Articles - 7th October 2019

Regarding The Pain of Artists

Words by Elinor Potts
Illustration by Oscar Price

Writing in the wake of a near-fatal accident and taking inspiration from Emily Dickinson, Christina Crosby considers the temporal disruption of her pain. Crosby observes that the “pulse of life” slows, and the “interval between life-sustaining beats interminably extends. In that interval, the difference between the one you once were and the one you have become must be addressed.” Pain, as Crosby describes it, shapes the self, in spite of its existence under an ableist, capitalist society which shirks and marginalises infirmed individuals. Whilst language may be an inadequate mode of transmuting the manifold variations of painful experiences, there is a cruel beauty to the multitudes of pain and the ways in which pain can disrupt temporal chronology in cultural art forms like marks on a score; bold dynamics of fortissimos, pizzicatos, sweeping glissandos, rondos, staccatos, rumbling sotto-voces. 

“Whatever pain achieves,” Elaine Scarry writes in The Body In Pain, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” Why then bother, if the artist’s pain can never be reconstructed? In search of the juncture between pain and performance, I spent my Thursday afternoon watching back-to-back videos of noise-artist and the ‘Glass-Guzzling Nutter’ Justice Yeldham from behind shaking fingers. Yeldham blows and gnaws on large shards of amplified sugar glass with a mixture of guttural throat singing and skin rippling raspberries, all the while, stemming the flow of blood from the glass’ abrasions. It’s bodily and emotional in every sense of the words, dragging an unearthly sound from the speakers to the tune of a power drill on the brink, a broken synth and gnarled, deconstructed dubstep. With composure and measured countenance, Yeldham unflinching relents with his worsening injuries. I wanted to reach out from behind my screen and tap him on the shoulder, prise his fingers away from his precious pane of glass and disarm the Caravaggian foley-artist. Yes, Yeldham’s union of sound-artistry and flagellation is shocking, ‘in poor taste’ and triggering to those with blood-related trauma but there is perhaps no ‘right’ way to utilise and represent an individual’s pain. Should we have cultural taste markers for representations of an experience which by definition cannot be truly constructed in art? What happens when the artist’s representation of pain incites its enactment? 

Todd Phillips’ Joker film which premieres in the UK this week, courted controversy for reportedly glamorising ultra-violence. The film chronicles the Joker’s origin through the murderous denouement of the comedian ‘Arthur Fleck’ prior to his evolution to infamous DC villain. Joaquin Phoenix is convincingly, tempestuously pained, self-loathing and on a downward trajectory which manifests through committing unthinkably murderous acts. For fear of repeating history following its US release, Texan Alamo Drafthouse Cinema introduced security measures to its theatres for the film’s opening weekend. Whilst the threat to the US cinema’s attendees was undoubtedly augmented by the country’s relaxed gun control laws, the cinema’s decision poses the question – should directors and artists safeguard their consumers against the full force of the pain they illustrate? Visual representations of pain and violence percolate in the memories of their audience, words are, perhaps, easier to shed. 

Contrary to Scarry’s claim, some of the most poignant representations of pain I’ve read and felt used a linguistic medium to communicate the essence of it. Writing in a blog article last October, Nick Cave addresses a personal question posed to him by a grieving fan, ruminating on grief, loss and life, following the tragic death of the musician’s son Arthur, aged 15. “There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves,” Cave starts, “Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence.” Similarly, for Joan Didion, grief is equally unpredictable and non-linear. Writing shortly after the death of her husband and daughter, Quintana and John in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion professes that the difference between pain imagined and pain realised is the “unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” There is no singular method of displaying grief or articulating the spiritual, neurological, chemical, personal depths of human pain. Whilst many may interpret culture’s historical fascination with humanity’s darkness as corrupting or traumatising, reading, consuming and recognising your own experiences in the accounts of others can be immensely liberating. As Derek Jarman states, “Pain can be alleviated by morphine but the pain of social ostracism cannot be taken away”. Perhaps then, true pain is never expressing or seeking discussions of complex emotional interiority. 

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