­am­ple of how lo­cal ac­tion film can stack up againt the world.)

Malaysia has had mo­ments of artis­tic bril­liance, thanks to the beauty of Yas­min Ah­mad movies.

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