by Joel Caris
I like my art to be sad. That's not to say that I deplore happiness or satisfaction, that I hate a good happy ending or anything like that. It's just that I have no problem with the sad endings, the tragic ones, with the stories that dwell on misery and suffering and all the pain inherent in living on this planet. It seems to me that existence is brutal, to varying degrees for various people, but universally painful on certain levels.
Now, life is worth it, I believe. For the pain and misery and suffering that seems always around the next corner, there is also joy and happiness and great elation. Life is pretty damn cool, when you get right down to it. That's my thought. Therefore, I don't want this to be taken as some sort of downcast condemnation of existence, as a hopeless screed.
But the suffering is there and I don't believe it will ever go away. I do think the human race is capable of great gains and achievements, of righting wrongs and carrying out justice. I believe that we can make lives better and that we can improve the world. I do believe in progress. But I also believe that pain is a constant, that it will always exist and that the only difference is in how it manifests. Pain changes and morphs and puts on new faces, but it never disappears. It simply takes a different form, the same as energy.
So I like my art to deal with that. I like my art to dwell on it, to tackle it head on, to exhibit and try to make sense of all the pain in the world. However, I don't want my art to try to provide me answers for the pain. I don't want to be told the details about why we suffer and I don't want people to tell me how to make it end. I don't want a lecture or a grave explanation of just how humanity has gone wrong and how it can correct itself. Give me a break—we don't have the answers. No one has the answers. If they existed, we would be a hell of a lot better off. We've tried, oh how we've tried to make the world right and perfect. We try governments and economies and religion, we proclaim the Golden Rule and talk to our neighbors, we put ourselves into therapy and make friends and find lovers and it never goes away. The pain doesn't disappear. The best we get is a retreat—temporary—and then the return of pain in a different form. Or, hell, half the time it comes back in the same damn form. We thought we beat it; we didn't.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't defeatism or misery, this isn't even a dark night of heavy thoughts. I've been in a good mood today. I just like to face up to the reality of pain in this world and I always have. I think it's one of the key reasons I consider Buffy the Vampire Slayer to be one of the greatest shows of all time. It dealt with pain forthright, head on, without ever hesitating or pulling back to give the viewer a breather. The show—specifically, Joss Whedon—had no trouble dumping tragedy upon tragedy on the viewer, inundating them with pain and misery and heartbreak, great loss. Whedon said multiple times that his goal was to pile on the pain until the audience felt they couldn't take any more—and then hit them with something else. He always wanted to see how far he could take it because he wanted to be honest about life, about what happens in this world. Because the pain is always there, it's ever-present. You don't get a breather, no one decides that your life needs to be made happier so as not to alienate the audience. If there's any audience to this existence, then it's an audience with endless tolerance.
Give me the misery. Give me the horror, the tragedies, the injustices. I want all of it, because that's what this life is. Give me the pain, let me feel it. Rip my fucking heart out; this is what I want. I can take it. I'll have to take it, because how can I manage real life pain if I can't take the pain that artists feed me? How do you survive your own very real life if you can't even handle the imagined lives?
Yes, I know, for many people art is about entertainment. They want the movies that make them feel good, that distract them from the pain of their lives. But I've never been that way. I'll take the entertainment, mind you, and I'll enjoy it and won't have a problem with letting my mind wander for a couple hours. When you get right down to it, though, I could live without the mindless entertainment—I can create that on my own—but I would have a much harder time getting by without the vicarious pain and misery. It's that kind of art that leaves me thoughtful and contemplative, that leaves me feeling just a bit closer to making sense of the world. I don't think I can ever have a true understanding of the scope of this life, of its purpose or meaning or why people suffer the way they do, but I do believe I can gain a better grasp of it. I think that I can come to terms with it and I believe that examining pain and suffering through art is a crucial component of coming to accept life, to dealing with the intricacies of our existence. I think art can make the pain more bearable, but only if you're willing to experience the painful art. It just makes it easier when the real pain comes around and you realize that, yes, this all happens to you, too. It's not just something you read or watch—it's how the world is. And it's how the world will always be. So if art can confront it and help you to handle it when it raises its head for real, then all the better. Then suddenly art is not just entertainment and escape, it's a crucial element of life. It becomes an integral part of existence, which makes it richer and fuller, much more visceral and emotional.