Pleasure is an important part of our lives that we often don’t talk about in our society. In this post, I’ll explore why it’s important, especially for artists.
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My hobby/passion project Starry Sky and Witchy Things is a podcast where I aim to empower people to release the false beliefs they have about themselves so they can build a life they don’t want to escape from. I do that mostly through digging back into my formal education (I have a Master’s Degree in History) and covering the tools and knowledge from the Western esoteric tradition, mostly related to Star Magic but not exclusively.
The algorithm and our modern need for niching down are far removed from how the Renaissance had a holistic view of being human, especilly the conversation around personal branding.
Anyway, the topic on the podcast this week followed on from the previous conversation around reframing healing, and was Art, Healing, and Pleasure. I wanted to dig deeper into something that came up in both books I mentioned in episode 1 of season 4, Your Brain on Art by Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. And also look at the intersection of self-discovery, magic, and sex and kink in the history of art.
Creating art from pleasure, not pain
In “Big Magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert dedicates a whole few sections to refuting the idea that the only art of value is art born out of pain, or what our intellectual tradition would see as the Tormented Artist.
I appreciate work born out of pain, and when it comes to writing I find it easier to create from that place myself, but it’s never about suffering for the sake of the art, or fetishising the suffering on account of the art. The point of art that is born out of suffering is that art is alchemy that helps us to transmute the suffering into something beautiful and pleasurable.
Art is a phoenix rising from the ashes of our human experience and yes, often our human experience will be one of pain. But it’ll often be one of pleasure, too, and beautiful things have been born out of contentment and peace.
And I believe that we need art born of both, because while the art-making process is alchemy to the artist, engaging with art is alchemy to everyone else too.
The power of catharsis
Back in ancient Greece, Aristotle wrote about this theory in his Poetic. He wrote specifically in terms of the social function of tragedies in theatre, but it works for positive emotions too if you are open to it.
The idea of catharsis is that the experience of emotions through fictional stories alchemises our own feelings without us having to experience the same situations in order to achieve the knowledge and capacity for empathy.
I believe the human ability to connect to other people’s emotions is why a smile is contagious, and most of us who are in a bad mood are able to lift the dark clouds at the sight of a kitten.
Although I have witnessed plenty of people holding resolutely to their bad moods no matter what, so it’s not a fool-proof plan. It requires us being open to magic. However, modern science is on my side on this one.
For the brave ones who embrace their human calling to be artists, it takes a mere 45 minutes of creating to reduce their cortisol levels. And for those who are still watching from the sidelines, one or more art experiences a month can extend your life by 10 years.
Your Brain on Art has a lot to say about the impact of music on our parasympathetic nervous system, and what uses are there for all the arts when it comes to not only healing adults, but creating resilience in children from early on.
Life as a work of art
Another book I have read as part of my research for season 4 is Catherine Fletcher’s The Beauty and the Terror: An Alternative History of the Italian Renaissance. I recommend it if you’d like a comprehensive overview of the most exciting period of European history according to me.
Anyway, the premise of the book is that art and war were inseparable in the culture of the time, and that their mingling in the day to day life of all actors on the historical stage informed the way they viewed art and what art we got as a result. And, to an extent, what we saw as art.
One book she mentions extensively is an old friend of mine, Baldassarre Castiglione’s the Courtesan, which expounded among its principles the idea of Sprezzatura.
The idea is not dissimilar to the concept of nonchalance, or effectively the effort it takes to make gracefulness and ease of manner appear effortless. It was an early idea of the Dandy, which would become established with the social prominence of Beau Brummell in the late 18th century.
Effectively, it made a person into a work of art, even though the concept did not yet extend to the idea of life itself as a work of art.
Romanticising our life
A common concept online, as manifestation leaves the realm of magic to make its way to the mainstream, is that of romanticising our life. Blending ideas underpinning our self-concept like Lucky Girl Syndrome and Main Character Energy with the hygge mindset of appreciating the simple mundane pleasures of our day to day instead of chasing the hit of the special occasion, it can be credited for bringing more mindfulness and joy to life post-Covid.
This quest for pleasure, no matter how small, to me speaks of a desire to move away from the puritanical ideas about our bodies and the material realm, and become more embodied in the fullness of the human experience. I know that very well from the philosophical undercurrent in traditional Catholicism I experienced in my earlier years, but I see it commonly in more spiritual circles where the goal of opening up to higher reality seems to be to bypass the current one.
It may not be a huge pleasure, or linked to something specific, but we are meant to enjoy life. And that begins with being present with ourselves, which is going to be a topic I’ll explore more in the coming weeks on the podcast and on this blog.