Death and the Afterlife: An Essay on Contemporary Visual Art

Image of art gallery.

Image by Antenna.

The philosopher Samuel Scheffler has recently presented an important though experiment about the importance of immortality. Imagine, he proposes, we learn that soon after our natural death a gigantic asteroid will collide with the earth, destroying all human life. What are the consequences? Our own life will not be shortened. But it appears that how we understand our life will be changed drastically. We are accustomed to worrying about the effects of our individual deaths. Why, philosophers and ordinary people have asked, do we fear death? Scheffler asks a different, related question. Why does the death of other people as described matter to us? Scheffler’s book Death & the Afterlife (2013) says little about visual art. But his analysis is extremely relevant to some contemporary art world concerns.

We are born into a world whose culture and customs predate us, and after we die, that world will continue to exist, often more or less unchanged by our absence. Our language, the political institutions, the buildings we inhabit: they all are there, generally independently of us, stabilizing our lives. (This is the argument in Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition.) As a philosopher, for example, you inherit your values, your basic ways of thinking, and your worldview. And how you develop, however original and anti-traditional your concerns turn out to be, depends heavily upon this inheritance. Scheffler argues in a common sensical way that much of the value of our everyday life activities depends upon the belief (or hope!) that these activities will be continued by other people after out death. In that way, however solitary our pursuits, the value you give to them depends in part upon this response.

When long standing belief systems are abandoned, nihilism may become important. Thus grand intellectual tensions arose when communism as a Soviet state religion suddenly disappeared, and that stabilizing view of the past ceased to provide guidance. Artistic canons, too, stabilize our view of the past, providing permanent support for our aesthetic judgments. And so museums devote a great deal of effort to preserving the best old and very old art. These Greco-Roman sculptures, Chinese scrolls and Renaissance Italian paintings are canonical works, artworks which we want to be as changeless as possible. When then new works enter the museum, they are displayed alongside this art with well established value. The paintings of Henry Matisse, Willem de Kooning and Sean Scully – to name three major artists of successive generations- look very different from the old master artworks with whom they aspire to be in dialogue. What would happen then were that canonical art to disappear? To explore that question, I consider this variation on Scheffler’s argument:

imagine that in the near future all of the canonical art in our museums is destroyed. And suppose, also, that all visual records of these works is lost. The achievement of Matisse, de Kooning and Scully depends to some degree upon the awareness that they are part of artistic tradition defined by the canons. And so, after this catastrophe their work would be stranded, as it were, in the present.

Modernists used to think that the aesthetic defined by the older canon would remain fixed, however many new artworks were added. Thus the High Renaissance remained in the museum even when modernist and whatever comes after, and also African masks, Buddhist temple sculptures and works from the Old Americas were added. This, after all, is why art from all of these diverse visual cultures is housed in one institution, the world art museum. We believe that they all have something in common— they all are artworks. Now, however, there are two different ways in which this way of thinking is being questioned. The value of the institutions that support the canon are being critiqued. And our ways of responding to this earlier art are being radically revised. Here I present very briefly two issues which have been much discussed in recent journalistic art criticism by myself and other critics.

One: Maintenance of the canon requires support of the public art museum, which is an expensive institution that is very vulnerable to present political critiques. The world art museum is a very hierarchical organization, coming from an old regime tradition. And so a great deal of criticism has been made of its reliance upon superrich donors, upon colonialism, and upon exclusionary social practices. Our art museums have worked very hard to respond to such criticisms. A great deal of contemporary art that deals with political critique has been embraced by the museums. But it’s fair to say, in my judgment, that no one at present can be certain what will be the practical effect of this criticism.

Two: We are unwilling to display contemporary artists whose actions (and art) are politically unacceptable. Hence the removal from the art world of work said to be sexist or racist. And by stages that way of thinking is being frequently extended to art from the past. Thus, recently Pablo Picasso’s lifestyle has been much criticized. And similar judgments have been made by at least one Italian museum about Bernini. Here we are on a slippery slope. We reject the contemporary work on these moralizing grounds; we reject the art of the recent past, for the same reason; and, then we extend that way of thinking to the more distant past. If we criticize work by living figures in this way, what is to prevent us from extending that form of judgment into the past? It’s true that we say, ‘an artist is a man of his own time’. But if we reject the values of his time, perhaps that is reason to reject his art as well.

Many Americans believe that it is imperative to dismantle the Confederate civil war memorials. Certainly I do. These memorials express a completely mistaken view of our history. But often there is thought to be a difference in kind between that public art and the works in museums. A public monument to Robert E. Lee is a present day celebration of racism. But a display of Catholic or Jewish or Islamic artwork in the museum isn’t a validation of those religious traditions. That, at least, is what follows if we respond to the art in formal terms. I can appreciate a baroque altarpiece or a Temple ornament or a tile for a mosque without adopting Catholic or Jewish or Islamic beliefs. But once we take seriously the belief that art is a form of cultural expression, then this way of thinking will perhaps no longer be so plausible. Maybe we cannot fully detach appreciation of sacred works from the belief system which they express.

Earlier when I observed that museum art was one way in which the stability of the social world was withheld, it might seem as if this stability was an essentially good thing. But of course as the example of American racism and Confederate art indicates, that isn’t always the case. In offering this potentially dramatic analysis, I am trying to understand the present, which is devilishly difficult, not to moralize. Myself, as an critic who is at home in our public art museums, I would be happy enough were these institutions to continue to develop in basically the same ways. But I know enough history to be aware that the world is not organized to suit my convenience. Dramatic changes may occur.

There are precedents for this dramatic change I describe. We know the names of the greatest Greek painters, but none of their works have survived. And so we can only see the various frescoes from Pompei and other sites, feeble records of ancient Greco-Roman painting. And most of the oldest Chinese painting is now knowable only thanks to later copies. The very old canons of those traditions have effectively disappeared. So far as I know, the present analysis is original. But there is a partial anticipation by the philosopher Richard Wollheim, who once envisaged that the most famous art of the mid-twentieth century might vanish, leaving behind only the theorizing of Arthur Danto. He thought Danto’s aesthetics more interesting than the art that inspired it.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.