Review: Representations of Pain in Art and Culture (Part 2)

Maria Pia Di Bella and James Elkins, editors, Representations of Pain in Art and Culture, Routledge Advances in Art and Visual Studies 4 (London: Routledge, 2013), xiii + 216 pp. incl. index and contributor bios. Hardcover, $160.00 / £95.00 from publisher.

In this book, Di Bella and Elkins approach the issue of painful images from the material of its representation. In the second section of Representations of Pain in Art and Culture, they include religious discussion. This inclusion is helpful, as it acknowledges the religious connection to suffering and pain (both innocent and punitive) and to the ethics of perpetrating such consequences.

Chapters 8, 9 and 11 are examples. The emphasis in six of these seven chapters (all except Chapter 7) is on photographs that ‘claim to present reality’ and which ‘center on pain willfully inflicted on human beings by their punishers or tormentors’ [103]. The editor of this section, Di Bella, comments on the change in possible viewer response from the time the photographs were made to the present day. She feels that the photographers and intended viewers of the time would have felt solidarity with the torturer or executioner, given that they are meting out justice. With the ‘passage of time’, she contends, contemporary viewers, no longer seeing corporal punishment as just, might invert the historical perception: ‘The punisher (or executioner) becomes the wrongdoer, while the human being on whom pain is inflicted becomes the victim’ [103].

In the above assertions, the editor appears to assume a certain moral stance on the part of audiences, both historic and contemporary. This assumption is difficult to support, and some of the chapters which follow seem to challenge it, especially Chapter 9 which, in describing public flogging in early twentieth-century Congo, the writer emphasises the significant resistance to the practice and the fact that sympathy on the part of many viewers was certainly not with the punisher. Similar sentiments are discussed in Chapter 12 exploring concentration camp photographs from the Boer War.

In addition to the two chapters just mentioned, the chapters of this section each look to ‘justified’ pain from different eras and/or cultures. Chapter 8 explores Chinese ‘postcards’ depicting punishments of ‘Buddhist Hell’ and of the Chinese judiciary from the late 19th century in order to discuss how ‘charged images of corporal suffering’ can ‘slip…across cultures’ especially when theological or religious intentions are in play [109].

Chapter 10 discusses infamous images of humiliation and torture from Abu Ghraib prison, Iraq, and the way in which those images have been put on public display. Chapter 11 discusses ways in which both historical and contemporary viewers express their responses to images of pain or suffering from religious art to contemporary news photographs. The closing chapter furthers Di Bella’s thoughts on how images of implied pain communicated through photographs of American sites of judicial execution move viewers from ‘Spectator to Witness’ [170]. Also of interest in this chapter is a discussion on the significance of ‘occultation of the dead’ in contexts of execution and murder.

The greatest challenge in this book arises in the third chapter. In it the author, Helge Meyer, engages the work of Üdi Da and other performance artists who practice self-harm. The images and quotations included around Da’s work reveal a person in deep psychological distress which demands compassion from the viewer (one of the writer’s key points) while raising troubling questions about voyeuristic enabling and complicity. There appears to be little acknowledgement of the pathology being expressed in the work discussed. That the author suggests ‘the act of self-mutilation is like a healing process or a way to reduce personal pain,’ implies little understanding of the psychological extremis being experienced [47]. Readers with experience in pastoral care or social work will not recognize a healing act here, but a level of distress worthy of immediate intervention.

Taken together, the two books of this review offer an excellent survey not only of images of pain but also the ethical and theoretical issues that surround the making and the public presentation of such images.

These books will be of interest to those researching the sociological, historical, philosophical or (especially in the case of the second book) religious significance of the depiction, communication or presentation of images of pain. It must be noted, however, that the images and situations described are exceptionally challenging and may not be suitable for those who are particularly sensitive to images of violence.


Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part review of two books in Routledge’s ‘Advances in Art and Visual Studies’ series. The second section of this book is covered in the preceding review.

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