Monday, July 6, 2009

Pain and Art

It's commonly accepted that art can often be the result of pain, whether it be physical or emotional. Artistic expression may come in response to pain or as a way to deal with it. Painters and photographers, musicians and writers, no matter the medium it has been used to convey pain, its effects and consequences.

My question comes from another angle. Has art and its expression ever been used to deliberately cause pain?

A few evenings ago I was at an outdoor concert of reggae and other Carribean music. To emphasize the beat, the rhythm, the promoters and/or the musicians turned up not only the volume but also the bass. I found it necessary to leave.

I used to laugh at my wife when she refused to stay at a concert with a pronounced and heavy bass because it hurt her. Not her ears so much as her bones, she said. Myself, I would joy in the vibrations of my own body to the rhythm of the pounding beat. Pain, no; discomfort, maybe but the excitement was worth it.
That night, the bass vibrated my bones: ribs, breastbone, collarbones. What's more, it hurt. After several minutes the pain throbbed as constant as a toothache and I had to leave.
It made me wonder. Has sound as art ever been used to destroy its 'consumer'? Has any other art form? I know good writing has been used as fuel for political movements, but has a combattant ever been killed by a poem? A barrage of poems?
Art is an antidote to war, anger and negative behaviors but can it ever stop it without the bodies of the artists?

Buffy Sainte-Marie's Universal Soldier is as strong as ever. Over against him is the Universal Artist. But, may sounds and looks and words never kill. It's more than enough that they hurt.


annaken said...

Good afternoon Jefferson,

I am not so sure if I agree with you that words in a poem cannot hurt, main or otherwise cause problems. Words, whether in an art form or verbally flung at another person in the heat of anger, have the ability to destroy the inner person and eventually their self worth!

I would like to say that art can also be a source of great comfort and peace when one is grieving. So can peaceful music.

As with any medium of communication, words, art or song, the people who do this kind of art, have the ability to either use their gifts for good or for negative purposes.

It's their choice.

Laurie said...

As always, Jefferson, a thought-provoking post. Annaken is right, of course, that words most certainly can cause mental pain, but it's physical pain we're after.

I can think of only two instances, one Biblical, the other all too present: the blast of the trumpets at Jericho, and loud incessant music as an implement in modern torture (Guantánamo, etc.). I'm not even certain you can call the trumpet blasts "art," since there's no indication that they were in the form of aesthetic sound patterns (and it may be that it was not the blasts that banged the walls down, but the people's "great shout" that the trumpets merely cued).

There are plenty of instances where art has led indirectly to pain and death, even on a massive scale. Yeats famously wondered, "Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?", but even if the play inspired the men to go into battle in 1916, it did not hurt them directly. The first stanza of Verlaine's Chanson d'automne triggered pain and death in the D-Day invasion of France; but that was a use to which the poem was put, not anything that the art directly did.

I'll probably not be alone in continuing to think about this. The ancient Greeks are usually onto something in their myths, and there is that one version of the death of Orpheus where the Thracian maenads tear Orpheus to pieces not because he is ignoring them, but because they are so driven by the power of his song that they need to have him.

So be careful what you create.