Art Suffering

Art in a Painful World and How it Humanizes Us

Hospitals can be busy places. When I found myself hospitalized for premature labor over ten years ago, I was thankful for the doctors’ and nurses’ efficient care for me. However, sometimes there were certain staff members that treated me more like a medical object than a person, likely because they were hurried and overworked. Somewhere in between the blood pressure and cervical checks, slivers of my humanity had been shaved down. When they walked in the room, they saw me as a medical task, not a living, breathing person.

So it was with some amusement when I saw classical music humanize me to a nurse. After my condition had become more stabilized they decided to go ahead and keep me in the hospital under observation. After five days, I asked for some soul building and stress reducing items to be brought to me – music and my crochet project. I was in the middle of listening to classical music and crocheting something for my unborn daughter, when a nurse hustled in to get me ready for a cervical check.

She not only stopped mid-sentence, but literally stopped mid-step as she took in the scene of me in my hospital bed listening to music and working on crochet. Then she looked me in the eyes for the first time, and it was as if something clicked. She saw me as a person, not just a patient. She cleared her throat and started again, this time focusing on me. Somehow this little glimpse of me enjoying music and working on creating something helped her see me for the first time.

Art and creativity, in its many and best forms, has a humanizing effect. This is especially important when pain or suffering feels dehumanizing. There is nothing like deep worry or great pain to make you feel reduced to almost primal instincts. The Nazis knew this well, and specifically designed their treatment of Jewish people in concentration camps to be dehumanizing so that the guards would better accept mistreating and killing them. While the prisoner’s very souls screamed of their humanity, their outward appearance was changed by shaving their heads and stripping them of their clothing. Then, they were starved, beaten, and overworked, until like Jesus on the way to the cross, they were hardly recognizable. Prisoners who survived reported how this altering of their appearance, and the survival mode they were thrust into, seemed to help the guards view them as subhuman. Yet their creative humanity shines through in their secret camp art and post-camp paintings (the rest of the pictures below were created by Auschwitz prisoners).

Author: Jan Baraś-Komski Oil painting, canvas, 123 x 151 cm, USA 1970-80. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

As part of the human race, we are image bearers of God, and God is the great creative. Even in the middle of injustice, war, pain, and suffering, we create. Look at the African-American Spirituals (music that led to gospel music, jazz, and ragtime) born under the pain of slavery in the U.S., the creative genesis of Anne Frank, the Auschwitz paintings of Jan Komski, or the many musicians and artists who created despite suffering greatly from mental illnesses or traumatic pasts. We are not just animals caring about primal instincts and survival. You can strip us of our hair, physical strength, health, and clothing, but our souls remain the same.

On the way to work Author: Janina Tollik Oil painting, canvas, 65 x 81 cm, Warsaw 1991. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

We are made in the image of a wondrous creative God who created not only our physical world, but also our inner souls and hearts that are fed by art and the creative process. The Bible is not simply practical and dry theological writing – instead it is filled with poetry, beautiful prose, and moving storytelling. God’s very words to us feed not only our knowledge-loving minds, but our creative souls as well. Art is a reminder of who we are – a people made in his image.

The last two years of my life have not been easy ones – my health crisis has translated into many weeks and months of discomfort and pain. Often, I did feel reduced to an uncomfortable survival. But with that pain, I’ve felt myself pushed more to the arts – books and storytelling, primarily. But I’ve also leaned into my appreciation of drawing, music, modern poetry, and other art forms.

Penal unit at work Author: Janina Tollik Oil painting, canvas, 70 x 100 cm, Belgium 1946. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

During a time frame when it would have been natural to put my very limited resources towards the practical problems of my life, I found myself clinging with hunger to great storytelling and haunting music. Some feel that creating from pain is what makes great art. I do know that several of my favorite classical composers wrote from a place of pain, and that you can see that thread in many of the other art forms as well. For me, pain has not only made me appreciate the arts more, but also made me want to create more.

In some ways, pain has pointed me towards my image bearing soul in a unique way, and I’m thankful for that. There is an irony that the very thing – pain – that can make you feel stripped of parts of your humanity, can also be the very thing that leads you back to creative nature.

Wishes of freedom Author: Author unknown Watercolour, cardboard, 4,5 x 9,8 cm, KL Auschwitz 1943. Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

To conclude, here are a few quotes from some familiar people that make me think more about what the creative process means to us as a people group. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comment section!

The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection. – Michelangelo

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science – Albert Einstein

The mediator of the inexpressible is the work of art. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure of the world. – Martin Luther

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. – Pablo Picasso

The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. – Gustave Flaubert


COPYRIGHT: All images are from the Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Material belonging to the Museum may be used free of charge exclusively for non-commercial and strictly educational purposes, on the condition that its source is indicated in the following form: “”.
An additional condition to which there are absolutely no exceptions is that this material may be used only in undertakings and projects that do not impugn or violate the good name of the victims of Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

4 thoughts on “Art in a Painful World and How it Humanizes Us”

  1. Kimi, I finally had a chance to read this. It resonates with me. While gripped with extreme fatigue, pain from Lyme Disease/SIBO/H Pylori & a parasite, I took up calligraphy again. And pursued my lessons and practice with a passion b/c it took my mind off of my pain and made me feel human–like I was more than my diagnoses. Like those things did not define me. I can relate. Please keep writing. It encourages my soul. I write almost every day and if I didn’t, I would not be myself for sure!

    1. Shelley,

      I’m sorry my reply didn’t go through before! Thanks so much for this comment. I’m so sorry you are dealing with extreme fatigue – I’ve dealt with that as well, and it’s debilitating. But I’m so glad to hear that you’ve taken up calligraphy! What a lovely way to remind yourself of your creative, God-given nature. And I resonate with what you say about not letting your disease define you. So true! But hard sometimes. Thanks for the encouragement!

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