Suffering and Transcendence


I was recently directed to a photographer’s web page that I found very compelling. Some of the work I found intellectual and boring, but some of the work was really beautiful. I wanted to know more about the photographs so I read the artist’s statements for some of the portfolios. Each statement was about the artist’s personal suffering. One might say that their candidness was brave and admirable, but there was also the glorification of personal suffering in the production of art.

Many artists have truly difficult personal lives and making art is one way of transcending those difficulties—but the art is the transcendence, not a documentation of the suffering. Now it seems documentation of of one’s emotional suffering is the way to go.

If you’re reading this or just interested in photographic art, odds are you’re pretty well off—you’re well fed, housed and can afford your own computer. You may have difficulties in your life, but compared to most of the world’s population you are extremely lucky.

There is real suffering in the world. You don’t have to leave your computer to find it. Read a news site, just look at Facebook. There are separations of families, epidemics, floods. Life for many people is very hard.

I don’t know much about the life of the painter Mark Rothko. Small reproductions of his art on the web don’t do justice to his paintings. I remember walking into a exhibit room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and one of his large pieces had its own wall. You’d just stand there and be mesmerized. You wouldn’t want to leave that space. Mark Rothko committed suicide. He was very successful so I guess it was mental suffering that did it. But, his art didn’t glorify his pain. It transcended it and each of us lucky enough to see his work experience that same transcendence.

The first noble truth of the Buddha is “Life is Suffering.” We all have good times and bad times. For me, art isn’t about good times and bad times—it’s about something much larger than that. Whether I suffer or not is my problem. When you appreciate one of my photographs, I don’t want you to care about my life: I want it to bring joy and transcendence to your life.

There seems to be a lot of thinking nowadays that dark times require dark art. After writing this blog, I had the opportunity of seeing the latest episode of Civilizations on my local PBS station. They had a piece on Henri Matisse. Old and confined to a wheel chair, Matisse was stuck in occupied France during the second world war. Dark times. He refused to do dark work and instead did these wonderful abstract collages. Forget dark art. I’ll put my money on Henri Matisse.

~ by danbaumbach on June 17, 2018.

6 Responses to “Suffering and Transcendence”

  1. “Very few people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that painting is an expression of the artist’s mood. But it rarely is. Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest paintings.” ~Francis Bacon

  2. I follow a particular photographer who has stated that he was in a very dark place and photography has been his way out. His work is beautiful, does not reflect darkness at all and, for the most part, he does not bring his hopefully former depression up very often. There is another who speaks of it constantly and views it as his mission to make others aware that there is a way out. As you quote Buddha, “Life is Suffering” and we all have some. How we let it impact our lives is obviously very personal and sometimes it appropriately is visible in our work. I have been deeply moved by the work of Kathe Kollwitz. She would not have been as powerful an artist had she softened her expression.
    Most people care little for anything more than whether they like a particular piece of art. Happy or sad, young or old, where we come from, or even what equipment we use is of no concern.
    I know little of you but for what it’s worth, I enjoy your work.

    • Thank you Steve. People use whatever they have to create with. I have no problem with that. I’ve noticed, however, in “art” photography, that there are some artists that do personal work that is all about their problems, and I find that self-indulgent.

  3. Dan, the joy you experience as an artist is a compelling statement, with or without words. Thank you for sharing that joy with us.

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