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Self-harm versus self-care, what does the art world enable?

Is the art market and community complicit in furthering our destructive obsession with tortured artistic genius? Explores Rosalyn D’Mello.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : May 20, 2020

In December 2018, I had been invited to a dinner at the home of an art dealer. As I made my way to the bar, I kept encountering artist friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, as I had been travelling. I finally got to the front of the queue and asked the bartender to pour me a single malt. Next to me was a mid-career male artist I knew, represented by the gallery run by our host. While I was familiar with his work, I didn’t know him too well neither had I ever visited his studio. At best, we were acquaintances. A brief conversation followed after the initial hellos. Because I had been in absentia from the art world, I had forgotten that the rule of thumb was to keep most exchanges basic, don’t give away too much because the person asking how you are is seldom genuinely interested so much as being polite. I was being my usual naively honest self, and in doing so, miscalculated the impact this otherwise benign conversation would have on my mood.

He asked me how I was. I said I was doing fine. I had begun therapy recently, and I was beginning to enjoy it... it was starting to seem like a transformational experience. “Why, Rosalyn?” he responded, displaying unprecedented dramatic concern, much to my dismay.

This should have been my cue to dis-engage, but I was too early into my journey with therapy to understand how and when to listen to my body’s intuition and thus exit potentially toxic situations. Instead, my response was intoned with defensiveness. I explained how I felt I needed to talk to someone. In justifying my decision to pursue the stability of my mental health, I suddenly felt as though my prerogative to choose to empower myself could be construed as a sign of psychological abnormality.

“Don’t you have friends?” he asked, accusingly, disparagingly. As if he was convinced I didn’t, as if were I to answer to the contrary, I would be exposed as a liar. “Of course I do!” I responded while trying hard to suppress this wave of shame that was rising within my body. “But, it shouldn’t be their burden to have to deal with my personal issues,” I countered.

“Then you have shit friends!” he said. How he had arrived at this conclusion remains beyond me.  

It was hard to synthesise the harsh, judgemental nature of his words with his art, which was showed signs of being invested, however tentatively, in forms of fragility. I had never been overly enthusiastic about his work, as it always felt to me like it was derived from histories of femmage, but was devoid of semantic or identarian nuance. I saw them only as objects, which, when well lit, could look pretty, even dramatic. Was it that he had never accommodated into his practice the role of empathy towards any kind of ideology, even that of materialism? He had certainly been unkind in his interaction with me. Instead of responding to my honest revelation about having found the courage to prioritise my mental health by choosing to see a professional, he not only ridiculed me, but also cast aspersions on my support system, shaming not just me but also them, for presumably not possessing the emotional bandwidth to sustain me. Not only was I at fault for seeking help, my friends were, too, for not doing enough and thus enabling my dependency on professional help.

Detail of Remarkable Unremarkable, from Anjum Singh’s solo show, I am Still Here | STIRworld
Detail of Remarkable Unremarkable, from Anjum Singh’s solo show, I am Still Here Image Credit: Courtesy of Talwar Gallery

I seem to keep returning to this conversation, not because I was traumatised by it. Yes, I do recognise that I should have nipped it in the bud, I should not have enabled it. (Why is it that so many interactions with members of the art world make one feel icky afterwards?) But, there was more to it. His attitude represented something crucial about how, within a Capitalist framework (and the art world is governed by the logos of capitalism) self-care is scoffed at when it manifests as anything more serious than a facial or a pedicure. It can only be a buzz word, a trend, at best, not a legitimate radical movement.

Within the context of the global art world, it is almost customary for artists who come from marginalised backgrounds or from oppressed minorities to perform their victimhood for the all-powerful institution to be considered authentic. Trauma must be mined within such a hetero-patriarchal set-up as material, as fodder that can be consumed by an audience. Care, as a concept, has been traditionally relegated to the ‘feminine’ domain of nurture and motherhood, and was therefore invalidated as not a legitimate subject for pursuit or depiction. Forms of self-inflicted violence accrued a more vainglorious aura. The more likely you were to use the body as raw medium and inflict violence upon it the more successful you could be in the eyes of the establishment. Along the way, it seems like self-harm was enshrined as a virtue. To self-harm for the sake of your art was to put its needs above your own. I remember arriving at this shocking realisation when once, at a residency I had been invited to, I happened to walk in on a European female artist co-habitant cutting her hands with a blade. On her desk were cosmological diagrams of the palm. I had heard her fighting with someone over the phone, and was intelligent enough to know that her claims of making the blood drawings she was doing as part of her artistic pursuit were dangerous, not just to her own body, but in terms of how they further the normalising of self-harm at the service of one’s art.

Can art emerge from a site of healing, or must it continue to remain cornered within the realm of suffering, trauma, crises? Can it be celebratory, empowering, even, and yet have soul? Or must artistic genius continues to be tortured for it to have currency? Of course there are plenty of artworks that do not have such a contentious conceptual provenance, but can we really deny that the various stakeholders and gatekeepers that determine who is to be rendered a success and who must be denied entry into the hallowed gates of collector heaven are not obsessed with the pornography of carnage, or the continued destitution of the marginalised subject? Suffering has its own currency. Proof of this lies in how it is brandished as fact in artist statements and press release material. Oppression is spun in favour of identity politics, to suit the package that is to be marketed.

Detail of Bleed Bled Blood Red, from Anjum Singh’s solo show, I am Still Here 
| STIRworld
Detail of Bleed Bled Blood Red, from Anjum Singh’s solo show, I am Still Here Image Credit: Courtesy of Talwar Gallery

Lately I have been increasingly drawn to the practices of artists who engage with the fragility of their own bodies within the solitude of their sites of inhabitation. The ensuing art they create seems the opposite of self-flagellation. The dialoguing with one’s own corporeality and a certain embrace of self-consciousness, not in the sense of performing for an invisible audience whom the artist acknowledges exists as a potential recipient, but at the level of focussing squarely on the self, on the subjectivity that makes us individual, that makes us whole, despite the fragmented nature of our experience of consciousness. One such body of work that comes to mind is Ayesha Sultana’s Breath Count, consisting of a range of shapes marking or registering her encounter with breathing, an involuntary act that sustains our is-ness on clay-coated paper. Another is the work I saw by Neerja Kothari that will hopefully open soon at her impending solo show, Keeping Score at Shrine Empire, New Delhi. And we mustn’t forget Anjum Singh’s enormously powerful recent show at Talwar Gallery, I am still here. All of these artists uniquely struggle with health conditions that make them conscious of their mortality, and yet, one witnesses, in their work, a blazing transcendence that testifies to the soul’s enormous capacity for resilience. They seem to emerge from the immediacy of self-care as daily, necessary, urgent practice.

What do you think?

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