Suffering and Art
an Essay by Daniel Botkin
Tisha B'Av: The Destruction of Jerusalem by Daniel Botkin
Picasso’s Guernica, Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, Goya’s The Third of May 1808. These are just a few examples of well-known paintings which portray scenes of terrible suffering. There are many other works which could be mentioned, including countless renderings of the Crucifixion. Many pieces of great art (and some not-so-great art) depict scenes of grief, suffering, and sadness.
Grief and suffering appear as a theme in the non-visual arts as well. The theme appears in Shakespeare’s tragedies and in old sappy movies like Love Story. It is heard in opera music and in old pop tunes like Last Kiss and Leader of the Pack. Tragedy as a theme seems to appeal to both highbrows and lowbrows.
Sixteen centuries ago Augustine spoke disparagingly about people’s attraction to artistic expressions of tragedy. In The Confessions of Saint Augustine he wrote: “Stageplays also carried me away, full of images of my miseries, and of fuel to my fire. Why is it, that man desires to be made sad, beholding doleful and tragical things, which yet himself would by no means suffer? Yet he desires as a spectator to feel sorrow at them, and yet this very sorrow is his pleasure. What is this but a miserable madness?”
Augustine thought that it was “a miserable madness” for people to be attracted to artistic expressions of grief and sadness. I hate to disagree with a man who is regarded by some people as a saint, but I think Augustine did not realize that his Confessions was, in fact, an artistic expression of grief and sadness. Sure, the book also contains many references to hope and joy, but Augustine dwells a great deal on his own sufferings and the sufferings of his mother, Monica.
“I loathed exceedingly to live, and feared to die,” he writes. Augustine describes in great detail the terrible loss he felt when his best friend died. He lays bare the inner agonizing of his soul. He describes his mother’s agony, too. He tells how she was “overwhelmed with grief” because of her wayward son, weeping “more than mothers weep the bodily deaths of their children.” It is Augustine’s eloquent, artistic expression of grief that has made his Confessions a classic.
Augustine “loved to grieve,” he said. So do we, when it is vicarious grieving brought about by a work of art. When this happens, we experience a strange, bittersweet feeling, a mixture of joy and pain. The reason so many people find the theme of suffering attractive is probably because suffering is a universal phenomenon. Every human being suffers at some time. Even the wealthy and healthy experience some measure of suffering, sometimes more than the poor and the sick do. Because everyone suffers, everyone can relate to the theme of suffering.
A sensitive, attentive viewer or reader or listener will identify with and relate to a work of art that was inspired by suffering or a work that expresses suffering. Art that is born out of suffering or successfully communicates suffering can transmit healing power. During the times of my deepest depression, I drew comfort from the books of Job and Lamentations.
“Let the day perish wherein I was born,” Job said. “Why died I not from the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?” (Job 3:3 & 11).
In Lamentations, Jeremiah wrote, “Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall” (Lam. 3:19).
I could really relate to Lamentations and to Job, especially Job chapter 3, because those words expressed how I felt. I even memorized Job chapter 3 and recited it to myself many times.
The works of literature and art and poetry which gave me the greatest comfort during my times of depression were those which portrayed the deepest agony and grief. Art of this nature can bring suffering viewers comfort by letting them know that they are not alone in their suffering.
Trying to expain why evil and suffering exist is a waste of time, in my opinion. Philosophers and theologians have been trying to figure it out for centuries. Rather than trying to explain why suffering exists, we should do what we can to help alleviate the suffering that exists in our world. The rabbis call this concept tikkun ha-olam, “repairing the world.” When artists create works that bring comfort to those who suffer, they are helping to repair the world.
The above essay by Daniel Botkin was published in Art Calendar, a business magazine for visual artists. The author grants permission to reprint his essay with the following conditions: The essay must be reprinted in its entirety without any form of editing and must be attributed to Daniel Botkin.