Saturday, May 31, 2008

Public Death as Art

Jerub-baal has posted interesting comments about the German artist who wants to put a dying person out in a museum as installation art. He has asked for my comments, and at the moment, I don't have any. I will, though. But you knew that.

The post discusses both the morality of the display and the artist's reasoning why this should be allowed.


Anonymous said...

haven't read Jerub-baal's commentary yet, and look forward to doing so. Regarding the realm of Morality though, I'd contend that if the dying person is of sound mind and able to willfully choose this format for her/his demise - then I'm not so sure it even falls into such judgements. It may be tasteless, and perhaps even considered unethical to some cultures beliefs and statutory practises, yet still be objectively amoral. Ancient kings were displayed in public regalia as they took their last earthly breath upon a pyre - and no historian depicts this mode of art (in its affirmation of power and unity) as morally repugnant. But tasteless to many, yes. As desensitizing as graphic nudity and violent video games, likely not. There's been much debate about the whole Body Worlds tour, but the only real moral issue I've read about it was whether they were illegally sold cadavers whose families had no say (same as body snatching vs. donating to science).

Anonymous said...

That will only increase the contempt for "artists" who intellectualize rather than create works of beauty. The irony about their intellectualizing is that most "artists" couldn't write a coherent research paper, let alone write three consecutive coherent sentences.

Jerub-Baal said...

OK gringo...

I might add that I am an artist (even currently full time, what a laugh), and I secretly worry that I'm not that coherent... so have at it! I'd love a critical discussion of the essay.

AVI, thanks for posting the link!

Anonymous said...

Just read it - interesting points, but I think it all comes down to what individuals define "art" to be - and even what art-qua-art means too. I think the last sentence's "amoral" was really meant to be "immoral" from his critical POV, while the relativists would view their POV as indeed amoral - and therein lies the entire chasm betwixt the two sides shant meet. Cheers yet again :)

Anonymous said...

sorry, "chasm betwixt which the two sides shant meet"

Jerub-Baal said...

Actually, tomg, I did mean amoral, as in a vacuum of morals. Immoral denotes someone acting against their own moral framework. If there is no moral framework, it can't be denied or broken. The modern Humanities have abandoned any coherent moral framework, and so the issue is amoral.

That in itself is my criticism. The arts have no moral standing because they have purposefully denied themselves one. Then, when others point out this vacuity, artists are astonished that someone would feel that way about their art.

You can not tell if something is "deep" unless you have something against which to measure it.

Thanks for the comment though, it helps me think out my explanations, and maybe I can be more clear in the future.

terri said...

Reminds me of this photo essay, sort of. Though I would say that still photos are not quite the same as watching someone die.

The concept, in and of itself, does seem repulsive to me....which is a reflection of my views of the sacredness of life and death. It just seems cheap to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jerub-Baal, thanks for defining your terms as you intended them. I'm in agreement about the Art & Humanities - basically that they've become ships without anchors nor bearings, drifting about aimlessly in a need to feign purpose while really standing for nothing (a pointless pursuit, except toward notoriety and some wealth - but Truth-seeking, forget it). Terri, I chickened out in looking at that photo essay - since I find any kind of death culture emphasis repugnant too. I recall seeing a movie rental series called Faces of Death in video stores back in the 80's - but couldn't imagine wanting to actually look at them. You're right, it all serves to cheapen life's sacredness - even if not the intention.

Z said...

"why it should be allowed" just about covers the problems with Western society today.

Is nothing sacred anymore? if SOME people want to see something, MUST it be seen?

Sort of like Desperate Housewives, I dare say! Viagra commercials? tongue studs? Extreme tattoos? pregnant women's bellies? women breast feeding in public?

I'm getting SO old fashioned as I age. And we could so with SO much more of that!

terri said...


There's nothing very vulgar about the essay. The subjects look more like they're sleeping. Everything is black and white, and focused only on portraiture/head shots.

I didn't find it offensive, but understand that others might be unnerved by the mere knowledge that the people portrayed are no longer living.

I do think the fascination with death may be related to the fact that modern society seldom is confronted with it. I didn't attend my first funeral until I was in my twenties..had never seen a dead body before.

100 years ago families prepared the bodies of their loved ones, and had wakes in their houses. Death must have been less removed from everyday life....or so it seems to me.

terri said...


I wouldn't put pregnant women's bellies and breastfeeding in the same list with Viagra and Desperate Housewives.

just me.

Jerub-Baal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jerub-Baal said...

(oops, that last wasn't very clear, so this is a do-over)

I will agree with Mr. Schneider that Modern Western culture has an unhealthy tendency to avoid the issue of mortality. Mortality and Theology are the central focuses of my own artwork.

My problem with this lies with the lack of critical thought behind it, and as I've said previously, the amorality of much of the higher levels of the "Main-Stream-Art-World" (if you will). The top levels of the art world, as AVI has pointed out in some of his posts about the Arts and Humanities Tribe, has been an echo chamber similar to Academia. It seems that artists no longer understand how to think critically. Reading Mr. Schneider's apologia for his project, it is easy to see how surprised he is that anyone would think differently on the subject than he does.

The arts long ago ran out of 'new', but doing something 'new' is supposed to be the raison d'etre of the arts.

I really think that all first year university art students should memorize Ecclesiastes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Terri - I had the same instant reaction upon reading of breatfeeding in public versus all the lude ED commercials, etc that debase human sexuality to the level of dogs in heat. Thanks for letting me know about the b&w stills, which is enough for me personally (and admittedly for very personal reasons) - and I understand your point in referring to it. And you're so right about how death is handled in our modern 1st World (that must be deemed so by default - given the often-used term 3rd World), of how it's become sterilized and even hidden away from our everyday lives to the point where we are able to pretend to live in a society of everlasting life. Whereas in the olden days the reality of loved ones' deaths was a very real part of life. So that the pendulum has swung to the very other extreme - and perhaps this German artist is more sensitized to that reality than most, and wants to raise this point starkly by putting an actual, voluntary public death into the witnesses' frames of reference (I don't really know all the particulars, but that could be what the ultimate purpose really is - given that the true purpose of underground art has been to force people to question what they assume to be okay about the atatus quo of their everyday lives).
Cheers, Tom

Anonymous said...

Just saw that Jerub-Baal's latest response clarifies that this artist indeed does feel that way about modern society - thus revealing the impetus for his shocking stunt (that I for one don't need to see, thanks). BTW, great proposal about memorizing Ecclesiastes - that may create a good foundation for checks and balances in their weighing the consequences of one's actions - where the portayal of didactic art ought to held to the same standards of responsibility as any educational project.

Z said...

terri, when I and kids and everyone around has to see someone's pregnant belly hanging below the shrink-wrap top or a stranger's breast in public, then, and then only, would I put them together, that's for sure! I know, though, that's my whole point..we've come to where I could be chastised for not thinking that's "cool and open minded".....I don't blame anyone for thinking that, we've changed a lot. I just don't think immodesty (if we can say that word anymore?)is a change for the better. But, trust me, this isn't a lecture. I know I'm a lone voice in the wilderness. Probably I'm just older than you are!

As for death, I think we are more afraid of seeing it than we should be, no disagreement there.

Anonymous said...

While it is true that society avoids the topic of mortality and that many people have no experience with the dying, I can't believe installation art could be more than pornography. When you are with a dying family member, you relate to the whole person--his life, his illness, his suffering, and his death. You understand the meaning of the last words. You perhaps know what words to say. You come to understand mortality because a part of you has died. And when you take your leave from the body, you are thinking about the person and are trying to fix his death within the context of his life.

You do not go out with friends afterword and talk about how you were moved by the art.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like little more than a carnival side show to me. A way to bilk money from PT Barnum's 'suckers'. Cheap stunts like this are best ignored.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I slipped myself into each slot and imagined what the meaning would be. It's quite different for the various participants.

I wondered if I would want it to be me being observed in death. It seems showy and self-important, but if I thought there was some good that would come of it, I might not object. Jesus died in public. Perhaps that was part of the shamefulness that he endured, however. Not a sin, though.

And heck, if I were far from loved ones or had none left, I might like the company.

Yet it isn't the same for the authorities who made Jesus die in public. I think for them it was a sin. Doesn't that somehow carry forward and apply to those putting on this exhibition in Germany? We might give up our own dignity for a cause, but to strip someone else of theirs seems always wrong.

Though if it's a volunteer...

Next, what if it's not public after all? What if The Exhibit dies after closing time? Is anyone allowed to be there in the off-hours? Family? Nurses? I suppose dying in an unfamiliar museum is no worse than dying in an unfamiliar hospital, or an unfamiliar ditch off the highway.

There are also the family and friends of the dying (and I thank anonymous for reminding me of their part). If they act as they would in private, then their privacy and dignity is taken as well - and they may not have volunteered. But if they do otherwise, hanging back from what they might ordinarily do and say to keep themselves out of the spectacle, then the whole thing becomes a sham. They may be some value in seeing how families deal with death (though you can get that in its natural setting by having friends and visiting them when they are ill and dying), but what is the value of observing what the family would not do under ordinary circumstances?

Lastly there are the museum-goers. What is this experience for them? There is nothing that they could not see in their own circle of family and friends over the course of a lifetime.

Executions were public until quite recently and still are in places. We find it ghoulish that strangers would go out of their way to observe death, but it was not many decades ago that public hangings were well-attended, even festive events. That gets us back to the intentional humiliation aspect again. We take from criminals even this last dignity, as a warning to the community.

More broadly, what is this experience for a society that allows this to happen in its midst, whether few people attend or many?