Whenever artists start to talk about how their work is exploratory or documentary I instinctively think of vomit. Not, you understand, as a gut reaction to the whole idea of documentation, but as a reminder that even the most survey-minded exploration is selective, and that the selection is often the result of a mixture of peer pressure and habit rather than the workings of a conscious, open mind.
Norovirus is the new Touch of Flu, something children seem to get every winter, and adults too if they are unlucky, or incautious. The proper English name doesn’t seem too threatening, but the colloquial name, and the name used in Sweden, is “winter vomiting disease”, which gives some hint of the anti-social effects this virus can have.
Helene Schjerfbeck The Convalescent (1888)
There was a time when nursing sick children was a simple matter of holding their tiny hands, mopping their brows, and waiting for the fever to break. Antibiotics and socialised medicine added the stress of wondering whether to bother the doctor, and finding ways to pour bitter fluids down reluctant small throats. Now, parents around the world have added mopping up and rapid changes of bedding to the list of routines to be performed in the bleary middle watches, and the light-sleepers have learned just how much subsequent effort can be saved by leaping out of bed with jug and cloth at the ready at the first hint of deep coughing. At low moments, or after a succession of false alarms, this can seem like a wholly gratuitous development in the tit-for-tat evolution of minor human diseases: it is not even as if the virus uses regurgitation as a way of transmitting itself.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder Gluttony
The physical act of being sick has never been especially popular in visual art, although it was a staple of satirical and moralistic prints well into the nineteenth century. A few cartoonists continue the tradition set by Rowland and Gillray, but as a rule both high and low contemporary art has consistently overlooked this particular aspect of the human condition.
Being sick, and illness in general, have become like war and death. They are something that happens to other people – other helpless people who we pity, but cannot aid. As is usually the case with the picturesque pathetic, distance escalates the seriousness of the situation depicted. At home we get to see fever-cheeked children and mothers-to-be with morning sickness, while TB and meningitis outbreaks show up in neighbouring countries and horrors like ebola and sleeping sickness are afflictions of the distant other. The rare rabies patients in the local hospital are accorded respect, dignity and privacy, which is well and good, but it gives the impression that they do not exist and that the disease is someone else’s problem.
James Tissot A Convalescent (1876)
Convalescence used to be a standard trope in writing and pictures, but it is now usually regarded as obsolete. This is partly because modern medicine has made many chronic diseases curable, and Sanatoriums and Spas have become subdivisions of the wellness industry rather than the tools of front-line treatment; but it is also because we have changed our self-image to one that is more denying.
Images of convalescence divide neatly into two classes. The first is comprised of pictures of hope and reassurance: children on the mend, pallid ladies on their way back to health, soldiers smiling from their beds. The second class is the call to charitable action which runs right through the history of photography from the slums of Lewis Hine to James Nachtwey’s disease-resistant TB.
Russell Lee Mexican Boy Sick in Bed, San Antonio, Texas (1939)
In both cases modern western society prefers to tell itself that the problems represented by the pictures have been solved, at least locally. Endemic disease is a problem for foreign countries, and social reform has either happened, or been made irrelevant by rising living standards. Where a problem persists in mutated form, it has been pushed into the private realm: poverty stays in its own home and the unemployed queue indoors rather than down the street.
Nurses with convalescent soldiers, Hickwells, 1915
The case of convalescent soldiers is particularly instructive. At one time photographs of military personnel recovering from their wounds was a standard part of the compact between governments, their armed forces and the general public. Smiling recoverees projected the message that war was survivable, even if a few people did get hurt. It reassured combatants and their families that they would be looked after properly should the worst happen, and it reassured non-combatants that men and women in service were being cared and provided for as dignified human beings, and not simply sacrificed as numbers on a board.
The recent World Press Photo competition winners illustrate well just how much has changed. In a news media where photographs of injured Americans or allied forces are non-existent or actually forbidden, there have never been so many gruesome photographs of foreign dead. There is something very disturbing about the way the press acquiesces in the US and British Governments’ efforts to present their middle-eastern wars as casualty-free while awarding prizes and much page space to grisly images of dead Chinese, Burmese and Kenyans.
In many ways, nothing has changed since Felice Beato aestheticised the Opium Wars and the suppression of the Indian Mutiny into a triumph of the Imperial British over lesser races. Some may take that as a sign the human nature hasn’t changed much over the last hundred and fifty years. I find myself reflecting on the equally persistent strain of self-delusion that runs through our pictures of ourselves, and instinctively, I think of vomit.