Death Artistically Considered

Lest my readers think I’m getting excessively serious, I would like to expand on something from a couple of posts back. Death, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist, meaning that it is an affair only relevant to the living—survivors, perpetrators, legatees etc. Attempts to imagine what death is to the dying, or deceased, are the least important and least attractive aspects of religion; it’s as if the imaginative power embodied in religion fails at that point. As Samuel Beckett once observed, “the beatific vision…[is]…a source of boredom in the long run.” Hell is more entertaining, but equally repetitious.

Nothing practical can be done without the recognition of limits, and death is the most productive of limits for all human activity, including art. But in art the real death is even farther away than it is in daily life. Death is a very useful fiction—the unavoidable always provides an occasion for comedy. In this art knows a truth, but one that means nothing to the individual, namely that for all practical purposes on this planet life never does come to an end—only particular lives do. Death appears in art as a device either to get things started or to bring them to a conclusion, so it is very closely involved with all the pleasures that art offers, both formal and narrative.

Robert Smithson, Yucatan mirror displacement 1968

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