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Trauma-Feeding: The Best Art Shouldn’t Come From Pain

Mirren Bodanis

Voices Editor

Open Casket by Dana Schutz via Wikipedia

If you were someone who both read books and went through a breakup in the eighth grade, you wrote cringey sad poems. Don’t lie. I did, we all did. Life at that time was so simple, yet brutally vivid, and for my fellow introverted 14 year olds all of that brutality was poured and contained into stanzas upon stanzas in the Notes app. I remember the feeling so well: after finishing a final verse, probably rhyming “sigh” and “cry” with “die,” I stared hatefully across the page (or screen) into an oblivious classroom, feeling unseen. I am suffering. I am an artist. This is what real art feels like!

So much of art is trauma and we love it. It is the most vivid; the most “real.” We love trauma in the artistic process: artists who died right after finishing a painting, musicians who wrote while overdosing on LSD or Jared Leto sending castmates used condoms and dead rats to method act the Joker. The 27 club isn’t full of tragedy, it’s full of great artists.

Professor of philosophy Jeremy Bendik-Keymer and visual artist Misty Morrison explore this phenomenon in their article “Trauma Feeding: Why It’s Not Okay To Exploit Trauma in Art,” featured in the Cleveland Review of Books. They define “trauma-feeding” as “a practice of making art about trauma that has the obvious effect of soliciting people’s sympathy and, possibly, stirring up more trauma or trauma-related effects in spectators.” 

As an example, they provide “Open Casket,” a figurative painting by white artist Dana Schutz depicting the disfigured corpse of Emmet Till. The painting received massive backlash, with many protesting its exposition, and artist Hannah Black writing an open letter to the museum stating that “it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun.”

Bendik-Keymer and Morrison’s article reinforces this into a general context. “Dana Schutz’s painting was a form of trauma-feeding because it seized on the sympathy of spectators as someone who was neither working through the trauma exhibited nor as someone who was following through on it.” This detached sympathy is core to the ways we trauma-feed off of art. Although many films, books, songs, and paintings depicting trauma can be helpful in terms of bringing issues to light, they also allow us to sympathize without empathy. They give us the opportunity to feel bad about someone else’s trauma without helping them work through it, or work through it ourselves. We can understand the sentiment without working through the problem itself. In Bendit-Keymer and Morrison’s words: “Trauma-feeding keeps everything in its place, and covers over this conservative preservation of the status quo by rewarding viewers with spectacular sympathy.”

Society fetishises trauma not only in the content of art, but in the process of its creation. We love troubled artists, we love work born from a terrible experience, and that was a terrible experience to create. In my own community of cinephiles, directors like David Fincher and Stanley Kubrik are revered for forcing their actors to perform hundreds of takes, or abusing them into “great” performances. In popular culture, we revere the “method actor”: one who forces themselves into experiencing as much trauma as their character in the name of a convincing performance. 

Endless examples of this type of reverence for traumatic processes exist outside cinema. In an article for Rolling Stone, American music journalist Mikal Gillmore explains how for The Beatles, “unwitting initiation into LSD would find its fulfillment the following year in Revolver, the Beatles’ bravest and most innovative album.” No discussion of the greatness of Vincent van Gogh can end before mentioning that none of his paintings were sold during his lifetime and that he cut his own ear off. We cannot mythologise an artist without mythologising their trauma.

It seems modern society is truly obsessed with insisting that great art means great trauma, and great trauma means great art. In our capitalist world, our own trauma has become commodifiable and, in our false meritocracy, to suffer for your work makes you moral and worthy of myth. And all for what?

I used to think my eighth grade poetry was the peak of my art. As I worked through the pain from which I drew out those poems, I stopped writing them. And yet, you are reading this in The Plant.

We, as Dawson students, struggle through this world, as we claw our way through exams and finals and summatives and tests and pain. It is our choice: Do we destroy our sleep schedule or fail a test? Do we go out to the bar or do we stay home and paint till our hands ache and the work is done? Do we suffer through or maybe drop a few courses? Maybe it is time to choose the latter, and maybe that is okay. Our art and life will be better for it.

1 comment

1 Comment

Thank you for this cool -- and wise -- post. Misty and I agree with what you say. And, yes, drop the classes ---- or scale back on the pressure. Take your time. Life is long. What we need on this planet are solid people who develop good relationships with those around them and with their own worlds. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

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