Memory, Memento and Memento Mori
Art has a valuable part to play in demonstrating principles leading to life and death and the selflessness and responsibility for others that is the glue in any successful society. Memory of past knowledge/event + memento (object) enabling the experiencing of or direct link to the event + memento mori (reminders of mortality) as objects linking beginnings and ends relating to a future end, diffuse pride and arrogance and point to what is inevitable for all.
The genre of art dealing with death and our attitude to it is known as "vanitas." The Dutch 17th century still life painters revived an old Latin idiom, "Soon ripe, soon rotten" to illustrate the idea behind their pictures that the trite dalliances and baubles of this life are superficial and that all the riches and luxury of the world are fleeting in the face of death. Below are some beautiful examples of vanitas painting from the Dutch "golden age." The transitory beauty of earthly subjects such as fruit, flowers, dead animals, birds and man made objects of value were painted sumptuously as a reminder and warning to all that the "viewing subject" will soon go the way of the "painted subject" ie, decay and death!
In these modern times in which we live a segment of people surveyed around the world still profess some level of belief in "gods," a "god" or "God" as in the Judaeo/Christian faiths. Whatever spiritual outlook people held, when asked, most replied they didn't want to die and expressed some fear of death. Let's be honest here, who really wants to die?, that's why so many people harbor a secret and active hope that science will find a way to delay or postpone death indefinitely and in particular, their death!! Or, they simply ignore the inevitable.
Amazingly then, in this high tech era, it is visibly apparent that death has gradually become "cool" amongst the younger generation; "fashionably badass" to put it more accurately. In particular, the "skull" motif has been marketed vigorously and been embraced by young people for whom death and encounters with death have become fictions due to rampant "materialism" and the rise of "hedonistic" lifestyles. Forgotten is the horror of the "death camp" photos from WW2 Europe or Pol Pot's murderous "killing fields" in Cambodia or the "Rwandan genocide" in Africa where the terrifying slaughter of millions is slowly fading from memory. These are only a few examples of 20th century brutality that used to cause anguish and grief when photos were viewed and the dead victims remembered. How has it happened that death has become "hip" after a century of such brutality and butchery? Every new generation forgets!
Famous artworks such as "For the Love of God!" by British artist Damien Hirst have played their part in the public imagination recently by putting the "idea" of death centre stage in the media yet through sheer "spectacle" and art market "farce" the gravity of death as a reality is nullified in the glitter and pizzaz. Hirsts' platinum skull inset all over with 8.000 diamonds, is estimated to be worth $50 million dollars or more and highlights the depths to which the art market and its cronies have sunk in order to keep the wheels of commerce rolling. This skull has succeeded where no others could in emptying death of the respect and sober reverence it deserves. Death has become a cool and fashionable "idea," not the dark, horrible reality experienced by the bereaved every minute of every day around the world. Hirst's gaudy souvenir mocks the memory of the dead and ups the ante on what artists can get away with by turning art's prime business of human transcendence into a hollow joke, a cynical game of one-upmanship ... a piece of jewelry!
The commodification of death as "cool fashion accessories" combined with the de-sensitization of death through repeated exposure to murder and wholesale slaughter in films, results in naivety and an illusion in the mind that death is "unreal" and happens elsewhere like a slightly nauseating unwanted dream or fiction causing an anxiety that is to be nullified (escaped from) in a life dominated by all forms of pleasure. Remember that this contemporary preoccupation with skull fashion was always a minor cult thing (with a few exceptions like the Nazi SS cult) and only entered the mainstream slowly through media such as comic books, pulp fiction and paper backs early in the 20th century promoting it as scary but fun! Now of course Sci-Fi films such as "Terminator" ironically have made merciless human-killing robots and their gleaming metallic skulls into icons of cool. Below are some examples of "skull" or "death" fashion currently trending as "hip."
The problem with this is, most of these young people are wearing the emblem of the cult of death but with no intention of an early suicide or demise on their part. I can assure you it's not a part of the plans they have for a bright future with all the promises of "life" that they are chasing except maybe for a disenfranchised group who's unfortunate lives have led them to the brink for whatever tragic reason. Criminals and gangsters on the other hand understand the skull because they live by the code of death and expect to die violently at some point in their career.
Andy Warhol is just one artist who made skull art cool with his varied iterations on the theme. His disaster paintings of car crashes and air crashes and instruments of execution helped cement further the idea that death in art is trendy and cool and good for business and as much as it might have shocked at the time it doesn't much now. My point is that although artists have been using the skull and bones in their work for centuries it has generally been to remind the viewer of the "gravity" of life and how it should be lived in light of eternal consequences. People centuries ago could not have comprehended wearing the symbol of death on their bodies as fashion or seeing it presented as gratuitous art objects. Many contemporary artists have been and are complicit with business in promoting death in art as "cool. "
Nevertheless, life is anything but a fashion show and not without meaning and nor is life cheap and expendable. The skull shouldn't be flashed around on commercial brands like Ralph Lauren or Gucci as some cheap symbol empty of meaning and value. It doesn't stand for "life" but "finality" and "mortality," the end of all human desire and ambition. The skull, the "vanity" of life when remembered or seen, should cause deep personal introspection about a life being lived but which will soon come to an end, hence the meaning of the idiom, "Soon ripe, soon rotten!"
Vanitas art and in particular "still life" art when created skillfully is mysterious and inspirational to me but the skull when ripped out of meaningful context and emptied of its power as "fashion" is a sad thing to behold.
To read "Painting In The Golden Age" PDF click here
To read "The Heyday of The Dead" NY Times article click here