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“What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?

“The iconography of suffering has a long pedigree. The sufferings most often deemed worthy of representation are those understood to be the product of wrath, divine or human… The viewer may commiserate with the sufferer’s pain but these are destinies beyond deploring or contesting.

“It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked. For many centuries, in Christian art, depictions of hell offered both of the elemental satisfactions… There is the satisfaction of being able to look at the image without flinching. There is the pleasure of flinching.

“…the gruesome invites us to be either spectators or cowards. Those with the stomach to look are playing a role authorized by many glorious depictions of suffering. Torment, a canonical subject in art, is often represented in painting as a spectacle, something being watched by other people.

“…Edmund Burke observed that people like to look at images of suffering. ‘I am convinced we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others,’ he wrote in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. ‘There is no spectacle we so eagerly pursue, as that of some uncommon and grievous calamity.’ William Hazlitt, in his essay on Shakespeare’s Iago and the attraction of villainy on the stage, asks, ‘Why do we always read the accounts in the newspapers of dreadful fires and shocking murders?’ Because, he answers, ‘love of mischief,’ love of cruelty, is as natural to human beings as is sympathy.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others


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