BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 APR 10
Featured in
Issue 130

Kinds of Blue

Finding different cures for sadness

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 01 APR 10

Omer Fast, Nostalgia, 2009. Courtesy: South London Gallery, London.

After a financial crash comes the burn of bankruptcy, often followed by the smoulder of melancholy. Signs of recovery in the art market – a spectacular sale here, a fabulous party there – reconfirm the fatal bond between art and money instead of raising spirits. Money has proven to be a fickle, megalomaniac partner, unlike the duller yet more enduring art partners of education, experience or craft. But it’s hard to indulge in the blues; our art-worldly woes can’t compare to troubles like global warming and warfare.

It’s even harder to find a quick cure. Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) offers many remedies, but its length – close to 1,500 pages – seems more symptomatic than curative. Long-lasting sadness is the nature of the black-bile beast. If you find time to read him, Burton alleviates the pain with droll phrases, such as his assertion regarding the dangers of artificial allurements: ‘It was Judith’s pantofles that ravished the eyes of Holofernes.’ Wow. None of the artists – from Cranach the Elder to Caravaggio – even bothered to include these captivating slippers in their painterly renditions of Judith slicing off Holofernes’ sleepy head.

Instead of a cure, art melancholics might search for the collective dimension of what is often viewed as an individual, if not self-indulgent, pathology. The Turkish word for melancholy – hüzün – holds such collective potential, especially in its relation to Islam. (In the Koran the Arabic huzn qualifies, for example, the Prophet Mohammed’s period of mourning.) Turkish author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk explores collective variations on hüzün in Istanbul: Memories of a City (2003), which begins with a quote from fellow Turk Ahmet Rasim: ‘The beauty of a landscape resides in its melancholy.’ Pamuk’s beautiful landscape is the Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire – not at the Empire’s zenith, but during its lingering decay in decrepit corners, forgetful monuments and poverty.

In his treatise, Pamuk notes two Islamic traditions, which echo faintly with current art-worldly woes. A Muslim suffers from hüzün when she has ‘invested too much in worldly pleasures and material gain’. Sounds familiar. If I hadn’t started to expect lavish parties, I wouldn’t be pining after them now. By contrast, Sufi mysticism considers hüzün as an honour, earned by feeling the spiritual anguish of never being able to be close enough to Allah. While Allah is without equal, the apprehension of art can be found to be equally lacking. The very resurgence of melancholy – an ailment of body and soul – revives the much-maligned spiritual side of art: the ability of art works to inspire emotions along with ideas and politics, parties and fairs.

Whether hüzün is considered a self-inflicted pain of materialism or a mystic state of honour – or an illness – classic Islamic scholars agree that the problem of this long-lasting sadness is bringing the individual sufferer back into the community of believers (cemaat). For Pamuk, that’s where a scholarly work like the Iraqi Al Kindi’s ninth-century On the Art of Dispelling Sorrows differs from the Englishman Burton’s 17th-century Anatomy of Melancholy, which extolled the virtues of solitude and set the tone for European Romantic loners. And that’s where Pamuk adds his very own collective vision of hüzün, which he sees hanging over the entire city of Istanbul, joining its tarnished Ottoman glory, crumbling buildings and dusty inhabitants in common suffering.

Like Pamuk, we could understand our own smouldering melancholy not as the despair of so many solitary individuals – isolated from each other – but as ‘a communal feeling, an atmosphere and a culture’ shared by many and by choice in the wake of fading glory. Artists linked by such a common choice create a different bond, not only with each other, but also with time. As Pamuk advises, breaking with the past – a classic strategy for avant-gardists, upstarts and shock-jocks – aggravates hüzün. Born from the painful awareness of lost grandeur, this collective melancholy instils new expectations about the future: not bluer skies, but more blues. Pamuk argues that hüzün can compel a community of sad souls ‘to invent new defeats and new ways to express their impoverishment’.

In short, the novelty of the most inventive contemporary art will be backward-looking, forward failing and always lacking. But what does that look like? If the beauty of a landscape lies in its melancholic decay, then values – both material and emotional – are polarized. Beauty is marred by ruin; wonder, tamed by misery. For me, it’s Jeff Koons’ shiny blue sculpture on Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, Balloon Flower (1995–9), scratched by vandals. In Omer Fast’s film Nostalgia (2009), a refugee’s vomit turned into a cornucopia of flowers and fruit. Itay Ziv’s projection installation My Ghetto (2009) relates ghetto horrors in a room filled with colour photographs of blossoms. But, of course, it’s not for me to decide; it’s for the community of believers.

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.