I cant look (away)! (Suffering in Art)

Suffering is a theme often upheld by modern art.  The idea of viewing, consuming another’s pain is encompassed across all mediums of artistry; paintings, still images and film all have profound examples of mental, physical and or emotional anguish, but us as an audience can never look away.

But what drives this desire for disaster? In class discussion we mentioned the fact that humans have a tendency to embrace unnerving and morbid images, but were unable to discern as to why we react in this way.

Modern ‘artists’ (in this sense, photojournalists) such as Kevin Carter and Nick Ut are able to immortalise moments of suffering and present them as art.  It would not be unreasonable to presume humans as an audience would be averse to these images as we are (mostly) empathetic beings, however this is not the case.  Images by the two above journalists were praised as works of art, with both winning Pulitzer prizes. From this we can discern two things, acts of suffering can and are considered beauty and that suffering is art.

The vulture and the little girl, 1993 - Kevin Carter
The vulture and the little girl, 1993 – Kevin Carter
Napalm Girl, 1972 - Nick Ut
Napalm Girl, 1972 – Nick Ut














Hypothetically, if you were driving down the highway and ran into traffic, would you slow down and look if there were an accident? Even if there is a chance of seeing something gruesome? Of course you would, it is only human instinct.  This is the epitome of the ‘cant look away’ nature of the art of suffering.

This idea of our attraction to the macabre is not new.  Professor Martin E. Marty writes on the topic that:

“Poems about the darker aspects of existence far outnumber happier works of art. The greatest poems, the masterpieces, are the ones about love lost, not love gained, about deserved or undeserved bad luck, about sorrow, not joy, or if joy then joy recollected in a time of sorrow (and so thereby becoming another source of pain).” (Marty, 2004)

Humans interaction and obsession with suffering is not a result of art, art is merely reflecting our obsession.  We enjoy consuming this morbid topic, and it is only expanding as it explores new mediums, seeping into our everyday lives. Fundamentally, suffering for art has not changed it has always been a relevant topic,the only thing that has changed, more so developed is the medium in which it chooses to reveal itself.


Marty, M.E. 2004, The art of suffering, Claretian Publications, Chicago.

(Images are hyper linked with sources)


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