Art, death and the obvious

3 Feb

“Death? It’s the only thing we haven’t succeeded in completely vulgarizing!” Aldous Huxley

Seeing this provocative phrase atop one of the pages of the Perpetua’s Passages site made me pick up Huxley’s excellent compilation of essays on art again, “On Art and Artists”. Although I didn’t find the source of the quote there, I did find an essay entitled “Art and the obvious”, with direct relevence to death matters.

Before I begin, the reader needs to understand the essay’s essential message.

Huxley differentiates between two kinds of obvious truths: the Great Obvious Truths, those eternal unchanging ones, such as the brutality of war, the shortness of life, maternal love, the therapeutic effects of nature, the mystery of death etc; and the small obvious truths, the ephemeral localized ones – that America is the most powerful nation at present, that Toyota makes better cars than Lada, that heels are higher this year than last year etc.

Both groups of truth are obvious, and art occupies itself with both of them.  The public is also interested in both: it likes being able to recognise the small obvious truths; and it wants to be reminded of and retold the Great Obvious Truths which it cannot so easily grasp.

Now as populations grew in the last century and the swelling masses demanded their own daily dose of art, so more and more mediocre artists dedicated themselves to supplying this mass need. Art by mediocre artists is necessarily mediocre, so when these artist addressed themselves to the Great Obvious Truths they necessarily produced what is best described as kitsch – sentimental, superficial, easy to swallow.

As incompetent and false interpretations of the Great Obvious Truths filled the marketplace, the minority group of truly sensitive and gifted artists¬† felt increasingly repelled by all obvious truths, Great and small. They simply didn’t want to be associated with all the incompetence, falseness and kitsch of the popular art. So they turned away from addressing anything obvious, towards the unusual, the unexpected, the invented, the obscurest of realities. For the first time in millenia, the best artists refused to address the most archetypal and significant facts of human nature, the Great Obviousnesses – including death.

Result? The plastic arts were stripped of their literary qualities, reduced to mere formal relations of their elements. The tragic, mournful and tender was removed from music, which now only expressed motion and energy. And literature excluded all the great obviousnesses of human nature from its subject matter.

The (erroneous) popular justification for all of this was that human nature had fundamentally changed in the last few years, and modern man was deeply different from all his ancestors.

This is how Huxley saw it – and I completely agree with him. Indeed, when we turn to death matters, the most consequential and eternal of all Great Obvious Truths, we see that modern art has completely abandoned the field. For two centuries or so, it has been left to the talents of the most mediocre of the mediocre “artists”. NO, I correct myself – not even to them, but to technicians and draftsmen paid by businesses to produce something, anything, to sell as a pseudo-memorial, a pseudo-ritual.

A bizarre state of affairs, because until now death had always been the great topic for artists, right back from the Egyptians. Of course – because it is the ultimate question, which no science or other human initiative can even attempt to solve or explain. Only Art can even approach death with some hope of “success”. Even the major religions, which were Art’s grandest achievements, were also fundamentally concerned with the defeat of death, the artistic defeat of it.

Now hardly a serious artist dares approach the subject. A bad state of affairs indeed! Because contrary to our progressive fantasies, humans have not changed in their essence and death is as relevent now as it ever was. It still kills everyone of us -and no solution is in sight.

To return to the Huxley quote. Did he actually contradict himself – has death not also been vulgarized in our society? Certainly in the funeral industry, death has been vulgarized to the nth degree. What about in the art world, in the rare moments when it dares approach the subject?

Recently I saw two rare exhibitions devoted to death, one in Berlin, one in Vienna. I wouldn’t call most of what I saw vulgar – rather I found the insights of most artists depressingly simplistic, “adolescent” in comparison with the subject material. Evidently, even our best artists have lost the thread of this eternal Great Obviousness.

But there is always room for hope. I believe a time is coming when Art will rediscover this eternal font of genuinely significant subject material. I have found a few initiatives that are trying to resurrect true funeral art.¬† (See Perpetua’s Passages for example.) May these efforts signify a new approach to the Great Obvious Truth of death and dying.


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