Bearing the World

"We have art in order not to die from the truth." — Friedrich Nietzsche

Seeking truth is an increasingly dangerous job to do. For those of us who persevere and catch glimpses of it, truth is also hard to bear.

Our planet is becoming unlivable, yet those most responsible refuse to take action. And while people in their thousands are being massacred, politicians worry about public relations. 

It’s the stuff of nightmares. So what do we do when we are too heartbroken to engage with the world?

There are always choices. We can choose to believe the unhinged leaders’ lies. Or seek comfort in even greater ones. If we are privileged enough, we can ignore it all and ’keep calm and carry on.’ But for anyone with a conscience, we must see it and find ways to bear it. This requires courage and practice.

In The Palliative Society, Byung Chul Han says we have reached a state of algophobia, a generalised fear of pain. We avoid painful discussions, we seek positive psychology, even our politics is palliative: we are incapable of implementing radical reforms because they might be painful. 

In popular culture and among gatherings even, there are often warnings that something might make us uncomfortable, might trigger us, usually in relation to an opinion or what someone says. But is this because we are better at recognising and acknowledging our emotions, or is it to avoid them? And does this even matter? 

Warnings are usually about giving people a choice. But what is the impact on society if we always have the option of opting out of discomfort? What if that makes us no longer able to bear witness to the horrors unfolding in the world? 

Han says that in our society of the like, pain is a sign of weakness. So we must all self-optimise and seek permanent wellbeing. But what has been forgotten, Han writes, “is that pain purifies.”

Scholar and activist Joanna Macy says we have pathologised pain, we made it like a mistake, rather than acknowledging that we need pain to alert us for what needs attention. 

“It takes courage to speak of our despair,” she says, “but precisely because we speak it, we don’t stay there, because that despair is the uncovering of our love for our world and we crack it open by speaking it so that the love can act. So the key is in not being afraid of our pain for the world, not being afraid of the world’s suffering. And if you’re not afraid, then nothing can stop you.” 

And art can help us here. While much has been written about the role of the artist in times of trouble and her role to make us uncomfortable, to shake us out of our comfort zone, art can also help us bear the truth. It can help us when we don’t have the language to speak of the suffering we witness.

Many scholars and artists themselves have written about the healing role that art can play. 

Friedrich Nietzsche said of art that it “approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live.” Milton Glazer said art was essential to human survival, that creation was a survival mechanism. Maya Angelou said art allows us to breathe, to stop hyperventilating. 

And in that process (of breathing), art reminds us that things don’t have to be or remain the way they are. That creation alleviates our sense of horror at witnessing the world. Art can help us re-shape society which is so much needed today as many of us witness the collapse of basic moral principles we took for granted. 

This is also why artists are feared by tyrants, “the incorrigible disturber of the peace,” as James Baldwin said. When countries descend into self-destructive policies, artists are often the first to be targeted, defunded, silenced (and then it’s journalists). 

But healthy nations, Baldwin said, do not need to fear and ostracise the artists, because they know that they cannot live without them. They know that the artist can lead us to a higher level of consciousness, to remind us that the conquest of the physical world is not our only duty, that we must also “conquer the great wilderness” of ourselves, Baldwin wrote. 

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

In that spirit, the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing some artworks that allow us to breathe and recharge, from music to poetry to conversations. 

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

References 


The Palliative Society, Byung-Chul Han.

‘Embracing Pain,’ Joanna Macy, watch here.

The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietschze.

‘Friedrich Nietzsche on how art can help you grow as a person,’ Tim Brinkhof, Big Think, 7 March, 2023. Read here

‘Milton Glaser in conversation with Steven Heller at the Great Hall,’ on "The Design of Dissent," Cooper Union, 13 November, 2017. Watch here.

The Role of Art in Life, Maya Angelou, keynote speech delivered at the seventh annual convention presented by National Association of Local Arts Agencies (NALAA).

‘The Creative Process,’ James Baldwin, from Creative America, Ridge Press, 1962.

Further Resources

‘Grief and Joy on a Planet in Crisis: Joanna Macy on the Best Time To Be Alive,’ The Way Out Is In Podcast, Episode #12, November 5, 2021. Listen here.

Restoring Sanity, Practices to Awaken Generosity, Creativity and Kindness, Margaret Wheatley.

‘The Foreigner’s Home,’ Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard.

Zen and the Art of Saving the World, Thich Nhat Hanh.

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