On Art and Suffering / by Chris Hall

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

Edvard Munch, Despair, 1894

In the eyes of art history, Munch’s best work came out of his suffering.  His work after 1910 is generally regarded as weaker than and not as expressive as his earlier work from the 1890's and 1900's.  Is suffering necessary in order to make good work?  Many artists believe this, perhaps because suffering is all they have known, and we artists insist on our wounds (and the world isn’t friendly to artists and the expression of emotions).  I once believed that good work could only come out of suffering, too, but I refuse to believe completely in it anymore.  As someone who has experienced mental illness in the form of major depression and anxiety, I understand this notion to a great degree.  But there is nothing romantic about depression and anxiety.  Looking back, maybe my suffering gave me some clarity, insight, and empathy after the fact, but while being depressed, or in the throes of an anxiety attack, it is impossible to make art.  It is a torture to want to keep on living, let alone hold a paint brush.  I don’t know exactly how other artists work, what makes them tick, what makes them produce art.  Speaking for myself, it is important for me to be happy while having a little bit of an edge and some sensitivity.  I remember being on lithium for a short time, years ago, and how I could not produce any artwork because I felt emotionally numb, so maybe there is some truth to the necessity of suffering.  Maybe a little suffering is good for the soul, but only a little.

Why is contemporary art wary of art as catharsis and the expression of human emotion?  Why is it afraid of color?  In today’s rationally minded art world, perhaps they are afraid of that which is unquantifiable.  They are afraid to look into themselves and recognize that they, too, are feeling creatures, with darkness, anxiety, potential sadness, or worse.  No, if there are to be any emotions in today’s rationally minded society, it can only be emotions that are useful and can be exploited, bright, cheery, happy emotion.  Everything else must be quietly swept under the rug.  While in grad school I was surprised to learn that some of my more emotional and cathartic work would be received not with empathy, but with disbelief that anything of this kind of expression could be genuine.  There is no longer any respect for expressions of suffering.  All one has to do is look at the many parodies, products, and memes out there today of Munch’s The Scream to understand this.  One of the pictures below is of artist Takashi Murakami mocking The Scream.  He should know better.  Clearly he has no respect or empathy for Munch or his work.  Munch must be rolling in his grave.

Munch isn’t the only one to suffer posthumous humiliation.  There are endless parodies, products, and memes concerning Van Gogh’s ear as well.