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The Myth of the Suffering Artist (an essay)

The Myth of the Suffering Artist (an essay)

Published Jan 16, 2023 Updated Jan 16, 2023
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The Myth of the Suffering Artist (an essay)



As far as I see it, in Hungary many intellectuals (including various writers and readers) still believe in the long-outdated stereotype of the suffering artist. We tend to think that a great actor, painter or poet functions as the aesthetic and moral compass or the immune system of society. They must not, therefore, make any artistic or ethical compromises, even if this means risking their own well-being. Ideally, they should be unacknowledged in their lifetime, of necessity poor, alcoholics at the very least, but preferably suicidal. Once these boxes have been checked, we’re talking about a serious Eastern European oeuvre. Contrast this to the global West, especially the U.S., where people grow up thinking that a poet is a civil rights activist, a political columnist or an art curator in their youth, and they allow them to grow old as an esteemed college professor. For some reason I like the latter version more.

            The Eastern European poet must therefore be an artist who is starving and living on the margins of society. That’s their job after all: to be as close to the poor and needy as possible in order to be able to paint a lifelike picture of those people’s everyday trials and tribulations. If poets were well-off, they would be disconnected from the suffering of the people and unable to report on it authentically. So, the poet should be a have-not but should still carry the weight of the nation on their shoulders. An artist who should suffer and die for us on the cross of privation in order to open our eyes to the truth?  Isn’t this an exaggerated, messianic image?

            One of the major differences between Eastern and Western societies, or so it seems to me, is the extent to which they appreciate their intellectuals. The global West may have been contributing to the financial support of artists in the Eastern-European block for at least the past thirty years by offering international grants and scholarships, but the question remains: in doing so, how much have they conserved and reproduced the falsely glorified image of the suffering artist?

            This magnified and rather depressing representation of the poet isn’t unknown to Western societies, as it derives from the archetype of German sentimentalism: the Goethean Sorrows of Young Werther, Jean Paul’s Weltschmerz, and the English spleen of Lord Byron. Above all, it derives from the image of the revolutionary-romantic poet, who must sacrifice their life for their country and die in battle. One such is Sándor Petőfi, Hungary’s greatest romantic poet and freedom fighter. Or it derives from the counterpart to these poets: the metaphysical-romantic vates – meaning ‘fortune-teller’ or a ‘prophetic poet’ from as early as Roman times – who, maybe through virtuous pacifism or hazy intellectualism, or simply through weakness of the nerves, withdraws from battle and takes refuge in raking over the ashes of the glorious past, fantasizing about medieval castles, and gothic ghost stories. These poets are supposed to end up going mad like Hölderlin or committing suicide like Kleist. This is one of the reasons we tend to feel awkward when we think of ourselves as poets. I'm convinced that it is extremely toxic to maintain the image of the suffering artist, and that we must do all that we can to abolish it.

            In Hungary there is an astonishingly strong tradition of suffering, (self)aggressive, alcoholic, and suicidal poets. Sándor Petőfi, the revolutionary poet I mentioned above, is a great example of a self-sacrificing poet who dies on the battlefield, even though historians aren’t convinced whether he bravely stood his ground in the battle or if he was struck down by Russian spears while he was fleeing and making his way through the cornfields. Or there is the great Hungarian anti-hero, Attila József, whose suicide at an early age took place on the train tracks and provoked a century-long psychological investigation into the poet’s mind. Had the brutal act been intentional or an accident? Regardless of the truth, Attila József’s suicide became the number one life-model people think of when it comes to poetry. Not to mention György Petri, a very important and highly talented, though slightly misogynistic and excessively alcoholic Hungarian poet active in the second half of the 20th century who basically drank himself to death, setting some very toxic standards for future generations of young poets.

Being a writer, and especially a poet in Hungary in 2022 is far from easy. The global pandemic coupled with Putin’s horrifying war in neighboring Ukraine have sent utility costs and market prices skyrocketing, making things even more difficult for freelance artists, let alone the “illiberal” havoc that's been wreaked on the country's mostly moderate left-wing culture by the right-wing conservative government during the past decade.

Since Hungary is a relatively small country where writers have never been able to make a living from the market (apart from a few lucky exceptions), and private patrons have not been a part of our art-financing models, artists, and especially writers have always had to rely on government grants and scholarships if they want to make ends meet. (That said, as far as I am aware, writers wouldn’t be able to make a living without government support or private funding in western societies either.) This has been compromised lately, since most cultural institutions responsible for art funding in Hungary are now affiliated with the government’s illiberal policy and the project of building a new right-wing literary canon.

Partly because of financial reasons and partly to challenge my own snobbishness I have all sorts of different jobs; I work a dramaturg for big city theaters like the Örkény and the Katona while also writing operetta or opera librettos for musical theatre and sometimes for more commercial theatre as well. I must make a living in order to be able to write according to my own personal taste and standards on my personal projects. But I always try to provide the highest possible quality even when working to commission. I believe that it is our duty to keep the tendency of the avant-garde and the boldness of experimentation alive and to battle the profit-oriented, mass-entertainment institutions. But at the same time, I like to think of art as a wide range of different genres, audiences, and core values. The anti-conformist, avant-garde tradition is only one slice of it, although a very important one.

            However, we must dedicate a few words to the injustice carried out by the avant-garde and elite literary paradigms against popular culture, which is also very palpable in Hungary, and rooted, in my opinion, in a common self-deception – that as intellectuals, we are morally superior. We tend to think that “real” art is, by definition, anti-capitalist and uncompromising. It must not, therefore, rely on the market, and this independence is considered a virtue per se.

The thing is, however, that the avant-garde and elite gatekeepers, while convinced of their leftist values, actually represent the total opposite: their moral superiority is nothing more than an elitist practice itself. By setting the intellectual and academic standards so high that only a few college professors can understand the works they propagate, they distance themselves from the common, popular taste and deprive the people of quality culture, and by using these extremely high standards to select what is worthy of aesthetic attention and what is not, they reproduce the privileges of the eternal ruling class.

            It is grim to see young authors from poor family backgrounds, from the margins of society, being quick to distance themselves from popular culture as soon as they get into college and thinking of themselves as the new depositaries of “real” cultural values. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that the quality of art depends on whether it is created by the expectations of popular or elite culture – whether it is lowbrow, middlebrow, or highbrow.

            In my opinion a well written poem or novel is worth no more than a professionally crafted Netflix-series, or a high-quality operetta. In every genre there are masterpieces and works of less value. If Hungarian literature were truly left-wing, as it likes to claim, then it would place the same value on working-class poets as it does on professor poets, and it would appreciate popular or politically engaged songs along with complicated philosophical essay-poems. What it does instead, (as do we, who participate in it) is reproduce the privileges of authors, critics, and editors while completely ignoring the needs of the common reader – and all the time we call ourselves leftwing liberals.

            I must emphasize that I appreciate intellectual, academic poetry very much, and I pursue it my own writing. Make no mistake, I do not, by any count, believe in the abolition of intellectual discourse. But I do not believe either that a left-wing cultural revolution must have its thinkers and philosophers who guide and conduct the working class, telling them what to think, what to read, and what goals to fight for. In my opinion, there’s no such thing as “raising” the aesthetic taste of the working-class to the level of the intelligentsia. Such a goal is not about helping the people; it is about conserving one's status quo, plain and simple. Does everyone need to read Dostoevsky instead of watching Pixar animations? Why do we think we know better than ordinary people what they should watch, read or think? Isn't this a bit narcissistic?

©Anna Bentley 2022 for the English translation


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