Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A World of Suffering: The Painter's Moral Dilemma, Part 1

Ready to Sail 12x9 oil by Michael Chesley Johnson

Paint, or feed the hungry?
Paint, or clothe the poor?
Paint, or shelter the homeless?
Paint, or nurse the sick?
Paint, or fight a war?

Lately, I've been asking myself, how can I paint in this world of suffering? Painting seems a selfish occupation when one is hammered with new tales of suffering each day. Thousands killed by floods and earthquakes. Hundreds of thousands escaping a dictator. Millions more beaten down by disease and famine.

But in the island of my studio, I can turn on some pleasant music and paint, oblivious to the suffering.

If I am not suffering, either directly or vicariously, or if I am not painting to raise awareness of the suffering, is this practice wrong? If I'm painting a landscape that pleases me, far removed from the suffering, is that selfish?

I can ameliorate the guilt, perhaps, by convincing myself that art has value in a world of suffering. A serene vista, painted on canvas, may give the burdened a safe place to rest the soul. A beautiful scene may give encouragement, something to aspire to. But this good is real only if the painting can be seen by the troubled. This is unlikely for those isolated by disaster or dictatorships. Here in America, my paintings are seen mostly by people with lesser troubles. However, they, too, may find value in them as a haven from their troubles, however small.

There are no easy answers for a person who has taken to painting—what some consider a business trucking in luxury items—for both a livelihood and as a means to creative self-fulfillment.   I like to think that, not only does my painting add joy and beauty to my life, but it does to the lives of others, as well.  The question becomes:  Is it enough?

I have a friend, Tim, who paints maritime scenes at his summer studio and diner scenes at his winter one. An artist all his life, he volunteers one day a week at a homeless shelter. Probably like me, he also has wrestled with the painter's moral dilemma, and this is his answer.

If you have your own answer to the dilemma, I would be happy for you to share it in my next blog post or in the comments.

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