May 18, 2021

Memento Mori



Life is short, art is long.

"All this, and then you die."

I forget when and where I was when these words first surfaced in my mind. I do remember that it was a moment when a vast panorama of nature was before me. Or am I sweetening this thought? I'd like to say that it was in my Navy days. The endless horizon of the Pacific has this power. But ultimately I'm not certain of the moment of its appearance. However, the thought had held fast. Every so often with long periods of time between, it arises gently as if in a whisper.

Maybe there are artists who care less if their works survive their author. I don't think I've every met such a person. I'd say that the assumption is so universal that we underestimate the temerity of the proposition. The immensity of immortality, even a cheap one that lasted only a generation or a century, is the presupposition of every artist.

We expect to freeze time when an art work leaves the studio. When a collector buys a piece, frames it, guards it jealously, donates it to a museum powerful enough to protect it, it is expected that entropy will be arrested with care. It is such a strange assumption that this is so. Defying degradation. It amounts to resisting gravity, denying the universe, challenging nature. We raise our tiny little fists against eventual heat death of the cosmos and we do it all as a matter of course.

Of course.

Of course, that scenario is the province of the successful artist. Of the thousands of artists graduating out of the graduate art schools in my country, of the millions worldwide, every year, multitudes beyond measure over recorded history... the ones who were graced with recognition and protection are but a sliver of the whole population. All art is in movement. The dark alternative to the chain described above, studio-gallery-collector-collector-museum... is the trajectory from the studio to the living room wall or bedroom to a closet or garage or storage space to a landfill. Even in the better scenario, a museum always has the option to exercise its right to deaccession.

We know only a fragment of the art of antiquity. Museums are filled with pieces dug from landfills. Civilizational keepsakes, their collections are fragments of fragments of what art originally existed. Sculpture and architecture survive the elements best, most paintings are lost save the ones who were fortunate to be buried under volcanic ash or sand or who used a coffin lid as a canvas. Until recently, we thought that Greek sculpture was created and celebrated in pristine marble. We were unaware that they were colorized. This misgiven idea of fidelity to materials even spawned the Arts and Crafts movement, not that that was a bad thing. There was much we didn't know. Cave paintings are universally praised and crowds have to be restrained and limited so that even their breath won't degrade the pigment. Imagine the strong possibility that prehistoric humans didn't restrict their painting to the dark inner recesses of underground chambers. Imagine the whole open prehistoric landscape painted lividly. And now this is gone, available only too fancy.

If mankind was predisposed to surrender to the futility of making art that survived their author, what kind of pathetic existence would that be? In my home, we have a small painting made by my mother in law. It hangs by the entrance. It is a scene of her children walking the surf line of a beach, backs to the viewer, wind pushing their hats back on their heads. Even given that most every day we hustle in and out of our apartment blinding past that little painting, there yet exists times when we stop and look at the traces of the hand who made it, missing the mind and presence that made it. Ok. Let's not call it immortality. Let's call it survivability. Scale that up to civilizational levels. A world that did not believe in the value of a keepsake would be a bleak and even brutal place. There would be no museums. No music. No souvenirs. No sentiment. No love.

Memento mori. Remember thou art mortal.

When I read Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, I was initially attracted to the message, of the importance to live in the moment, to savor life as it is lived, the importance of tempering the appetite if only to keep such appetites from destroying themselves. But when I came to his passages about the worthless of ambition, the artist within rebelled. Stoicism for artists is good for survival in their meantime but in terms of posterity it is a sapper of energy. Without meaning to be mean, but wasn't the lives of Aurelius and Seneca bracketed by despots? This detachment and reserve did little to curb the appetites of those who could have been influenced to have used some tempering themselves? In this regard, Stoicism feels a bit selfish. Or maybe the personal philosophy of the likes of Caligula, Nero and Commodus was an inversion of Stoicism? Remember thou art mortal, so get you some.It's like the fabled Ring of Gyges, a license to act with impunity since the sentence of death comes for everyone virtuous or not.

Artists by their nature struggle for recognition. We expect acknowledgement and acceptance when we graduate from grad school. If that doesn't happen in the first five years, we set our horizon for another five, then ten, then twenty. Sometimes, we see exhibitions that salute the "overlooked artist" in their 80's or 90's. Is it just me or doesn't every artist who witnesses this feel for a fleeting minute that their accolade came too late, that the tip to the waiter was mean and chintzy? Failing all these stops, the artist hopes for posthumous recognition. Ah, their work was meant for a future audience. At this point, the work of art must argue for its own survival moment to moment.

Posted by Dennis at May 18, 2021 7:16 AM

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