Art vs. Pain

Whether one asks permission beforehand, or forgiveness afterward, the question of art and pain wants attention. Do writers—as artists—have the right to expose secrets and suffering? Does making art excuse or forgive the breach of faith? Are artists somehow a breed apart—not bound by loyalty or decorum? If the work of art is “great” does that excuse whatever pain might have been inflicted in its creation?

Dorothea Lange is best known for her photograph titled Migrant Mother (1936) of Florence Owens Thompson, a destitute pea picker she met during the darkest days of the Depression. In 1960, Lange gave this account of her experience taking the photograph:

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate                                                    mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

(Lange, “The Assignment I’ll Never Forget: Migrant Mother,” Popular Photography, February 1960)

It is reported that Lange always asked permission before she took a picture. For many artists, asking permission isn’t important. Or even considered. Especially those who believe, as did William Faulkner: “the writer’s only responsibility is to his art…If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

Faulkner’s casual disregard for consequences sidesteps reality. Whether the writer is telling secrets or simply stating the facts as she understands them to be, there is always action and reaction. The thing done cannot be undone. A work such as Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club (Penguin Books, 1995) lays bare the rawest truth. The sweeping up is someone else’s task.

And yet: Anticipating reaction often stops writers cold and in doing so, derails the art.

I’ve struggled with these questions in my own work and I’ve come to believe that there is no absolute. “Situational ethics” is a slippery slope…but here I think it applies. The writer must ask his or her motives and must admit the many (and contradictory) forces that forge any important decision.

This blog post includes a clip from an interview with the writer, Michael Sinclair. He’s a poet, fiction writer and visual artist living in Iowa. By way of disclosure, I’ve known Mike more than 20 years. His work can steal my breath away. He came face to face with action/reaction after writing a poem. His hard-earned insight holds hard facts.

You can read more from Mike at his blog:

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2 Responses to Art vs. Pain

  1. Artswebshow says:

    the guy in the video has hit the nail on the head.
    But we cant water down our work to please others because then it isn’t our creativity.
    Definitely something worth thinking about

  2. readwritenow says:

    mmm. Whoever told us, during our playground days, that sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt us, was wrong.

    Words can cause wounds and can heal wounds. I think of the political climate today, when the words people throw around, as if they were verbal grenades, are tossed with the specific intent to cause harm. It is a slippery slope indeed. From cable tv and talk radio blathering, is it such a long journey to the films and political propaganda of World War II, the Germans degrading the Jews, the American’s dehumanizing the Japanese, and then on to the radio commentators urging Hutus to cut the cockroach Tutsis down to size?

    But, I digress…in art, there is truth and there is truth. An artist can only hope to portray the truth as he or she sees it. The artist must respect the truth, as far as he or she understands it, but must never turn away from it. Otherwise the work will not be “authentic” (I know, I know, a cliché) to the artist’s vision and the lessened impact will be felt by the reader or viewer or listener.

    As Hippocrates wrote, “First, do no harm,” but sometimes, in the world of art, harm, or truth telling, is part of healing.

    By the way, here’s a link to the photo, Migrant Mother:

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