A bloody pain

Art - Zoe Williams on a new body of work that explores the agonies of creativity

Literature is rubbish at pain; you will never find a decent description of exquisite agony, because all the words designated for such a purpose have already been pressed into use by wannabe bards to describe what it's like when their sweetheart gives them a grumpy look. Pain, indeed, is the one thing that films used to be better at than books, until the currency got debased, and the situation arose when the only way to convey a meaningful wound was to cut someone's ear off. And now, all of a sudden, visual art has decided to have a go. Fine. Let's see what it's made of.

This month's aesthetic foray into gore occurs in Guy's Hospital, where the exhibition "Perceptions of Pain" has been put together by an artist, Deborah Padfield, a pain-specialist, Dr Pither, a brace of experimental film-makers and some patients from a chronic pain management unit. Now, you can see why artists would want to launch such a thing - they've been hanging around mental units for donkey's years doing art therapy. Nobody wants to be stuck at the foothills of illness forever - there must come a time when you long for the legitimacy of a proper, meaty disease that's definitely there, and couldn't possibly have been fabricated by an innovative scrimshanker.

The mystery is why the patients themselves would want to get involved. Many of them cited the fact that it is almost impossible to convey to doctors, in words, what their pain felt like. I'd have thought that, failing words, the second best way to communicate agony would be to lie in bed and moan, whereas getting into an bubbly stew about art might well lead the doctor to conclude that you were feeling better and drop your morphine. Well, there we go - they've roused their gammy stumps and produced a series of images, among which you will be surprised to hear that red-hot barbed-wire features quite prominently.

And so on to the eternal question: "But is it art?" You can't answer that where real non-artist patients are concerned. It would be like trying to do a practical criticism on poetry by the homeless. As good luck would have it, though, there have been a number of recent exhibitions by real artists, featuring the human body in various states of presence, absence and disrepair, of which the most controversial is Gunther von Hagens's "Body Worlds", a self-styled "democratisation of anatomy", made of real human beings without their skins on. There has been considerable debate about whether this a) debases humanity, and b) passes for real art, though at least in the second matter no one could use that hoary old line: "My five-year-old could have done this." It would be rare to find an infant with the stomach for body-skinning on this scale.

"Body Worlds" made very few conceptual claims for itself, apart from the democratisation business, which is principally where it differed from another German pain-based exhibition, "Blood: art, power, politics and pathology". "Blood is an extremely powerful symbol," ran the bumf. "From the first time a child cuts its finger, blood with its shocking redness, salty taste and musty smell assumes a symbolic dimension." No it doesn't! Symbolic of what? Pain? You might just as well say that snot "symbolises" a cold.

It's talk like this that gives art a bad name, and science the upper hand - if a doctor were to say: "From the first time a child cuts its finger, photosynthesis occurs," people would simply say: "That's not right, is it?" We can conclude therefore that science is better than art, and thus put to rest a debate that has been going on for an awfully long time.

There are other ways into the human form that don't necessarily involve blood, guts and gory bits - Michelle Charles recently presented her ruminations on the body via old pharmaceutical bottles, while Eric Fong chose the similarly oblique angle of phantom limbs. On the left field, Sebastian Hawsley set out to experience a crucifixion for his art, only to fall off the cross and faint with pain halfway through it - which, though he obviously didn't do it on purpose, nevertheless made it a lot more dramatic.

The abiding fascination with the body in crisis is clearly related to the decline of the nude qua artistic statement. We have not lost our interest in the body per se, we have simply lost our attraction for the completed and desirable human form. Today's bodies are dismembered and laid bare. Since, broadly speaking, nudes are other people, where damaged bodies are ourselves, this could be read as part of a general cultural tendency away from the communal and towards the atomised and the introspective.

Hypochondria is, above all, a way of hermetically sealing one's emotional response, to ensure that unbidden fears can be channelled entirely solipsistically, and needn't engender guilt or altruism, or otherwise affect one's position vis-a-vis other people. It is like keeping your anxieties in an offshore account, basically - and, like any tax-dodge, it comes back to haunt you, though luckily in the form of widespread cultural morbidity, rather than a big old bill.

All of which isn't to say that chronic pain isn't very nasty indeed. I'll bet it's horrid.

"Perceptions of Pain" is at Atrium 1, Guy's Hospital, London SE1 (020 7928 9292 ext 1430), until 29 June