I read recently about a group in the States called The Order of the Good Death, who describe themselves as “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality,” a mission which seems like both good sense and nonsense in equal measure.
I myself am what I suppose could be labeled death-phobic. The many other things of which I am afraid —mechanical or puppet clowns, ventriloquist's dummies, clusters of objects, gruesome eye-injuries, giant isopods, et cetera, et cetera—pale in comparison with my fear of death. For me, this fear is a hangover from a childhood spent in churches; it is not a fear of the act of dying, but a fear of the possible existence of an afterlife, and as such the usual signifiers of death which appear in art have no special hold on me.
Paul Delvaux, Sleeping Venus, 1944, Oil on canvas; Collection Tate Gallery, London
I was never much good at seeing the anamorphic skulls in Holbein just so, but scholars assure me that they are intended to remind me of my own mortality; likewise Van Gough's Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette (1885–86), which—like pretty people smoking branded cigarettes in the movies—makes me antsy to flip the lid of my zippo, or Delvaux's skeletal pervert surveying a girl, which just makes me aroused. Warhol, in his screenprints of skulls, is only playing at Hammer Horror nastiness—the real death is in his paintings of electric chairs and suicides, or in the faded eyes of his fiftieth Norma Jean. Did Marilyn Monroe believe in hell? I believe she lived in it, temporarily. Look at the most half-there of the sceenprint diptych and you can conjure, within its negative spaces, the memory of the grim barbituate bottle in situ on her nightstand. If we could see Marilyn's skull, it would scare us for different reasons —the end of life repurposed to mean the end of beauty. Death, sometimes, is the end of suffering.
Andy Warhol, Marilyn Diptych, 1962, Acrylic on canvas; Collection of Tate Gallery, London
There is one skull, though, with which I have had a contentious relationship in a gallery context, and that is Damien Hirst's For the Love of God (2007), which was on display at Tate Modern when I reviewed his retrospective a few years ago. On that occasion, I didn't care to queue to go into its guarded booth. In part, this is because I have never been much impressed by diamonds (too obvious, somehow, to really be glamorous; too in love with their own irridesence, and in cahoots too closely with the halogen spotlight), but it is also because what I knew I would find inside was too smug, too cruel, and too brutally predictable for me to bear. Hirst does death incredibly well, and his best work obsesses over it (The Physical Impossibility..., say, or A Thousand Years, or even The Acquired Inability To Escape, which represents the kind of death which is both spiritual and incremental, measured in smokes). For the Love of God, though, appears to have nothing to do it. Or, to look at it from a different perspective: the kind of death it concerns is not the death of the body, or the spirit, or the soul, but of the purpose and the reputation. A critic's life is one which is spent half-submerged in the clues and suggestions of others, dredging truth; this artwork snaps a diamond jaw at them.
Damien Hirst, For the Love of God, 2007, Platinum, diamonds, and human teeth; Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.
This—the idea that art itself is meaningless, and that the critic himself or herself is a rube in their divination, that the artist laughs at them the way an atheist laughs at a believer—is perhaps more terrible, somehow, than the idea of death: it's ceasing to mean or to matter instead of simply to be. Diamonds are forever, even though critics are not. It's not death I'm afraid of, or the skull—it's what comes after. More than that, though, it's the image of Monroe realizing, on her death bed, that the whole world thought her a dumb blonde; it's the image of a Priest discovering that God looks at him and laughs. Skulls! A good motif for a silver ring, but besides that, who cares? More frightening than death is knowing you've squandered each moment before it.
(Image at top: Vincent van Gogh, Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, 1885–86, Oil on canvas, 13 x 9.6 in.; Collection Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
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