A man weeps uncontrollably at his life sentence. Told by a judge that he must continue an existence he says is "dull, miserable, demeaning, undignified and intolerable", Tony Nicklinson shakes with emotion, his sheer anguish making itself visible through the carapace of his paralysed body.
Nicklinson's incurable condition, locked-in syndrome, is like some horror story in which a fully conscious mind helplessly suffers inside a body buried alive. Nicklinson is totally helpless, unable to move, yet his mind is fully agile. Modern medicine means he may live another 20 years if he is not allowed the option of euthanasia. It is more than easy to understand why he appears in such despair. It seems monstrous of us even to be sitting around discussing his case, the philosophical pros and cons, while he suffers in this very visible way despite having clearly and lucidly declared that he wants his life to end.
Video images of this locked-in man's fury and misery are powerful evidence in support of his case. At least, that is presumably why he and his wife allowed a camera to film him at such an intimate and shattering moment. The images have also appeared in many newspapers. The crying face of Nicklinson speaks eloquently of his desire to die. Is this an exploitative use of a sick man's image? On the contrary, it is clearly his best available way to get his message across, to communicate his anguish.
And yet, I think it backfires. The image of Nicklinson in despair makes a case for life, not death. I see a lot of life in this man. His anger and pain are harrowing, terrible and compelling. They are the responses of someone who despite everything, is heroic and tragically strong. Is that someone who should be put to death, however "good" the intentions?
I am wary of comparing this man's tears with images of sorrow in art. He is a person, not a painting. His anguish is not some aesthetic curio. Nevertheless, to compare this face with some powerful depictions of despair is to see how hard it is to call a halt to the human story, to say that anything in life is unworthy of life. Picasso's Weeping Woman in the Tate collection is a portrayal of the grief and rage of those bereaved by war. Her face is a jagged splinter of suffering, her eyes stars of shattered normality. Her handkerchief is an exploding bomb. Yet her knotted mask of pain is somehow cathartic: out of her agony comes life, in the form of a tear that is a revitalising river. Picasso is making an old point in a modernist way. His Weeping Woman recalls such masterpieces as Michelangelo's Pieta and Raphael's Deposition. In these works of religious art the extremity of despair is somehow liberating, the pain of the worst thing imaginable releases a supreme pathos.
Lest this be mistaken for a Christian point of view, these tragic works of religious art echo the sorrows of pagan ancient Greece. The most famous image of suffering in the Renaissance was an ancient statue dug up in 1506 of the pagan priest Laocoön being strangled by snakes, his face a contorted image of pure suffering. This statue reflects the emotional depths of Greek tragic theatre which gave us the word "catharsis" in the first place.
The image of Tony Nicklinson's despair is profoundly moving. In his pain, he momentarily transcends his condition to communicate to the world. That should make us wonder about the wisdom of ever making it permissible to end this terrible marvellous thing called life.
Source: The Guardian
OP: Honestly, I wasn't expecting this from the Guardian (even though they do like to be edgy at times). The man is suffering and wishes to make a choice regarding his own body and his own life, he is not a static display in an art gallery.