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In times of crisis, painters and writers have channelled anxious expression through their art. What ...
2022-04-30 09:00:00

Culture in Crisis
Anxiety in Art and Literature

“Despair”, Bertha Wegmann, date unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Culture in Crisis
Culture in Crisis

From environmental breakdown to infectious disease and the spectre of war, contemporary living is increasingly wrought by anxiety. Throughout history, times of crisis have often been represented in art and literature. This form of anxious expression is emotionally striking, but can also lead us to reflect on our present state of precarity.

Read in 13 minutes

Crisis often feels like the crux of living today – often formless, but always on the edge of imminence. Our time is one riven by anxiety, with a hyperawareness of jeopardy. The presence of bad news seems to be existentially metabolised by our sense of self, even as the animus of the contemporary world makes anxiety both an individual sensation and a societal experience.

Anxieties are proleptic, trained on the eggshell fate of a daily universe no longer legible with a baseline of steady meaning. Despite how endemic many disorders and conditions seem to be, there is still something strangely ironic about the lingering stigma of mental illness. Perhaps something structural in the provenance of depression and anxiety can be explained by the ways in which personal experiences are caught up in the future of our capriciously mobile world.

According to a landmark survey from September 2021, led by researchers at the University of Bath, modern anxieties about the climate emergency are causing distress, anger, and other negative emotions in thousands of 16–25-year-olds. 10,000 respondents in 10 countries experienced this ‘eco-anxiety’, with fears about the future of the planet having an adverse effect on the daily mental health of young people all over the world.

Beyond the huge, seismic factors at play on the world stage, the frangibility of mental health and the increase in anxiety as a diagnosis is also caused by the normal strains of reality – the stress of airports, overworking in remote siloes, the threat of disease, general insecurity and powerlessness. It often feels like the synthetic reality of life is anxiety-inducing.

Diagnosing anxiety

While there is a ‘normal’ level of anxiety – the body’s adaptive response to ordinary stress activating feelings of apprehension, nervousness, and anticipatory fear – it can also manifest as a more serious medical condition. If these feelings of anxiety are more extreme, debilitating, trigger panic and anxiety attacks, or last for several months, then it is more likely to be an anxiety disorder often known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). According to 2017 data from the World Health Organization, around 3.6% of the world’s population – nearly 264 million people – have anxiety disorders. 

Sufferers often feel mild or intense anxiety most days and struggle to relax and focus. While ‘normal’ anxieties can be distressing, they are often temporary and do not completely impede daily life. Yet an anxiety disorder is uncontrollable. It is pervasive and oppressive, engulfing in its fixations and narrow confines and intransigent in its pressures and worries. The exact cause of anxiety disorders is not yet fully understood: some people suffer with it for no apparent reason. For others, there are combinatory factors which might all be at play in its development, including: variable brain chemistry in the amygdala, genetics, environmental stress such as abuse and neglect, external stressors such as work and social situations, substance misuse, or fallout from chronic conditions and illnesses.

In the history of anxiety, the Freudian perspective brought the concept into 20th-century relief by differentiating between fear and anxiety in psychological discourse. In its affective dimension, fear implies a determinate object to which a threat can be attributed; conversely, anxiety represents a generalized state of agitation, uncertainty, and tense expectation of an unknown danger. Fear may dissolve when the threatening object is gone, but anxiety can smoulder and ferment inside oneself as it projects onto seemingly innocuous scenarios and objects.

Anxiety itself can trigger unexpected and overwhelming panic attacks. Having endured the intense experience of a panic attack, I can attest to their wounds: breathlessness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, nausea, a sense of dying, tight chest, tight throat, numbness, dizziness. Depersonalized distress. In the moment, there is nothing one can do about a panic attack but ride it out and retreat: it is over when it’s over. The body’s fight-or-flight system takes over. The only thing to do is wrest some semblance of autonomy back by breathing and trying to focus on being present as it passes into subsidence.

While the panic attack is often the visible peak of an anxiety disorder, it is the erosive everydayness of trying to modulate the condition that is often most challenging. The sense that distress has permeated into oneself – coiled to launch an assault on a fragile composure – is as infuriating as it is torturous. The asphyxiating signs of GAD cause one to worry to an inordinately excessive degree, prevent relaxation and concentration, generate restlessness and irritability, and compel a near-constant state of hyper-alertness.

Culture as anxious expression

GAD and other psychological conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, are often equally enmeshed as socio-cultural phenomena that are related to the ways in which culture operates at given moments in time. Throughout history, anxiety has been represented in culture as the psychic consequence of a range of very real historical impacts. Often, this takes the form of expressions of lasting trauma and alienation: structural inequalities, the horror of World War II, violent political turmoil, economic crisis, famine, exploitation, or basic individual loss and pain. Often, not what has happened but what will happen as a consequence.

There is a sense, too, that these historically-grounded reference points can go some way to informing what feels like the ‘permacrisis’ of our current logic of anxiety. There is a sense that today’s fragmented world persists in its cascading transition from post-war structures, through modernity, and beyond. The modern anxiety of society is fear, risk, volatility and precarity – what the Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman called liquid modernity.

“Anxiety”, Edvard Munch, 1894. Munch Museum in Oslo (Wikimedia Commons)
“Anxiety”, Edvard Munch, 1894. Munch Museum in Oslo (Wikimedia Commons)

A mood of socio-economic flux and constant mobility pervades the changing relationships within the contemporary world of global capitalism: energy crises, inflation, ecological catastrophe, conflict, the uncertainty of upheaval, the restive nature of agency. There, then, in that rock pool of privatised disruption, we can see how historical anxieties can fester through the ages and rupture into art.

W.H. Auden’s book-length eclogue, The Age of Anxiety, presents us with wartime tension in New York and four voices discussing hope and ruin. Published in 1947, Auden’s long verse won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry a year later. The poem tries to capture its zeitgeist of industrialization and complex images about lineages of human experience. But Auden is also at pains to say that the anxieties of war do not simply disappear with ceasefire: an unwanted sense of nihilism and the fracturing of moral values persist even as we must find ways to help ourselves.

“In times of war,” Auden’s narrator pronounces, “even the crudest kind of positive affection between persons seems extraordinarily beautiful, a noble symbol of the peace and forgiveness of which the whole world stands so desperately in need.” Literature represents unique ways of distinguishing and perceiving the world – it can disclose aspects of nature or can camouflage experience. Later, in 1973, the titanic literary critic Harold Bloom would refer to The Anxiety of Influence as the friction between precursor and posterity: the pressure poets feel in creating new work saddled by the weight of heritage in verse upon their shoulders.

More gravely, art often becomes an outlet for understanding and processing collective traumas to counter the self-defeating impulse to nihilism. The art movements of the 1950s, for example, were set against the backdrop of paradigm-shifting, post-war change; a kind of cultural scar tissue. They were, in a way, fuelled by the motifs of anxiety and purposeful liberation which characterized the 20th century. While abstract expressionism – principally of the Pollock, Kline and De Kooning type – had its emotive spontaneity, colour field painting (of the type made famous by the likes of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman) had a certain sense of sublimity divorced from context and abandoned to singular abstraction in its pure colour.

But in the art of Francis Bacon, however, there is a more immediate sense of post-war angst, a kind of violent anxiety of the body, and a raw nihilism drenched in the theatre of the grotesque. Born in Dublin in 1909, he lived through both world wars and experienced the collective tragedy they wrought. While other art seemed perhaps more evasive, the Baconian spirit processed its mid-century trauma and individual pain through a much more visceral and figurative tenor.

Openly gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal and cast out from his conservative home at 16-years-old, Bacon roved around Berlin and Paris before stationing himself in London in the late 1920s. Once established as an enfant terrible of the art world, Bacon continued a bon vivant lifestyle of Soho drinking and gambling. But a sense of bleak poignancy and raw anxiety pervades the dark and disconcerting reputation of his work. From communal agony to the suicide of his former lover, George Dyer, Bacon’s life and art (despite his resistance to expressionist meaning in his work) is coloured with anxious fragility and starkness. This is palpable in the nakedly universal haunting of his mid-period self-portraiture – the distorted darkness of Three Studies for a Self-Portrait (1979), for instance.

Bacon’s images do not aim for solid and rigid forms which acquiesce to frames and limits, but rather for a kind of brutal liminality. The disintegrative smearing, the scream, the depiction of somatic horrors, are all attempts to contravene and over-step the boundaries of material and aesthetic representation. A month before Europe would know peace from World War II, Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was exhibited in London in April 1945. The triptych depicts three hideous Aeschylean furies – vengeful figures who punished human wrongdoing – writhing against a lurid, bile-orange background. The unsettling triptych was a watershed moment that heralded Bacon as a shocking sensation.

Foreboding and anxiety-inducing, Bacon’s triptych was spawned from a very particular context. With the final months of the war, the first footage and images of the horror of Nazi concentration camps was being released. His furies represent the ineffable agony of the world: a representation of that collective trauma. The anatomy of these Furies are hideously alien in their blend of discordant features and anguished violence. Dehumanized and yet inchoately human, the body is almost divested of its limbs and head, they are merely proposed by the nebulous musculature. His painted bodies are uneasy and uncertain: that is from where the anxieties of his art spring. There is no fixed rapture in Bacon’s art.

The art critic, Robert Hughes, describes this as the “outer limit of expressionism” in Nothing If Not Critical. “These are the signs of the pessimistic alienation to which a history of extreme mass suffering has reduced the human image,” he writes. Bacon’s non-illustrative art presses at the limits of perception. The tension brought to bear on the viewer’s senses by the violent doubt of its presentation creates a deeply unsettling effect; a kind of catharsis which presses its anxieties to expression at the scene where borders are collapsed and rebuilt.

In much of Bacon’s art, there is a sense of isolation and airlessness, ambiguous confinement, abstracted figures abandoned to prisons of geometry. It looks how anxiety feels. Anxiety is an elaborate cage: full of hot doubt, seemingly inescapable worry, and febrile rushes of panic. Indeed, the word ‘anxiety’ first appears in its current form in the 16th-century from the Latin anxius, that is, ‘distressed, uneasy, troubled’, itself stemming from angere: ‘to choke, squeeze, press, bind’ via the Proto-Indo-European root angh, meaning ‘tight, painfully constricted, painful’. Angh is the source, too, of ‘anger’, ‘anguish’, and ‘angst’. In all these words there a sense of claustrophobia and narrowing, a threat of being airlessly and inescapably trapped.

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” diarised Anaïs Nin in 1947. “It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” Suffering with severe anxiety disorder is a question of limits. In succumbing to the limits of endurance, the anguish becomes intolerable; its impacts suffocate those around you. What Nin records in literature bleeds out into the limits of anxiety in life. These limits, like distressed assets, liquefy from the individual to the interpersonal, from there to the community, society, to culture – infiltrating, with pungency, art and the everyday stresses of life.

Holy angst and existential therapy

Despite its complexities and uncertainties, it is clear that GAD and other anxiety disorders also exist in dark tandem with other mental health issues; it is commonly co-morbid with major depressive disorder (MDD) because the symptoms of anxiety can trigger drastic downward shifts in mood. However, there are a range of management and treatment options – both pharmaceutical and therapeutic.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT) is a type of talking therapy that can help to treat anxiety and depression by understanding how thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviour are interconnected. The strategy then involves interrupting negative cycles by breaking overwhelming worry into smaller, solvable problems. CBT is a pragmatic treatment – in some ways programmatic and liberal in its productive drive – that focuses on the anxieties of the present rather than excavating a traumagenic past. But it certainly has its uses.

We should, however, be wary of attributing to anxiety a kind of free-market individualizing. This is not meant to be a self-righteous homily. Mental health is one’s own responsibility, but there is a pitfall in ascribing total burden to the individual. There is a sense that both systemic and individual causes of anxiety can be dealt with consciously, in full knowledge that one’s mental health exists in relation to manifold other issues in the world: it can be both exogeneous and internally redeemable. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard theorized this state in existential terms of religious dread or angst in The Concept of Anxiety published in 1844. He understood anxiety to be a matter of existential faith and a question of moral choices and individual will at a point of vertigo. Kierkegaard conceptualized this as the “dizziness of freedom”, where we are free to make even the most terrifying of decisions – the fear of falling and the fear of jumping. But in the chasm of precipitating despair, he says, lies the possibility of increased self-awareness and responsibility.

“Every human being must learn to be anxious in order that he might not perish,” he writes, “either by never having been in anxiety or by succumbing in anxiety. Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way, has learned the ultimate.” In the Kierkegaardian philosophical perspective there is a sense of difficult hope, despite an insistence that anxiety is fundamental to existence.

While, crucially, his anxiety is not the medicalized condition we are familiar with today, in The Concept of Anxiety there is a sense that the feeling of anxiety can be a healing wound. Having lost both his parents and five of his six siblings by the time he was 25, Kierkegaard himself was sensitive and prone to melancholic anxiety and knew great suffering.

But in his understanding that one must learn to suffer anxiety in the right way – to learn ‘the ultimate’ – there is, of course, a spiritual essence. The anxiety he speaks about is a mark of our capacity of Being. Anxiety is a kind of truth for Kierkegaard; not as a reminder of a kind of problematic martyrdom, but of who and what we are in vulnerability and in relation to those around us. “Anxiety is freedom’s possibility,” he says – it reveals something about what it means to be alive. In the anxious openness of indecision and despair is an opportunity for courage: to respond courageously in the face of anxiety and suffering.

Suffering cannot always be avoided, but it can overcome. Anxiety is concerned with the future, the amorphous uncertainty of what is to come, like the figures in Bacon’s paintings. If anxiety is foresight in warped tension, perhaps it can also be a vision of existential hope: the aspiration and ambition for a life free from the most intrusive and debilitating effects of chronic anxiety disorders.


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Enis Yucekoralp

is a freelance writer based in London. He has a diverse range of interests and concerns, but his long reads can be found in “The Independent” while his poetry has appeared in “3AM Magazine”. He holds an M.Phil. in English from the University of Cambridge.