Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Back in school -- sex and death

I wrote last week about how I'm taking a graduate-level art history class, after an extended absence from the classroom.  We're writing every week, and I thought I might share some of my work with you.  Here's a slightly edited version of my first paper, based on an article that riffed on Titian's Venus.  

The author writes at length about images that are sexually arousing, and suggests that we of the 21st century can barely imagine how transgressive and shocking these subjects were in early modern times.  I am reflecting on a class of images that have taken the opposite trajectory: far more transgressive and shocking today than they were five centuries ago.

I’m talking about images of dead bodies.  Death has always been a subject for art; images of Christ on or just taken down from the cross, and of martyred saints were mainstays of churches, Bibles and devotional books.  Sarcophagi of nobles and high clergy were customarily crowned with sculptured corpses.   The Black Death brought a plague of artworks of horror and disruption following that vast series of epidemics.   The danse macabre, showing partying skeletons, was a common image. 

Michael Wohlgemut, Danse Macabre, 1493

Slightly more subtle, but still firmly focused on the inevitability of death, were the memento mori and other still life paintings that came later.  The dead bodies might be rabbits, pheasants and fish rather than people, but the message was the same – you’re next. 

People who saw art, whether as paintings, sculpture or book illustrations, had to be familiar with images of death.  They probably took the images seriously as come-to-Jesus reminders, but I suspect their emotional responses were more awestruck and solemn than shocked.

Even as the centuries passed, images of death stayed at the forefront of consciousness.  Early photographers frequently took pictures of the dead (a big plus in those days of long exposures: the dead could really hold still) and it was fashionable to wear lockets with little death photos, perhaps along with a lock of the deceased’s hair. 

I don’t know exactly how public attitudes (at least American attitudes) toward death images changed, or how quickly.  Perhaps it started with the advent of “real” death images instead of mere artist representations; if so, the extensive photographic documentation of the Civil War surely was an important first step.

The horrors of subsequent wars were even more closely covered.  And yet there was a consensus among photographers to withhold the most disturbing images of battlefield casualties in the World Wars, at least until years later.  The American public saw photos of the dead at Dachau but not on the Normandy beaches.  The very fact that television news of Vietnam showed same-day carnage is credited with changing the public view of that war.  

It’s not as though we haven’t seen plenty of images of death, primarily in wartime.  But in the last half-century those images seem to me to have become more shocking, more taboo, even as sexual images have become more commonplace and less shocking.

I’d like to know more about how contemporary artists  have depicted dead bodies, and how these images were received by the critics and by the public.  Warhol’s images of car crashes and suicides, and Serrano’s images of bodies from the morgue, would be high on the list.  A bit of googling reveals that critics and public alike found it easy to disapprove of these artworks, and I suspect these were not the only such cases.

Andres Serrano, Morgue Photos

Andy Warhol, Green Disaster Twice (sold for $15.2 million last year)

More recently the public was shocked by images of people falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Readers protested when newspapers published photos of falling victims.  Eric Fischl’s bronze statue, “Tumbling Woman,” inspired by the event, was installed at Rockefeller Center but within days it was covered up and subsequently removed after people were upset.

Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman

Not high art, but certainly important in the public consciousness are many disturbing death images from the war in Iraq.  The Bush administration was so aware of the power of images to shock and galvanize the public that it banned any photography of flag-draped soldiers’ coffins returning to the US. 

Journalists have gone through immense self-flagellation over whether and how they should present notorious death images such as the video beheading of Daniel Pearl, and the US contractors ambushed by crowds in Fallujah, then killed, burned and hung from a bridge.  Almost always their readers and viewers rise up in protest when such images are published, accusing the editors of sensationalism, and perhaps political motives.

Perhaps sex and death have changed places in the public's visual universe in the last fifty years.  Where one used to be seen as shocking and pornographic, now the other one is.


  1. I agree that the two subjects seem to have changed places over time. Without any research, my take would be that how well we are acquainted with each in our daily lives has a lot to do with it. In previous centuries death was all around, sometimes literally - life was generally nasty, brutish, and short, no matter what class. On the other hand there was hardly any time for sex (work lasted all day)and no-one was being sold endless objects and services with a sex-filled lifestyle as the carrot.
    Now we have become so precious, so pc, so self-protecting, ... so deluded in my view that we do not put the important aspects of human life in any thoughtful perspective.

    I so agree with you on academic-speak, by the way. So irritating that the career need to show-off gets in the way of communicating interesting thoughts! I hope you continue to enjoy your course. I shall certainly enjoy reading your reports on progress.

  2. Your paper on the Venus is so refreshing to read. I remember my collage freshman English class, in which we provided our thoughts on provocative short stories. I was making C- and D's on these papers, until I listened carefully to the middle-aged professor describing what he wanted in these papers. I made A- and A's when I realized that freshman English was really Creative Pornography 101! The Venus made me think about what I would have had to write.

  3. I'm working on a series about my battle with breast cancer, and it includes a danse macabre piece. One husband chronicled his wife's fight and loss to breast cancer...and had a mixed response. He was booted out of one show.

    Generally, death is really sanitized although there is some reaction now which is changing that a bit...but even so, I find that I am having a hard battle with this in trying to make preparation for my own death, or even talking to my family about is just to painful....and you might as well think it was pornographic!

    I think part of it came after WWI. If you read the link Del Thomas has to green burial/death they sort of chronicle it quite well...Sweep it under the rug...maybe this also has something to do with the love affair we have with youth....

    As far as the sexual interpretations go...I used to always think that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar".

    Here's a link about the breast cancer journey:

    1. Lisa -- and we even get all shocked and hysterical at the thought of doctors being reimbursed to discuss end-of-life issues with their patients (aka death panels).

    2. Lol...I passed that bit and am well into the "throwaway" part of my life....that is, I am approaching the area where even though I am of well mind....I'm just not worth spending any money last name isn't Romney.

  4. I agree with this. Check out all the stuff written about Daphne Todd when she won the 2010 BP Portrait Award for her painting other mother after death. The shock and outrage expressed by some reviewers is interesting. A year later, some were eulogising about one of the entries for its qualities of masochistic 'soft porn'.

  5. I do like reading your thoughts and that you might share some of your essays here is something I look forward to.
    I just finished a second fine art degree and it was packed with papers and essays about such stuff. I do believe that new and challenging ideas for studio work come out of theoretical and historical studies and that those new ideas, for us creative types, make all the artspeak worthwhile.

  6. I enjoyed your paper. I remember being horrified by Serrano's bloody images. Art history is super interesting. I learned more history through art then any history class that jumped from war to war and had you memorize dates. Lizzie

  7. I'm giving you a brain dump here -- perhaps I should wait until tomorrow, but I worry my thoughts will be gone by then, so please bear with me and my inexpert way of sharing my thoughts. First, I think photographs of death are more difficult for the populace to see because they are reality; a danse macabre is not and likely was never considered one. Instead it was often an allegorical or religious response. I do wonder, though, if our efforts today to extend life have made us less comfortable with our own mortality and death's place in the life cycle. (I know that sounds callous, but at the moment I can't think of a better way to say this.) Folks in the 1400-early 1900s all accepted that death came to almost all families repeatedly (parents, children, etc). Perhaps this gave them a level of comfort with the topic of death in general and made it less taboo. Death was a part of life. I'm certain too, that the strong belief in an afterlife made death less frightening.