It’s a frequently cited trope that art derives from experiences of suffering and pain. The discussion of the conditions for the creation of great art is usually a tired one, painted in broad strokes with its participants citing heartbreak, conflict, suicide, poverty.
But the following passage from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous takes a different turn and tone, opening me to consider how we else we can approach this question.
Once, at a writing conference, a white man asked me if destruction was necessary for art. His question was genuine. He leaned forward, his blue gaze twitching under his cap stitched with gold with ‘Nam Vet 4 Life, the oxygen tank connected to his nose hissing beside him. I regarded him the way I do every white veteran from that war, thinking he could be my grandfather, and I said no. “No, sir, destruction is not necessary for art.” I said that, not because I was certain, but because I thought my saying it would help me believe it.
But why can’t the language for creativity be the language of regeneration?
In the novel, the protagonist has clearly lived through many traumas — as the child of a single mother / refugee who beats him as a reflection of her own lived trauma of escape from Vietnam, to growing up queer with a first lover who is addicted to opioids, to the simple reality of not being white in America.
Seen through this lens, the question posed about the language of creativity is a hopeful one. Yet it is also rhetorical, loaded with the seemingly impossible attempt to live in harmony having experienced such trauma. Amplifying this struggle is the reality of a society that does not value justice and healing for those most vulnerable among us.
In my mind, the only real qualification for the creation of art is that it reflects the intention and experiences of its author. Perhaps it’s merely easier to reflect pain and suffering because there is so much of it; much harder to imagine harmony and regeneration because there are so few lived experiences of it.
Still, I’m left with a deep impression by this book and its protagonist having the strength and courage to ask the question differently.