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Julian Sheather: Is Prozac destroying the arts?

23 Jun, 08 | by BMJ

Julian SheatherDo art and misery share a bed? Although we might expect art to entertain and even, at a push, to improve its audience, artists themselves are surely supposed to suffer. It is part of the job spec. Yes there are lucky exceptions – Matisse perhaps, Anthony Trollope – but generally speaking artists are expected to pay for their insights in psychic anguish. Partly perhaps this is wishful thinking on behalf of non-artists, a species of democratic balancing. If the greatly gifted are greatly burdened then those of us who lack such gifts get to feel a little better. Which works as long as we manage to avoid suffering too much ourselves. Unfortunately a lack of great gifts doesn’t seem to be much insurance against unhappiness.

The circumstantial evidence linking art and psychic trouble is nonetheless strong. A glance at the novel alone makes the point. The literary canon reads like a roll-call of those in psychological turmoil: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust, Conrad, Dickens, Kafka, Hardy. Black dogs dogged them all. Nor does it come as a surprise that the art is, in indirect ways, linked to the suffering. Kafka suffered appallingly, and Metamorphosis transmutes intense psychological alienation into sublime art. Subtract the suffering and what is left of the literature?

The last few decades have seen an intense pharmacological assault on unhappiness. If it is true that there is a biochemistry of suffering then perhaps there is a biochemical solution. If suffering is spliced into our genes then perhaps pharmacogenetics can flush it out. Could it be that medicine, which has sometimes struggled to relieve even the acutest suffering, will eradicate it altogether? And if it did what would be the impact on our culture? Would the arts, unwatered by tears, wither away, their consolations no longer required, their depths no longer visited? And if it did, would it be a bad thing?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is perhaps the best known take on the possibility of a world devoid of suffering. It is a chilly vision. Unhappiness has been banished, but with it has gone the family, art, religion and philosohy. In their place is Henry Ford – reverentially invoked as ‘our Ford’ – promiscuous sex and the all appeasing wonder drug Soma. “All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.”

Putting to one side the improbability of eradicating unhappiness any time soon, there appears to be a paradox here. On the one hand we want medicine to do everything it can to relieve suffering. On the other, the thought of a world of permanent unrelieved happiness lacks, or can lack, appeal. Why is that? What is it about a world in which suffering has been removed that makes us anxious? Like many interesting questions it is too big and too mysterious to be amenable to a single answer, but perhaps one aspect is allied to our sense that many of the good things in life come at the risk of the bad. Can we have love without the risk of loss? Can we enjoy success without the risk of failure? Even if medicine manages, in some distant future, to eradicate pathological suffering, common human unhappiness is likely to remain. The possibility of happiness itself seems to require it. So, in all probability, although medicine will remain with us, so will the arts.

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  • http://arts.pallimed.org Christian Sinclair

    I have heard that Edvard Munch’s artwork had been claimed to ‘suffer’ in quality after he received therapy. Arts serve as a conduit for emotions so I think your points are well made. There are a few recent authors who have tried to champion the return of meaning in sadness and grief as opposed to make it all seemingly go away in one big happy smile. I cannot think of them right now, but they are out there.

    Exploring arts and suffering is part of our new blog Pallimed: Arts & Humanities and Dr. Clarkson has written a post about a painting “Isle of the Dead” demonstrating the effect of arts on grieving.

    Thanks for the good read.

  • Paolo Tomasi

    Ah well, this implies that SSRIs are indeed effective… recent data seem to challenge this, so perhaps mr Sheather need not worry!

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