Update (29 July 2009):
Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.
Trends via TrendHunter.com.
Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.
Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.
It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.
Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.
Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?
It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.
Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…
…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?
Original post (2 October, 2006)
Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.
Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.
What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.
One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).
It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:
Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.
This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.
Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?
Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.
And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?