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Monthly Archives: March 2014

My son is a high school student, participating in the debate team.   I recently volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, with one of the events being a “dramatic interpretation”, where high school students performed a piece that someone else had written, but that they had memorized and performed.   My first round involved five high school girls, and the readings they gave were shocking:  child abuse, sexual molestation, murder, suicide were all covered, in passionate detail.  Fortunately for me, my wife was in the room, and after the last girl finished, my wife asked them where they had found the pieces, were they in any way autobiographical?  And the girls started to giggle—no—they were not autobiographical—they were selected, perhaps because they were effective emotional stories.    A few weeks later, I judged another event where students read a piece of their own writing, and mixed in with some first crude attempts at fiction were at least two clearly autobiographical pieces, one dealing with the effects of a crippling emotional disorder, the other with the death of several high school friends in car accidents.

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Life is not fair.  While a few lucky individuals seem to skate through life unscathed, there is no denying that sickness and death are part of life, and must be confronted.  More troubling is the suffering we bring down on each other, or on ourselves.

What is the connection between suffering and art?  It is very apparent that suffering can and mostly does happen in the ugliest of ways:  the history of the last century is full of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and the news is full of mass shootings.   The rational response to events like these is despair:  why does the world need to be like this?

Of course, suffering is a topic that arises in religion.  The atheists strongest argument against a benevolent supreme being is suffering:  how can a god that loves us permit (or cause) so much suffering?  And perhaps the greatest example of art arising out of suffering is the example of the Christian church—if the hand of god cannot be summoned at will to relive the suffering of the people, perhaps pictures of miracles from the mythical past can convince them that it is their own sins that cause the suffering.   Art has been used by the church to render the old miracles into physical forms through painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, in his essay “Beauty in Photography” published in a book of the same name discusses the connection between art and suffering, between truth and beauty.   He argues that beauty is based on Form, and that Form is beautiful  “Because it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”   He also asks the question, “is art a sufficient consolation for life?”  and goes on to point out that art can help, but it alone is not sufficient, that we also need human connections—“an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.  All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.”

What strikes me about Robert Adams’ essay is how he argues that art has a critical function, to convince us that our suffering is not without meaning, and are lives are not better off simply being ended.  In the end, art must be an affirmation.

Of course, the “art world”, still abuzz from the record price paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, seems to be interested in something else, namely, money and power.  There is no question that Bacon’s paintings reflect anguish of the 20th century, that his popes are images of powerful men in hell, but the question remains, why do collectors value his work so highly?  On the other end of the spectrum, the mass market seems equally committed to the work of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently of a drug and alcohol overdose, who called himself “the painter of light”, painting sentimentalized images of homes and churches bathed in unnatural glows.   Both men may have suffered, neither seem to have arrived at a truth that is affirming—Bacon fails by painting monsters, Kinkade though eye candy.

But there are examples of people who have suffered and transformed that experience into great art.  Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer is one—his music is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.  Timothy O’Sullivan began his career as a photographer on the battlefields of the civil war before heading west to make sublime views of the landscape.  Frida Kalo suffered an unfortunate accident as a young woman, and a difficult marriage, but made compelling paintings.  All of them made great art.

John Szarkowski noted that the pictures that command our attention the longest are the ones that seem to hold some mystery.  Eugene Atget made amazing photographs, but it’s hard to know how much he suffered—he may have been a failed actor, but he made a living as a photographer.  He did have a very productive period at the end of his life, after his wife died, when he was facing his own mortality, but he made many great photographs before then.

Suffering is part of life—to live is to suffer—and life is not fair—but there are things that help, including art.  High school kids dealing with sickness and death are looking in the right place–sometimes, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music or encountering a poem can convince us that we are not alone in our suffering, and allow us to experience moments of grace—where the suffering remains real, but finds a balance with beauty.

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