What does "Sonny Blues" have to say about the nature of art and artists?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the conclusion of the short story "Sonny's Blues," first Sonny and then the narrator reveal author James Baldwin's theory about suffering in relationship to art and expression, specifically the art of blues music playing as Sonny plays it. Sonny tells his brother, the narrator, that music keeps Sonny from drowning in a sea of suffering.

He further says that he believes (being the voice of the author at that moment) that in order to profit from suffering, in order to learn from it, one has to make it your own, which Sonny has attempted to do through heroine and music (the results of such "owning" through heroine and music might be very arguable indeed). Music and its expression--or art and its expression--allow Sonny to feel in control of the suffering drowning him--an illusionary feeling at best considering the results and circumstances of Sonny's decisions and life.

Then, while the narrator watches Sonny at his reunion performance, he realizes that the blues has helped Sonny keep his sense of worth and identity and, in fact to build more worth and identity, in the midst of the suffering. The narrator expresses the author's theory that self can be preserved, even amplified, through art and the expression of art, even when suffering seeks to crush it.