The Wounded Artist

In Marrakesh, I once saw a dervish pass a long skewer through his cheek. He then stuck several needles into his palms. All the while, he wore a calm, if somewhat distracted expression on his face, as if his true interest were somewhere else and the impaling was a nuisance he had to get through. An assistant described the procedure in Arabic to those gathered, mostly Westerners, who like myself probably did not understand the explanation. A Moroccan I’d met earlier told me that there would be no visible wounds because the dervish had mastered the art of suggestion to the extent that he could prevent bleeding. The performance was enacted for money, of course, and it was considered to be beneficial for one’s future life to give money to the dervish. Because the dervish was a “holy man,” and because the performance was the result of self-mastery through prayer, we would incur “baraka,” or grace, if we were generous. The truth of the matter, according to my friend, was difficult to judge, but he did believe that only a low-level dervish would ever go into show business.

Standing before us in his robes, his face and arms impaled, the wispy-bearded, slightly-built dervish evoked a number of images: mystic, martyr, showman, and artist. It was only a few hours later that the impressions became coherent enough for me to realize why I had also thought of the artist figure. Like many artists, the dervish had an art form which was the subject of speculation by the audience. Whatever knowledge allowed the dervish to emerge from the performance unscathed was not part of the shared experience with the spectators. Artists too have a private dimension to their creative process which may not be understandable to a sympathetic spectator. The fact that my Moroccan friend knew about the spectacle meant that, just as with artists, a specific community of admirers and critics grew around a body of “work.” The probability that the dervish’s performance was somewhat spiritually disreputable, that the work was done for money as much as for anything else and that whatever the dervish had studied was now being treated, at least by the spectators, as mere entertainment, all of that reminded me of the dilemma many artists find themselves in. Artists want to follow their own muse, but often find that curators, friends, and the market-place begin to shape their work. Finally, the acceptance of the physical suffering(or what constituted physical suffering for the rest of us) by the dervish reminded me of the archetypal figure of the wounded artist.

The “wounded artist” figure in art refers both to the idea of the primordial wound each one of us supposedly receives in childhood as well as to the more Romantic image of the artist as diseased, emotionally maimed, and marginalized. The first idea comes to us from psychoanalysis through Freud, Klein, Winnicott and others. The second idea, while generally disparaged by our culture, has taken hold in our social unconscious. Artists are seen as different from the rest of us, and certainly when any artist succumbs to drug addiction, to alcoholism, or to a.i.d.s., the response is a mixture of sadness and fatalism, as if to say, “well, what did you expect?” The fact that this negative stereotype hasn’t budged much in our collective psyche reinforces superstitions about artists who, like cats, it seems, aren’t quite to be trusted.

Popular films about Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec, Rodin, and stories about Dali, Pollock, Rimbaud, Dylan Thomas, Kerouac inflate the feeling about artists as weak, addictive, obsessive, melancholy, narcissistic beings. Yet the exact relationship between art and malady is not clear. Are neurotic children disposed to becoming artists? Perhaps they are equally disposed to becoming psychiatrists. There has been a good deal of research in recent years investigating the relationship of depression and art, schizophrenia and art, as well as such physical ailments as tuberculosis and a.i.d.s. and their relationship to art. None of it, as far as I am aware, has changed our cultural stereotypes.

My response to all this is to find some things interesting (mainly the biographical tidbits) but to remain unconvinced. I don’t like the medical model being constructed, which is another box to put artists into. Besides, who, given a choice, wants to feel like a freak? Possibly, this is one of the problems: the misfortune of being made to feel like a freak because of disability, ethnicity or race, family, economic status, gender, sexuality, intellectual passion. If we are told we are freaks, sooner or later we begin to see ourselves through the eyes of our tormentors. Such roles of “freak,” “fool,” or, sometimes, “criminal” lead to the position of the freak acting out the scapegoat for society. In “Illness and Metaphor,” Susan Sontag suggests that certain illnesses are ascribed to positions of “otherness” for a particular culture, and artists often find themselves being given the part–through their physical or psychological illness–of having to act out the moral illness of society. Tuberculosis had this nuance of illness as moral or spiritual condition in the nineteenth century, and a.i.d.s fulfills that role today.

If the romantic stereotype of the wounded artist continues to be tenacious in our psyche and if all of us do suffer some wound of self-consciousness in our childhood, then we have the choice of using this model of illness for a new kind of relationship. Much as the shaman acts as healer and diviner for his or her community, the “wounded artist” can become a healing artist. The process is quite simple. Through a combination of grit, honesty, luck, help, the artist has managed to deal with the pain of the wound so that the wound is no longer master. As well, the experience of self-healing has been incorporated into the art. Now the art manifests the qualities necessary to help others who suffer a similar wound.

This idea is not new. In our time, Joseph Beuys re-introduced the idea of healing into art in Europe, and in North America, several artists, many of them coincidentally also eco-feminists (Beth Ames Swartz comes to mind) have continued working in ways that are sensitive to issues of recovery, personal growth and community building. Michael Tucker in Dreaming With Open Eyes, Joan Halifax in The Wounded Healer, and Suzi Gablik in The Re-enchantment of Art have all written about this.

What is not clear about any of these descriptions is how the healing is supposed to work. It is one thing to acknowledge that our experience can help others by example; it is quite another to call that help “healing.” One of the dangers of such a claim is magical thinking, the notion that because I want something to be true, it is true. I have seen mediocre paintings with images of feathers or rattles superimposed on landscapes and been told these paintings were “healing.” What always has to be distinguished is an illustration of a mystery from the presentation of a mystery. When a mystery is truly presented, we know it the same way we know we are standing before anything of an unusual or higher order. Our bodies resonate, and we have a certitude that is as much physical as it is mental.

The work of the psychoanalysts Klein and Winnicott explored, in part, how children deal with their growing awareness of the world and their sense of their mothers as separate beings. This process is dramatized in their play with objects, particularly dolls, which become “transitional objects” in the passage from the instinctual & emotional world of the mother to a gradually forming state of self-consciousness. Fears and anxieties are worked out in this play.

If this theory is accurate, then we can see how art becomes a “transitional object.” However, the work not only mediates between the artist and the subject, it also mediates between the spectator and the subject. The artist’s skill allows the spectator to engage in the artist’s experience and thereby deal with the spectator’s own suffering. Thus, art can have a therapeutic value that is in exact proportion to the degree of the artist’s conscious use of artistry and the spectator’s attention and sensitivity. Such therapeutic value, however, is different from the approach of art therapy. Art therapy proceeds from the willing participation in an activity that is identified as therapy. Healing art, however, works best when the art is not presented as “healing.”

So long as artists continue to create work with dark themes, we will continue to be fascinated with the question of how autobiographical the work is. Whether the work fulfills another function, a healing function, has nothing to do with whether or not the work is good art. But just as with the dervish in his performance, something else may be transmitted that is of value to the community, even if that community perceives only the entertainment value.

We are struck by the figure of the “wounded artist,” because we all suffer, and yet we do not make our suffering into work or ritual. We do not have to wear the same clothes or use the same words to be affected. I was affected by the dervish’s performance despite sharing nothing of language, culture, and tradition. Art also has that ability for significant effect across boundaries, despite all the restrictions of culture and place.