Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death in Art

  February 1, 2012 – Death in Art
“I’d get my Ph.D. in Death in Art,” my sister-in-law Marie says while we’re browsing books at ½ Price Books in Dallas and watching Shea crawl across the carpet to go eat some used spines. Marie’s love of death and darkness thrills me. Her art borders the creepy, just shirking shy of it by being beautiful and stark and fantastic. However, since (as my mom once told me after reading a short story I’d written), “[I] hide [my] dark and creepy side really well,” Marie and I get along just fine with the macabre sides of our minds to keep each other company. I grab the baby up before we have to buy the whole lower shelf, and think of what I’d want to get mine in. My interests would probably lie more along something like the Scarecrow’s doctorate in Thinkology, or behavioral science—where I could just watch people and make observations of my own--or Great Book Reading. At this point in my life I don’t have just one all-encompassing focus for study. And I’m okay with that.
I’m also resigned to the fact that I probably won’t (legitimately) earn the coffee cup my mom found at the thrift store that says Dr. White. She’s been holding on to it for years now to give to the first of us to become a doctor, and I’ve lusted after that mug greatly on various lonely nights. My dad is the highest in the running for the cup having just signed up for a Ph.D. program in a subject that is most likely way over my head; material science, quantum mechanics, the atomic lives of mushrooms, or the intricate study of bacteria growth in Kombucha mothers.
While Dad delves into the scientific universe and Marie scrapes back the dirt on death, I, on the other hand, dabble in art and apply myself to words.
When I go with Nan, on her last day in Peru, to the Museo Arqueológico Rafael Larco Herrera I’m captivated by our gripping human fascination with death. It’s not just Marie and me after all. I stare at the ceramics, textiles, and jewelry and read the captions outside the protective glass which say things like, “The majority of Moche Ceramics were placed in tombs as part of the culture’s cult of the dead. Their messages and symbolism were carried to ‘the next world’ in the same way as the ‘Book of the Dead’ of the ancient Egyptians,” and “Potters reproduced ritual scenes which accompanied the dead into the afterlife.”  
None of us, I think, want death to be the end. In their hope that there was something more than this life, many of the early Peruvian cultures believed that items buried with a body would protect that person in the afterlife. Despite the message in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You these spirits took along tokens, food, clothing, money, weapons, jewelry and funerary masks that would transform them into the depicted image on their arrival into the spirit realm. They went prepared to do battle with demons, enemies, gods, and monsters. They took with them the symbols of their status so that once they passed into Death they could become Ancestors or Gods themselves.  

Are we that different now; wanting our glory in both life and death? How would these ancient cultures view our ceremonies of death? Are we any less strange? What would I want buried with me if I were heading into that type of underworld?
With these questions in mind, I stare at the funerary offerings laying in display outside of one silver box and wonder if by removing them from the grave and bringing them into this museum if that woman now stands in the underworld defenseless and poor. A story takes ghostly form in my brain. I pull my notebook out from under my arm and write, “We excavated her tomb and took away her protection. Now she is on her own in the underworld.”
“Art evokes art,” I think. I say it out loud. Then I write that down in my notebook too.
Marie and I often speak about the subjective and evocative nature of art. The topic came up once when she’d shown me a painting of hers which I instantly fell in love with and, later on, bought from her.  
“You know how sometimes you see a piece of art and it just speaks to you? And you don't know exactly why, but it just does,” I said. “That's how I felt about yours.”

Madonna and Friends by Marie
“Ahh sweet!” she replied, “I hope to do that, I mean that’s what I aspire to--to do to people. I wonder if your own art never does that for you? Just other people?”

“But you like your own art, right?” I asked. “It just doesn't necessarily strike you like some other pieces?”

“Yeah, sometimes more than others,” she said. “But I am always very critical of it. I see all the flaws and it rarely moves me in such a way. I think it’s good to put it away too, and then I see it later and think, ‘Oh that’s a nice little painting.’ I have one little painting from college. I don’t think I will ever rid myself of it. I love it. It works for me in every way, but other people don’t seem to like it as much.”

“Yeah. It's the same with writing,” I told her. “I love when I create something that I love.” There was a pause as we thought our artistic thoughts. Then I said, “So you should always keep that piece. For you. Because art should be loved.”

Marie took the idea to another level when she brought the conversation back to our need to create, “I think that’s one thing that makes us continually work and make work. It is that striving for perfection, that finding something moving and beautiful…”

Here in the Larco Museum, as I work my way through the centuries, loving this art, seeing the perfection of line and color, watching the transformation of ideas in visual form, being moved, and striving to bring perfection to my own work, I learn phrases like Extirpation of Idolatries, sacrum facere, and horror vacui. Some of these I remember from my art history classes in college. Some of these are brand new. The labels allude to the Spanish’s religious influence on the South American death cults and art, or show the shifting artistic styles over the passage of time. Art, death, art, religion, art, life. The words and phrases play in my head like a song and I hum along.

“What if God is just a force like nature?” Marie asked me another time. “Nature can be so creative and glorious and beautiful, but also so destructive and scary. No one says, ‘I pray to the rain to save me from the flood.’ It’s a force all its own. A natural course of things, of life.”

And yet, we have in the past prayed to the gods behind the rain, to the gods behind the sun, to the gods behind death and life, seeking to placate their anger at us for our failings.
I make my way around the room depicting the sacrifices made to the gods. An explanatory placard tells me: “The practice of human sacrifice was common to many ancient cultures. Death, the shedding of blood and the physical mutilation ritually transformed the victim. The life being offered to the gods gave the transformed individual sacred status.”
Gods or no gods, I’m constantly astounded at what we as people do to other people. Sacrifice is no exception to that astonishment. In some of the cultures, as shown by Sacrifice of Victims Hurled From the Sacred Mountains, a whole collection of victims were sacrificed to appease a watching deity. In others, enemies were sacrificed to the gods. Often times, warriors would face off in mortal combat. The winner would live to fight another day and the loser would be led off to appease the ever-thirsty gods. In yet others, like the Moche, the most productive members of society were chosen as sacrifices, the winning warriors were led to the slaughter. What an honor to be considered the saving grace of your people.
Right, sure, for me, if I’d been a Mochen I’d have been happy enough being a bum.
I pass the Deformed and Trepanated Skulls which make me think of Marie once again and her recent sketch and paint studies of vultures. I can even tie that into what I’m seeing here, making a connection from Marie back to the Incan belief that the crown of bird feathers was the symbol of their power. After all, a story is just the connection I make from one experience to the other, from one piece of art to the next, from my sister-in-law’s vulture love to the power of the Inca. Another song plays in my mind, “Everything is everything, what is meant to be will be,” Lauryn Hill sings, “after winter, must come spring change it comes eventually. Everything is everything, what is meant to be will be…”
Everything is everything. Art and death. Death in Art. And, in it all, the promise of life and of living. I think of my now eight month old niece Shea and how she is loved more than so many pieces of art. How she is a piece of art herself.  
“Yeah,” Marie tells me one time when I ask if Shea is having a good day, “Shea is playing on the floor eating her toys.”
Life is that easy, that simple. Some say Death is the End. Some say Death is the Beginning. Whatever it is, at least we have life right now to hold in our hands, to laugh along with and to love. We may not all go out and get a Ph.D., but, at least, sometimes we can eat our toys.




  1. There's a Semisonic song entitled "Closing Time" and part of the chorus goes something like "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

    I've always loved that lyric. It speaks so much to me and makes me wonder why new beginning will come from my end? Has that beginning already begun through the birth of my son?

    Which leads me to wonder what he'll do with his life. I'm not really concerned about his profession, accomplishments, accolades or those other tangibles. I just wonder if he'll be happy in life? I wonder if he'll make other peoples' lives happier and better? I hope the answer is "yes" to both of the previous questions.

    Thanks for the great post and insightful words. Definitely food for thought!

  2. Beosig, I hope the answers to your questions are yes too! Also love that song.