Why do people respond to tragedy in art, be it film, poetry, painting or some other form? While modern popular fiction frequently gives us the happy ending based on the philosophy of giving the people what they want, these contrived resolutions strike many of us as trite and false. It is not as some might think: a masochistic desire to see only the depressing side of life represented, based on a wish to have our pessimistic life-views confirmed. More accurately, it is the feeling that in order for a realistic version of life to be represented, there must be some acknowledgment of life's darker side; that its hardships and sorrow deserve equal representation in order for any dramatic, or even comic depiction of life to ring true.
Artists themselves frequently talk about the need for painful life experience in order to inspire their creative juices and provoke a more mature art of profound emotion. Blues musicians in particular often speak of the necessity to "live the blues" before you can "play the blues". This is not to say that they should, or do, spend their lives mired in sadness or seeking out unhappy experience for inspiration. It is more likely the simple belief that, in order to produce music that honestly expresses heartache and sorrow (as blues music commonly does), you have to have first-hand experience.
While it is certainly true that much of what we regard as blues music today was born of the difficulties of the African American life experience in pre-civil rights America, this does not mean that those creating the form were overtly sad or morose individuals. The amount of pain and sorrow they personally experienced must vary, of course, and does not necessarily form a direct equation to the value or integrity of their music. Blues music, though admittedly in different forms, continues to thrive today. Often some of its best practitioners are quite young and in some cases, are probably from relatively "privileged" backgrounds. In all likelihood, in some circumstances their most profound hardship in life to date has been a conspicuous pimple on prom night or a dropped ball in a big game. How is it that these "kids" can produce such heartbreakingly sorrowful and beautiful art? My personal feeling is that there is still a heightened appreciation of the melancholic side of life at work. While first-hand experience is probably the quickest route to acquiring this appreciation, our capacity to understand through empathy and compassion are at least equally valuable. For many listeners, blues music is thought to be too depressing. Yet those who appreciate the form will tell you the opposite. They find great comfort and pleasure in the mournful guitar notes and lyrics of heartbreak and dismay. There is a cathartic element to its enjoyment, a purging of pent-up emotions that occurs in the listener. In addition, there is a sense of bonding with one's fellow man that occurs from a shared emotional experience and an acknowledgement of emotions that are all too often discouraged in our daily lives. While "the blues" may not be to everyone's tastes, I believe the same can be said of any art form that induces a rush of melancholy emotions, be it an effective Hollywood tearjerker or perhaps a beautifully sad painting or photo that depicts some form of human anguish. Certainly, if tragedy did not have some human benefit, it would not be such a constant of our art and popular entertainment.
What does all this talk of blues music and art have to do with me, you might ask? I'm not even interested in blues music or art in general, and have no desire to produce either, you may declare. Obviously, many people lead valuable and important lives without experiencing the pleasures of B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughn or Shakespeare and Van Gogh for that matter. I'm not arguing that everyone should seek out mournful experience, be it in art or life. With regards to art and popular entertainment, it is difficult to argue with the opinion of those who state that they know all to well that life is often sad and difficult if not downright tragic, so they don't need to be reminded of this, preferring that their entertainment be of an upbeat escapist variety. It is my opinion that this kind of escapist fare ultimately can do more harm than good in that it creates false expectations in life and leaves us unprepared for the trials and adversity that life will inevitably send our way. However, I will begrudgingly admit it is certainly possible for someone to spend their leisure time say, watching only the most banal sitcoms and listening exclusively to disco music, yet still be mindful and appreciative of life's tragic side and even its potential beauty.
In case you are beginning to think the author of this piece is a morose and somewhat cranky individual who subscribes to a "misery loves company" philosophy, let me assure you that I do value happiness and like most people, prefer that the overwhelming majority of my life be comprised of happy times. It is simply that I feel that the sad and painful experiences of life have value and merit and should not be dismissed or tucked away in some dark corner, hidden from public view or scrutiny.
Too often, we devalue the harsh and even depressing realities of life, treating them as aberrations to be dismissed and overcome as quickly as possible. Modern self-help gurus commonly espouse the belief that our reality is of our own creation, that the degree to which we experience life as positive or negative, happy or sad, is completely within our control. To a degree, there is some truth and merit to this viewpoint. While we may have little control over what events fate (or God, or the Universe - apply whatever term you feel is appropriate) has in store for us, we can to a degree control how we respond to those events. Certainly, we would prefer to ultimately experience such events, however dire or distressing, as positive ones.
In the face of personal crisis, we are often advised to, "get over it". Though perhaps well -intentioned, this can serve as a harsh criticism of those who are unable to quickly overcome sad or depressing circumstances. We should not feel obliged to simply snap out of it or move on when faced with sadness in our lives, despite what others tell us, regardless of how well intentioned they may or may not be. Some events are sad, even harmful to us, and to experience or reflect on them will make us feel sad and unhappy, period. Certainly, I can say that there have been experiences in my life that I would prefer not to have occurred and that I have not received any kind of psychological benefit from. I'm of the opinion that if honest with themselves, most people will find the same holds true. Hopefully these experiences are few and far between, but inevitably, they will occur for everyone.