Show Me Some Contemporary Heart

Wanting to write a piece on art and suffering (a broad and heavy concept, I know, but bear with me), I set out to find the most engaging exhibitions in Berlin dealing with the topic. To my surprise — but mostly to my dismay — I struggled to find a decent few. What I was ultimately greeted with instead, and what I took as the symbolic dead-end of my search, was "Paul together alone with each other" (pictured above): a “puppet with head of Paul McCarthy and suit of Paul McCartney looking into the mirror” by contemporary artist Jonathan Monk.

Setting The Record Straight

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” This, precisely, is the manner in which I wish to approach the relationship between art and suffering. I know the idea of the tortured genius has been a great cliché for centuries. It's engrained in our collective awareness of art: from Goya working insanely on his black paintings to Van Gogh grasping his severed left ear to Basquiat's meteoric rise (and quicker disintegration), we are often reminded of their torment through books, films, and everyday pop culture references. But I am not interested in perpetuating this already established myth. And if I am to write about the potential benefits of creating work or experiencing exhibitions in which art and suffering dance at center stage, I need to first set some things straight:

  • I do not believe that one must suffer in order to create good art.
  • I do not wish to encourage the sharing of pain and suffering: it’s not about that.
  • It’s not so much the topic of suffering that I’m referring to as it is the heart: symbolically speaking, that part of the human being that feels love, pain, anger, anxiety, happiness, and countless etceteras.
  • I specifically want to highlight the difference between experiencing work made from "the heart" and that made from irony and humor (the overpowering trend in today's art world).​​

art-and-suffering-1Reacting to "American Self-portrait" by Jonathan Monk. Photo: Chris Phillips

In an article on The New York Times titled “How to Live Without Irony,” Christy Wampole discusses today’s social fixation, generally negative, with hipster subculture. She eloquently deconstructs the facade of the hipster archetype, remarking on the will to ironic living that this generation has allowed to flourish. “It signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep,” she notes.

And it was her observations that ran through my head when I stumbled upon "Paul together alone with each other." Sure, I initially chuckled. Who wouldn’t? It’s not everyday that you encounter a puppet of an old man sitting on a beer case staring blankly into the mirror. But then there was silence, and an incomprehensible need to feel something more than just a chuckle (a feeling that never came). 

A Cop Out?

Artwork like this is relatively easy to make, you see. And I don’t mean that literally; I’m sure it took Mr. Monk plenty of hours and effort to make that realistic puppet look the way it did. The easiness that I’m referring to is namely the decision to make and exhibit such work. The fact that it is purposely funny (cute, even) and references someone else other than himself absolves Monk from any inherent risk because he has created a work of art that reads as a one-liner joke. He hasn’t put anything on the line for this. He will be congratulated for his wit and humor by his peers and will continue to make work that (apparently) challenges what can and can't be art. Yawn, nothing new here. What is more rare than a chuckle, and certainly something you don't see everyday, is encountering a sincere work of art that goes beyond the surface, crawls under your skin, increases your heart rate, perhaps makes you feel uncomfortable, but nonetheless leaves a long lasting impression. 

And so I wonder, has contemporary art become hipster? Have trendy, eclectic styles and ironic references become the driving subject of art? Because it seems that the contemporary art world is no longer interested in confronting us with deep, personal, non-ironic, and sincere manifestations of the creative process. Instead, we are presented with inside jokes amongst artists and worse: bastardizations of the powerful and divine (excuse my choice of word) ability of human creativity.

What’s At Stake Here?

By distancing the public from a sincere and heartfelt interaction with a work of art, we are perpetuating a culture that lives and experiences life at a surface. Now, I don’t doubt that artists like Jonathan Monk are professional and work hard at what they do. Yet if their work only brings forth a chuckle or a “Ooh I get it!,” then we lose the possibility of engendering real communication and communion between artists and the public. We will soon forget the important role of artists to be channels through which we can relate our own emotions and experiences. This is important for the same reason that music is important: it offers a platform in which we can rest our excitement, fears, insecurities, love and compassion. 

art-and-suffering-3Not laughing, under J. Monk's "To inverse one's eyes (out of focus version)." Photo: Chris Phillips

The magic of art is that it provides a channel of expression, one capable of therapeutic value that leads to self-understanding. Speaking as an artist myself — and every artist out there will not let me lie — the creative process is a powerful act in the way it makes us attain a certain level of control over our emotions and consequently our actions. It makes any kind of suffering bearable when we’re creatively able to transform it into something more malleable such as a painting, a musical score, a poem or a dance. So when I encounter a work of art that exists only in the surface and hides any trace of emotional healing/sharing, I wonder: where are we hiding our weaknesses? Where are we placing the matters of the heart and spirit, artists, if not in our art?

Article by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra

​Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on the pages of Artparasites in November, 2012. For more #ArtThoughts, check out these other stories: 

Has Contemporary Art Become Hipster? 

Crazy Talk: A Conversation On Art & Mental Illness

Are Classic Paintings Doomed To Be Internet Jokes?