What’s Pain Got to Do with It? In Art, It’s Everything

    Pleasure and pain, and that which causes them, good and evil, are the hinges on which our passions turn.  

— John Locke, 1690

This is a quote that opens the book Understanding Pain—Exploring the Perception of Pain (2012) by Fernando Cervero, professor of anesthesia at McGill University in Canada, where he is the director of the Allan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain. My review of this book has just been published in Leonardo Reviews.

Eric Kandel, the Nobel neurobiologist, echoes this sentiment from a scientific point of view:

Beauty and ugliness in a face being portrayed parallels that between pleasure and pain. Beauty does not occupy a different area than ugliness in the brain. Both are part of a continuum representing the values the brain attributes to them, and both are encoded by relative changes in activity in the same areas of the brain… From happiness to misery, we use the same fundamental neural circuitry.

The Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic  exhibited his work, Dictionary—Pain (2000 – 2003) in which he replaced the definition of every word in a dictionary with the word pain, in the 2003 Venice Biennale. With an art practice born of political turmoil, first in Yugoslavia under Tito, then Serbia and Croatia, which he experienced firsthand growing up, Stilinovic’s art also addresses the current march to market of the new former socialist bloc’s art world, eager to follow the West. A life-long dissident and outsider, embracing unpopular ideas like destabilizing any established symbols, pain is an apt metaphor for his art, which packs a deep punch.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), the German philosopher, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872) spoke of the later Greeks and their craving for beauty as superficial and as a symptom of decline, of lack, of ‘the anarchical dissolution of the instincts’. He asked:

What would be the origin of the opposite craving that occurred earlier in time, the craving for ugliness, the good rigid resolve of the older Greeks for pessimism, for the tragic myth, for the image of everything terrible, evil, cryptic, destructive and deadly underlying existence; what then would be the origin of tragedy? Perhaps joy, strength…

Jacob Golomb of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his book In Search of Authenticity (1995), interprets Nietzsche’s Apollonian order vs. Dionysian instincts: *

The subjugation by Apollo of the unrestrained drives of the Dionysian barbarian is the source of art in general. The synthesis provides the ‘metaphysical comfort’ which allows men to affirm existence despite its horrors. By this process he himself is transformed into an object of art.

Pain is a necessary ingredient of life. No pain, no brain (no one could paint or write under anesthesia, or even strong pain killers). That’s why it’s such a stuff of art and literature, philosophy and religion.


* In today’s terms, Dionysian vs. Apollonian would be (roughly):

In art viewing – Experience vs. Interpretation
In psychology – Unconscious vs. Conscious; Non-judgment vs. Judgment
In philosophy – Illogical vs. Logical
In cognitive psychology – Instinctual vs. Cognitive
In memory – Implicit vs. Explicit
In learning – Learning How vs. Learning What ; Doing vs. Thinking
In biology – Body vs. Brain; Body-brain vs. Prefrontal Cortex (Executive brain).
In neurobiology – Right Brain vs. Left Brain (very generally)

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