Protracted Pain

Jun 6, 2022 | Art

Welcome students. This, uh, is again…the semester is…very important to…

I’m sorry, must you point that thing at me?

Look: your people won. I agreed to keep teaching iconetics. And I would never sabotage my own curriculum, with or without your coercion. If you want to put that thing to use, I’m pretty sure the university still has a hunting club, unless that has also been forcibly converted to an iconetics class.


To begin with, I want to assure all of you that everything will be okay. If anything, the recent…enthusiasm for iconetics is a clear signal of the program’s success. I must say I am *glances at sniper rifle* thankful that many of our courses have been added to the university’s general education requirements and am…delighted at the idea of a nationwide push to include iconetics as advanced placement classes in high schools to accommodate collegebound students.

However, it is also my unfortunate duty to inform you that this is the last time I will be teaching any of the lower-level classes. I am…overjoyed to learn that many of my students demonstrated such a gift for iconetics that they have now been…conscripted into teaching it for a living. Without a doubt, this is the start of something great.

Welcome to Iconetics 238: Protracted Pain.

Lesson 1: The Miracle of Pain

The modern word “telepathy” comes from Greek roots meaning “to feel pain at a distance”. The idea being that when a perfectly healthy person is exposed to the sight or sound of someone else in pain, that healthy person starts to feel pain in himself, as if he were the one suffering.

This ancient version of “telepathy” is more realistic than its modern counterpart. In fact, it is almost universal. While watching a horror movie, and viewing scenes of grotesque violence or torture, people in the audience may jerk, flinch, or even vomit reflexively—so long as the special effects are convincing. And this is the advantage that horror movies have over other forms of entertainment. Most feelings take serious work to transfer from the characters to the audience.

Depictions of physical pain bypass that lengthy and involved process, creating an instant link between fantasy and reality. As such, it is frequently the case that a powerful horror movie can be filmed on a shoestring budget. It doesn’t take a lot of fancy add-ons to make horror work. In fact, when Hollywood makes sequels to such iconic horror flicks with twice the budget of the first one, these sequels often fall flat on their faces.

It should come as no surprise, then, that an artistic work can be elevated to iconic status simply by depicting a scene of intense pain.

An an example, consider the film Un Chien Andalou—a collaboration between Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali.

The film is dark and (supposedly) deeply symbolic. It is, however, not an icon. Not even a little. Outside of certain film arts circles, it is entirely unknown. It is not emblematic of a larger body of work. It is not the source of many derivative works (except for the occasional offhand mention in popular media). All in all, the film holds little iconetic value.

Except in one instance. Though the film itself is not an icon, one scene from the film has ascended to near-iconhood. It is the most famous part of the movie and the only part still talked about today. GIFs of this scene exist online, but I have not included any of those here. I abstain not because these images are disturbing to general audiences (though they certainly are that), but because I myself have a hard time looking at them.

In one scene, the male lead sits the female lead down in a chair, forces one of her eyes open, and slashes her eyeball with a flat razor.

This scene was created using strategically-timed cuts and special effects. The actress playing the female lead was not actually harmed. Yet even if the audience knows this when watching the film, the impact is still chillingly felt. That is why this scene, and this scene alone from the film, has homages made to it in other media. Not many, but they exist.

From this we learn an important lesson: images of pain can create iconic images. But, frankly, the kind of pain depicted in Un Chien Andalou is not of the best quality. If the scene in question had been a true iconic image, it would have elevated the status of the entire film, yet the film is largely unknown.

Physical pain, it turns out, is a rather large umbrella. Many things can be painful, but not all of those things are iconic. In order to clear the bar, that pain has to have a little something extra. It needs to be more than a flash in the pan. It needs…protraction.

Lesson 2: Everybody Loves Crucifixion

Have you ever wondered why crucifixion is such a popular subject in artworks of the past…oh, two thousand years or so?

You may be tempted to think the blame lies with the emergence of a certain philosophical movement during that time period. And you would probably be correct.

But what if I told you that even in a world where Christianity never existed, crucifixion would still be a wildly significant artistic subject? Frankly, in that other world, depictions of crucifixion might be even more common, because they would not be monopolized by a single group.

And as difficult as it is to imagine such artworks outside of the context that our present world has given us, there is value in the portrayal of a prisoner executed in this manner, regardless of Who that prisoner is. Don’t understand? Allow me to explain.

Lesson 3: Assault vs. Torture

The scene with the flat razor from Un Chien Andalou is a depiction of assault.

And the thing about assault is that regardless of how horrific it is—or what boundaries it pushes against good taste, cultural sensibilities, or even realism—it still, by definition, is a brief thing. It’s a hit-and-run, possibly leaving bloody footprints behind, as well as lifelong trauma, but the event itself rarely takes more than a few minutes. Hourlong assaults are rare enough to be notable. And if they last any longer than that, then they graduate from assault into something even more sinister.

Torture is the most obvious example of what we shall call protracted pain. It is a kind of pain that goes on—or appears as if it will—forever.

Stretching or bending people in unnatural ways still gives us that telepathic sense of pain at a distance. But because torture by its nature takes place over a long period, any depiction of that torture carries with it a sense of never-ending suffering. A Medieval woodcut shows us a man being stretched on the rack, and people who were actually tortured in this manner may have suffered for days on end. But the woodcut has been around for much longer—centuries, even. And in the back of the audience’s mind, there is the idea that the man depicted there has been living out his torture for all that time.

Lesson 4: Torture-free Art

However, not every artwork can depict acts of torture.

I know—I’m as shocked as you.

But can we still employ the concept of protracted pain in art without resorting to the low-hanging fruit that is torture porn? Are there perhaps more subtle and refined ways of evoking pain in the viewer? Even pain of the type that feels like it will last forever? What other forms of prolonged pain are there?

How about sickness? Imagine a painting of a man clutching his stomach and wincing. Let’s say the title of this painting is Food Poisoning or Stomach Flu or Constipation. If the audience has ever experienced those maladies before, then they know that such pains feel as if they will never end. Throw in some distressing eye contact, and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of an icon.

If the artist is creative, he can come up with a variety of ways to express the kind of pain that seems frozen in time, doomed to outlive the universe. Torture is merely one example. And particularly useful, since many tortures devised throughout history have been intentionally bloodless.

Depicting bloodshed makes any pain appear shorter and briefer. Because the audience understands that blood cannot gush out of a person forever. Whereas depictions of pain that do not include blood have a much better chance of implying that the pain is something eternal and unbreakable. In fact, showing the moment immediately before blood is shed is much more likely to generate a response than showing the moment after.

In any case, bending or contorting a subject in any unusual way is usually enough to create a feeling of protracted pain. In milder instances, all the artist needs to two is twist the subject’s face a few degrees. No need for expensive machinery or a cold dungeon.

But suppose you’re not creative enough to come up with novel ways of expressing protracted pain. Perhaps you’ve lived a pampered life, and have never known even mild discomfort. Is there a fallback or shortcut that the inexperienced artist can employ—preferably one that will work every time?

Yeah, there is one.

Lesson 5: Exaggerated Stretching

It’s bloodless. It’s not too disturbing. It can be displayed in public. To make a family-friendly icon that takes advantage of protracted pain, just have the subject unnaturally stretch itself in an uncomfortable way—a way that even the most limber of viewers could only attempt for seconds at a time.

Consider the following iconic images:

Each of these is an image of bloodless-yet-heartfelt agony. But that agony is vague enough to keep these icons accessible to all audiences. It’s an effective and popular way to create an icon.

And stretches don’t necessarily have to be back breaking. A simple, unnatural positioning of the arms and legs is enough to get the message across. Consider, once again, Goya’s Saturn Eating his Son.

In this piece, Saturn’s limbs aren’t even hyper extended. But they are undeniably disjointed in ways that ought to be painful. He is also shown kneeling on what appears to be hard ground, huddled, as if the space he’s in is too cramped for him to stand. And cramping is also a way to dilate the feeling of discomfort in the viewer. As is any acute expression of claustrophobia.

You’ll notice the child Saturn eats is also streeeeeetched as Saturn yanks on its arm with his teeth. Granted, this scene contains bloodshed (and thus, conveys less feeling of prolonged suffering), but the most painful part to look at is the probably dislocated arm and shoulder.

The fact that this painting also employs Monstrous Sense of Scale and Unnerving Eye Contact solidly gives it an iconetic flair. I’d speculate that it is one of the most iconic paintings ever made.

Rounding out this lesson, I will add that any image where a dead or unconscious body is being carried usually involves some amount of abnormal body positioning, as the victim’s limbs hang limply while they slump in their captor’s arms.

It’s debatable whether the subject feels pain while they are dead/unconscious, but the audience still recognizes the pose as uncomfortable. As long as the viewer experiences a sympathetic pain response, the art is doing its job correctly.

Lesson 6: Examples from German Expressionism

As with the other iconetic causes, German expressionism provides many examples of protracted pain should be employed.

The best examples German expressionism takes these twisting contortions to new heights. Even many of the set pieces and backgrounds appear as if they’ve spent some time on a Medieval torture rack, or run through a thumbscrew.

Up until now, I’ve neglected to include any examples of German expressionist dance. But the movement’s contributions to dance should not be neglected.

Of course, any depiction of ballet will likely include subjects in stretched or uncomfortable positions (and ballet has been a popular subject of artworks for some time). But expressionist dance often goes above and beyond in putting its adherents into back-breaking movements.

That woman in the second picture is Mary Wigman. And, frankly, it’s hard to find a picture of her where she isn’t hyperextending herself.

Finals Week!

With the completion of this class, you have now mastered the basics of iconetics. Well done!

Hopefully, each of these lessons has contributed to a comprehensive understanding of the subject. It’s not inconceivable that some of you are creating icons already. I’m proud of the progress you have all made.

As you prepare for your final exam, remember to keep in mind the artworks we have already discussed. And don’t be afraid to cite additional examples you may find in your own studies of ways in which—

And this is why I told you to put that thing away. No, I don’t care that your finger slipped. This classroom is not the place for that.

I will be invoicing your employer for the damages to school property.

Good luck, students. Have a great vacation!

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