“We have art in order not to die of the truth.” -Nietzsche
I’m one of those people who thinks art is a necessity, not a luxury. When I went through the obligatory Hermann Hesse/Kahil Gibran phase in high school, I couldn’t get enough of that Persian poem about how if two loaves alone to thee are left, sell one and with the dole buy hyacinths to feed thy soul. While that particular passage is a bit flowery for me now, I still love what it represents.
We count on art to make sense of what defies logic and to say what cannot be said. I The one thing that came as close to explaining the horror as of 9/11 as anything could was Deborah Garrison’s poem “I Saw You Walking.” (If you click the link, it’s the third poem down.) I don’t remember any details of the 24/7 news from that time, but that poem is lodged in my brain.
Lately the thought of pain as muse has been rattling around in my head. I can’t stop thinking about a wonderful Paris Review article I read a couple of months ago. (I don’t want to sound more cultured than I actually am; I found it courtesy of the Zite magazine app on my iPad.) It’s called “Frida’s Corsets,” and it’s about how Mexican artist Frida Kahlo created art from the corsets she had to wear to support her ruined spine after a streetcar accident. It’s a stunning story.
I was somewhat familiar with Frida Kahlo’s art and her chronic pain, but had no idea they were so intimately twined until reading this article. In that pre-cloud era, I wonder how many people outside of her circle of friends and fellow artists even knew what she was doing. And I wonder how she’d be using social media if she were here now.
Today we have artists like Regina Holliday, who has turned her own loss into art focused on patient rights and advocacy, including her Walking Gallery of wearable art. We have photographers like David Jay, who created The Scar Project, an amazing photography gallery and book of young women with breast cancer.
We have journals of literature and healing like the incomparable Bellevue Literary Review,which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. (Doctor/poet Rafael Campo’s essay on “Illness as Muse” in the 10th anniversary issue is a must read. Trust me on that.) We have newly minted ezines like Narrative Nipple, which focuses on breast cancer.
I admire artists of all kinds. But there’s a special place in my heart for the ones who can tap into personal or collective pain and open a window to what’s not easily understood or explained. I would argue that we need them every bit as much as we need patient advocates. Turning pain into art is the essence of empowerment.