It's a subject artists are no less reluctant to talk about than the rest of the general population--death. Everyone knows it's as certain as taxes and perhaps only a little less painful yet we'd far rather talk about the former than the latter. And in fact, with our present booming economy, we don't even much talk about taxes all that anymore, not even to complain about them. And unless it's imminent, usually a pet or loved one, we don't even complain about death, first because it would do little good, and second, well, again, that would mean talking about it. Today death usually happens only in automobiles or intensive care units. We've anesthetized ourselves to it. But in the past, death and art, indeed life itself, were inextricably linked. Until a few hundred years ago, it was one of the most pervasive and persistent subjects in all art. Antique art is FULL of murder, mayhem, fatal suffering and death. Today, one has to go to either Copenhagen, Denmark, or Biloxi, Mississippi to find any link between the two.
In Copenhagen, at the modest Trapholt Art Museum, death and art meet in an exhibit that has animal rights advocates outraged, and there's NO ONE more opposed to death than an outraged animal rights advocate. Maybe you've read about it. At a museum that normally sees maybe 80,000 visitors a year, one thousand people trooped through in a single weekend. The exhibit featuring ten blenders. Each is filled with water and a single goldfish. Behind them is a life-size nude picture of the artists, eyes blackened, with a bazooka missile surrounded by tubes of lipstick. There's no sign that says, "Please feel free to puree the goldfish." Two met that fate at the opening, however. Five more got blended the next day. And the following day, five were stolen. Danish officials have since ordered the power disconnected to the exhibit though any viewer still interested in making his own fish soup has only to plug in the extension cord and push the right button. The point of the whole effort is to bring to people's consciousness the degree of control we have now learned to exert over death through abortion, respirators, suicide, and as always, our own self-destructive lifestyles. But is it a point well taken? I mean, they're ONLY goldfish, and certainly no less disgusting than SWALLOWING one whole.
In Biloxi, Mississippi, at another art establishment going by the name, Commander's Gallery, an artist going by the name of Bettye Jane Broki is also mixing death and art. Amongst her conventional oil paintings and pastels, she LITERALLY mixes the two. She paints abstracts, and the not-so-secret ingredient in her paint is human ashes. Though she admits not everyone is ready for such a memorial, she's not without buyers and supporters, even amongst the funeral industry. Though a painting is probably no less a final resting place than a bronze urn on the mantel, she sees something eternal in beauty quite apropos to the eternal rest of death. What started as a touching tribute to her own mother has evolved into over one hundred works. She's even obtained a patent on her process of sealing the paint and ashes under glass. She's sold some fifty of her abstracts, ornately framed, mostly through funeral homes across the country. She has to use a national chain, coming from a part of the country where cremations are rare. Nationally, the cremation rate is 26%. Most of her marketing success has been in California where the rate is 42%. Two, largely unrelated stories separated by geography and culture. I'm not sure which is the most startling. What I AM sure of is that, though we might argue its form, death SHOULD still have a place in art. And personally, I can see no reason why art shouldn't have a place in death.