Pain is a part of life. Pain modifies and changes people’s everyday life and social relations. Images of suffering, pain and death have been created like images of heroism, divinity, happiness or beauty. The use of art for depicting common human experiences is a historical continuum of its own. The best known picture of suffering is the crucified Christ.
In works that tell about martyrs the pain has been ennobled. Pain and suffering symbolize the true belief of the martyr, and pain is seen as a sign of perishableness in relation to the unchanging universality of belief. The bodily and material world is temporal and secondary, and so is the physical suffering. Paintings about martyrs reflect Christianity’s idealistic concept of reality originating from Neoplatonism, where the only reality is the afterlife. Maybe the echoes of this conviction are still reflected in our relation to physical pain, its mitigation and treatment? The real world and reward is met by the suffering human being only after death?
The history of depicting pain and suffering in art is long and thus not a new subject. Artists participating the exhibition Pain – perspectives to the anatomy of pain use their personal experiences as the starting point of their works.
Pain and experience
The feeling of pain is an experience commonly shared, although experiencing pain is also individual and personal. It is an experience that cannot be verified by pure measurement. Pain exists when a person feels it. Pain touches an individual’s life extensively. An extensive pain changes the whole culture in a collective sense.
Pain and suffering cause insecurity. The feel of security is essential to the survival of a human being. The histories of insecurity and uncertainty are the most central elements in the past of human kind. Insecurity means facing the unexplainable, incomprehensible or overwhelming. One feels weakness, inability and helplessness in relation to it. Man has equipped oneself against it both collectively and individually. The fear of emptiness, generated by insecurity, the desire to get order in chaos or the collective protection has marked the history of mankind.
The common habits and conventions create safety mechanisms and shelter against the threat of chaos. The general predictability of habits and conventions give a possibility and a promise of the control of life. Security can be understood as a state, where the factors threatening one’s own physical wellbeing are lacking. Pain is one factor threatening wellbeing.
The social experience
The social experience of pain and suffering is formed as a cultural system. Do we want as a society and a culture to react to pain and suffering with compassion, with respect and solace to the suffering person, or do we isolate those experiencing pain and suffering from the consciousness of the society. Within the culture we make choices that affect our approach, and attitudes in turn guide our behaviour.
The idea of man in the western culture is individualized. Individuals are seen independent from each other. The starting point is the concept of internality of the individual, the independent free will, which realizes the internal reality through its own interest goals. Man is primarily an individual with his own opinions, life values and specific world of experience, also in relation to pain and suffering.
Alternatively one can think that people are like a vast neural network that reacts to the existence of others directly and indirectly. In this way of thinking experience must be understood in a wider sense than an individual’s experience of some thing. It is a matter of internal needs of a species, formed during the evolution. Mankind is a thoroughly social species with strong social needs, emotional structures of reactions. These needs are as basic as other physical needs. It is exactly this point of view that makes social experiences common to all. They can not be separated and cut off from the needs of the human society to be applied only to an individual.
Man is a part of the totality of the human society and through this totality and inside it all forms of social experience take place in interaction with other members of the society. In this sense the art expresses the forms of the common experience by modifying material to be examined as common forms and contents. The experience of pain and suffering is one of the most central subjects in the history of art.
Pain as a metaphor
With pain one can also metaphorically express the dimension that describes the relation of man to the problems and tensions between society and culture. Pain is a wide concept, which has also a social dimension.
The works of the PAIN-exhibition express in figurative ways different dimensions of experiencing pain, experiences that are shaded by pain. The scope of the contents of the works reaches from the depiction of an individual’s physical and mental pain experience to the pain and suffering caused by structural violence. The exhibition is produced in cooperation with the Department of Art of the Aalto University School of Art and Design and the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Helsinki. There is also an art pedagogical section associated with the exhibition, targeted for professionals working in health care.
Pain does not have only one appearance. Pain and suffering has as many faces as people experiencing it.
The curator of the exhibition