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The Art of Illness: Contemporary Artists' Search for a Cure?

Article text
The Art of Illness: Contemporary Artists' Search for a Cure?

Research paper delivered at:

Body, Corporeality and Identity
One-day Postgraduate, Multidisciplinary Workshop, Centre for Medical Humanities, Durham University
19 May 2012


Artist lecture as part of solo exhibition 'The waiting room', Newcastle Arts Centre
27 September 2012



As human beings, we are all susceptible to disease and the manifestation of illness, where one’s story of ill health is narrated by language that cannot be quantified objectively. Throughout time, artists have exploited their expertise in fine art to exhibit their private affair with illness. I am interested in how these artists deliver corporeal and metaphysical displays of the human body in disease and illness.

The paper will explore the representation of illness by contemporary artists who, suffering in abject silence, turn to creativity for tangible avenues of expression and to cope with the trauma of illness through art as ‘therapy’. With illness as a form of deviance, the malady of the body becomes the stigmatisation of the person, and thus, the subject of social stigmatisation (Turner, 1996). Is it fair to assume the artists are condemned in the same way?

Established theories and philosophies on western society’s response to illness will help determine responses to artwork exploring illness, including the study of abjection by French philosopher Julia Kristeva, and the metaphors of illness established by Susan Sontag.

I will also address contemporary artwork exploring the human condition with reference to bodily systems, organs, and mortality. Examining the diverse ways artists represent illness, it is important to consider how they reflect on what it means to be human, aside the symptoms of disease.

To acquaint oneself with artwork exhibiting illness extends beyond the nature of subjectivity and invites contemplation on what it feels to be human in western society.