Anyone in the habit of communicating their creativity has had moments where their work is tinged with shadow. Some artist thrive in that dark place. Are you one of them? I walk the line on how dark the words I write are, and don’t believe in denying the sad, angry, or even ugly emotions and experiences we all carry. I choose to hold them, look at them, learn from them, then try to let them go.
But what to do when that darkness overshadows all other emotions when you create?
First, decide if it’s something you want to happen. Is the ugliness necessary to YOU? Is it something the world needs to see?
These are extremely personal questions. I will tell no one the way you express your creativity is wrong, or invalid, unless you are hurting other people. I will probably choose to not view your work if it’s overly dark for my own mental health. But that doesn’t invalidate it. Your art can still teach the world if you choose to share, and people decide it’s something they like. Make sure you tread that line carefully.
What if you answer no? No, you don’t want this darkness. Then you should ask is where is it coming from.
During the year I lived in The Netherlands, my boyfriend, now husband, took me to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It was a great visit, but it also haunts me.
The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers is a c.1672-75 oil on canvas painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Jan de Baen. 69.5 cm × 56 cm (27.4 in × 22 in)
Jan de Baen’s painting is the piece I will never forget. I almost walked right by it, the last small painting on the wall. It still stopped me dead in my tracks. I didn’t linger long, because it disturbed me. But I had to look closer to understand what it was. Then came the questions.
“What is that painting about?”
“What is the story behind it?”
“How could people do that to each other?”
The history behind the painting is pretty complicated, I will let you decide whether you want to look it up. The short answer is the two brothers depicted in the painting, were killed for political reasons.
As I remember viewing the painting for the first time, I ask myself, what was the artist thinking? Though the painting is attributed to Jan de Baen, it might be the work of an unknown artist. The exact reasons for its creation are not known for sure. Regardless, it’s a gruesome reminder of historical events. Which brings us back to what must the artist have been thinking?
Perhaps he had been asked to record what happened for the sake of history. Perhaps it was done for more political reasons. Was it a seen he has viewed himself? If so, was he releasing trauma? Witnessing violence like that would leave any human mind scared. We can’t know the answers to these questions, because we can’t ask the artist.
No matter what the motives and emotions behind the piece where, it’s important. Do I hate it? Yes. But I would argue it’s necessary. A necessary ugliness, a necessary reminder of human crimes. There are many works of art like this all around the world. Their darkness will not let us forget the mistakes of the past.
So what do you do when your own work haunts you? Do you have a story that needs to be told? Is its ugliness necessary? I would urge bravery and prayer.
It may be a darkness that you need to express and then release. Or it may be a darkness the word needs to acknowledge. But be kind to yourself. Be careful with your spirit, and if you need help with your journey of creativity mixed with shadow, reach out to a fellow creative who can support you. Or a mental health expert who can guide you.
Some people will disagree with me. They will recite things like Philippians 4:8 NIV. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. In reply, I would say, these works of art hold truth. Though the truth is ugly, it’s not something we should turn away from.
As a Christian, I often wear a cross. The tinny silver emblem of my faith is a work of art that holds darkness. It is a reminder of injustice, torture, and death. But is also my hope, the hope of this world. Should I turn away from the darkness of Christ’s death on the cross? Never.
Some artwork is created only for the enjoyment of morbidity. Again, I will say as long as you are not breaking any laws, or hurting other human beings, I don’t believe in forbidding you that kind of creativity. If this is you, I would like to ask you a question. Do you know your why? Is there something deep inside you might be neglected, that is the reason you enjoy dark art? Is it something you need to deal with?
For those of us who do not purposely seek dark works of art, may we be brave to telling the stories that beg to be told. May we be strong and not be trapped in darkness, but be able to let it go.
©Mary Grace van der Kroef 2020