The Color of Pain
I am astonished that while we have such refined issues about other subjects, we are so deprived about the subject of death. We do not know how to speak of death or of colors either.
—Albert Camus, in Oliver Todd, Albert Camus: A Life
Colors in a Field
Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows is famous (fig. 1). A temporary aggregation of color and materiality ( Appadurai 2006) of which copies circulate in books and magazines and on Web sites, television screens, posters, and postcards, it is renowned for swirling brushstrokes that have become synonymous with creative passion and artistic intensity. John Berger (1972: 28) discusses the painting in his groundbreaking book and television series Ways of Seeing. He asks the reader to “look at it for a moment” before expressing the view, now contested, that “this is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself. It is hard to define exactly how the words have changed the image but undoubtedly they have. The image now illustrates the sentence.” Accordingly, the painting not only exposes the uncertain relationship among language, knowledge, and perception but also provides, in Berger’s view, a material basis on which to begin speaking about the relationship between an artwork and the life circumstances of the person who produced it.
By focusing on artworks made by persons confronting their own mortality, including Van Gogh, Dennis Potter, and artists with HIV/AIDS with whom I have collaborated over the past ten years, this essay explores the thinking and being of persons close to death and uses painting and photography to examine the necessary conditions and limiting factors that make possible an imagined “mutuality of the world,” that is, the sense of living and dwelling with other persons who experience and understand the world in a similar fashion. Mutuality, here defined in relation to material artifacts, offers a framework for understanding the intersubjective basis of perception and action, including the morals, beliefs, and aesthetic forms shared by groups and persons. For Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1992: 354), mutuality is not pregiven by virtue of mind and body but is formed through an active process of negotiation between self and other insofar as, within “the experience of dialogue, there is constituted between the other person and myself a common ground[, where] my thought and his are interwoven into a single fabric.” This suggests that diversity, difference, and otherness are not the opposite of mutuality but the conditions that bring it into being as people attempt to understand one another through ongoing dialogue and interaction. Mutuality is thus predicated on a foundational difference among persons and is continually being generated, tested out, and reworked through social interaction, thereby turning it from a philosophical into an anthropological question to be understood through people’s actions and practices.
Commonalities of perception tend to be broadly based on two prevailing epistemological approaches: those that assert mutuality on the grounds of specieswide phylogenetic capacities, shared biology, and cognitive mechanisms, so, for example, we all see color in the same way because we have the same physiological makeup, and those that presuppose a common worldview by virtue of people sharing the same social and cultural environment, say, a particular practical daily habitus or context whereby persons embody culturally similar ways of thinking and being or share certain moral values and experiences. These approaches are not incommensurable and are often combined to explain how diverse cultural forms and practices can emerge from universal, phylogenetic capacities — for example, when radically different forms of being and expression are said to derive from the same basic needs or desires. However, even in combination their epistemological foundations continue to be challenged by the specificity of persons with their individual biographies and idiosyncratic bodily experiences of the world. Consequently, if we are to better understand the diversity and indeterminacy of human experience, it is less a case of reversing the precedence of biological unity over cultural difference — or bringing them into equilibrium — than of opening up a space in which to discuss the contingency of people’s bodies and being. In other words, to begin speaking about perceptions of color and death, we need to move beyond the universality of “anthropos” and diversity of “ethnos” (see Stocking 1992) and reinstate people into their own life histories, bodies, and imaginations — if only because the figure of the person overcomes the epistemological division between biology and culture (or, to put it another way, a person incorporates both) and thereby offers a way of understanding human action beyond established disciplinary divisions.
In this essay I use painting, photography, and other artistic productions to critique current approaches to knowledge and being. Beginning with Van Gogh’s iconic painting and its surrounding mythology, I then consider the works and embodied experiences of three artists, Juan Arellano, Rebecca Guberman-Bloom, and Frank Jump. By focusing on the relationship between an artwork’s bodily production and the material forms that subsequently come into being, we can investigate experiences of time, space, and the body in ways that recognize their specificity, diversity, and alterity but do not marginalize individual discrepancies in favor of the disciplinary truth claims of science and social science. Such an approach to the specific bodily basis of art was one of Merleau-Ponty’s (1994: 123 – 24) major concerns when he argued that evidence for Paul Cézanne’s “trouble with his eyes” could be found in the landscapes he painted, insofar as
the painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry. Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint. It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings. To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body — not the body as a chunk of space or bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.
In thinking about art as an intertwining of body, vision, and movement, I hope to extend but also to critique Merleau-Ponty’s model of intersubjectivity by exploring the relationship between the “interior” experiences of pain and imagination and the visible surfaces and materiality of art, as mediated through people’s artistic productions while they live with a sick, sometimes radically unstable, body.
Deathly Frames and Auras: Painting, Materiality, and Imagination
Although the exact circumstances are not known, a short time after he had painted Wheatfield with Crows, Van Gogh walked into a wheat field and shot himself in the chest. It is impossible to determine from the painting itself if there is any correlation between its subject matter and Van Gogh’s suicide or to measure objectively what passes between the painting and the viewer’s body when encountering its circumstances of production for the first time.1 It is the same sky and wheat fields, painted in the same colors that are sensed by the same retinal cells and processed via the brain’s same V4 visual pathway. However, it is almost impossible to see the painting as before, as its colors and textures are animated by an act toward death, that is, the willful taking of one’s life, and a surrounding discourse that draws heavily on the romantic correlation of art, suicide, and the tortured genius. Once Wheatfield’s circumstances are known, they cease to be external to its content; they become part of our experience of the artwork itself insofar as the painting now seems to possess a deathly aura that plays on the imagination and alters perception in ways that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or immaterial, if only because of the way that complex physical and chemical changes register in our brains and bodies.
Encounters with deathly objects are mediated by diverse social, religious, and historical practices ( Kaufman and Morgan 2005; Hallam and Hockey 2006), but they play on the imagination in interesting and unexpected ways. Therefore, although people’s responses to such artifacts reveal shared moral perspectives about death and dying, they often evoke diverse, sometimes contradictory, feelings and sensations ( Kastenbaum 2003). The complex range of emotions experienced by an individual when contemplating mortality ( Rapport 2000) means that responses to death or dying are not reducible (philosophically or psychologically) to universal instincts, such as fear, dread, or anxiety, as in Heidegger’s (1962) mistaken conflation of finitude with death ( Dollimore 1998), nor are they explicable through social context. For finitude is primarily a property of the body’s limitations and situational circumstances rather than the common destiny of death per se ( Sartre 1996), while context is a metaphor of analysis rather than a determining agent ( M. Jackson 1996). Thus responses to Van Gogh’s painting can be understood as partial, situational responses to death and dying based on the existential particularity of the moment rather than as reflections of a specific cultural anxiety or timeless, universal dread.
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This photo-essay is dedicated to Will F. Willis, Harriet Nabesse, Dennis Potter, and their families. I thank Will, Harriet, Juan Arellano, Rebecca Guberman-Bloom, and Frank Jump, without whom this work would not have been possible; the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom for funding the original research; Concordia University, Montreal, for providing an intellectually stimulating environment while I wrote this piece; and Barbara Hunt, Chris Hogan, Nelson Santos, and Amy Sadao at Visual Aids New York for their great work and support.
- To know if, how, or when one initially encounters reproductions of widely circulating works such as Wheatfield is very difficult. Fredric Jameson (1979) draws attention to the frequent impossibility of encountering popular songs and mass-produced images for the first time insofar as they are often already known and internalized prior to our conscious awareness. I cannot say when I first heard a Beatles song, saw roses on a birthday card or a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, or became aware of Wheatfield because each had already been embodied through a thousand fragments encountered in shops, cafés, advertisements, and waiting rooms and on magazine covers, postcard racks, T-shirts, and televisions. However, I would argue that in this case the painting’s deathly aura is not entirely restricted to the original and can be effectively conveyed in other forms.