Speaking of death, Julian Barnes says, ‘When has it ever looked for art’s approval? With its co-worker Time, it just goes about its business, a cheerless commissar reliably fulfilling a quota of one hundred percent’ Julian Barnes. Death 2008 / 2017
Should this most universal of subjects be engaged with as a starting point for art? Is it legitimate, of interest or valuable to expose something which we privately turn away from so quickly while other parts of our culture work hard to remind us often of its presence and the fragility of life?
What has made humans successful and given us our place in the world is the ability to think abstractly and project ourselves and our plans outside ourselves and time. But the very abilities which bring our success also reflect back to us the truth of our inescapable mortality. We can imagine the fact of our end. What does this mean for us?
Ernest Becker suggests that Culture is the antidote for the fear of death. Culture provides shared meaning, values, self-esteem and protection. If culture is the cloak which helps us acquire these important elements and remove or mask fear of death, what happens when cultural artifacts point us back to the very place we determine not to look?
It may be beneficial to re-examine symbolically loaded images with generally widespread accepted associations of death and test their relevance, power, and significance and explore whether these symbols can be re-negotiated to bring us closer to meanings more helpful or revealing within a contemporary perspective.
Our reaction to death and our own mortality will depend on our place in life, conception and relationship with questions of an afterlife, future legacy and immortality as well as our openness to examine such questions.
It is a challenging prospect. Is joy, hope, wonder or beauty out of reach of this project or indeed can any positive or productively illuminating perspective be salvaged from such a subject?
T.S Eliot said, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Visions of reality however must surely contain a perspective on mortality, even if that position is one which determines simply to not look away. The space of life is only full when its counterbalance is present in some way.
So, should this subject be engaged with? I say yes. Because, perhaps in the making of these types of images and a reflection on them, a connection with what it means to be mortal can be glimpsed and it is in the moments we embrace this mortality that we become fully human.
“Death: Do you never stop questioning?
Antonius Block: No. I never stop.”
The Seventh Seal