August 3, 2008

Turning death into another disposable consumer object

In Cabinet Magazine Michael Sappol, curator-historian at the National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health) and author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-Century America and Swedish historian Eva Åhren have written about anatomy studies and the current preoccupation with death symbolism. "Anatomy was a death cult. It invited us to know ourselves through the study and appropriation of the dead. And asked its practitioners to put aside any qualms about dealing with the dead, to enthusiastically mine their cadavers and search for knowledge within them, with the same kind of relish that prospectors searched for gold. Old anatomy halls often bear mottos such as 'hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae' ('this is the place where death rejoices in aiding life') and 'gnosce te ipsum' ('know thyself'). And the study of bones, the stuff of which we are built, produced the profoundest knowledge of what it is to be human....

"Whether visiting art galleries or going to the mall, it's hard to avoid skulls and ribcages: you see them in art installations, on posters, T-shirts, umbrellas, and even baby bibs. A time-traveler from the seventeenth century would be stunned: twenty-first-century people seem to ponder their own mortality and the vanity of life more obsessively than early modern people who meditated on such things with the help of still lives or figurines. Or do we? Maybe the abundance of manufactured bones have a kind of smoke-screen effect that helps us not to think about death. By sequestering death in the realm of art, pop culture, and kitsch, maybe we hope to attenuate the certain prospect of our impending mortality: Death becomes just another disposable consumer object, or conversely just another collectible. Thus accessorized, we no longer get good representational service out of the skeleton as an inner self, which traditionally negated our individuality and pointed to our common identity and fate: there's no possibility of transgression. If so, then the skeleton is gasping its last breath. Bone play is not as much fun as it used to be." Read more.

Related posts:
Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar, cuts to the bone

Chelsea's Skeleton Crew (via Joanne Mattera)

Going the Way of All Flesh, Artistically (via Roberta Smith)

2 comments:

Hi: This is Mike Sappol. I'm delighted that you quoted the Cabinet article on Bone Play. But, to give credit where credit is due, the article was co-written by Swedish historian Eva Åhren.

Thanks for the correction. Sorry Eva.

Sharon