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Art, Death, & The Afterlife Posted on October 9th

Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) Black Square, 1929

Philip Roth’s new book, Indignation, received a nice review in the Sunday’s New York Times Book review a few weeks ago. Like most Roth books, Indignation is largely about death, and the review in tandem with some sad life events has got me thinking about art, death, and the afterlife (my usual go-to dinner topics). The close of the Roth review includes a quote from the book’s narrator as he languishes in the next world:

“There is no letup — for the afterlife is without sleep as well. . . . There are no doors. There are no days. . . . And the judgment is endless, though not because some deity judges you, but because your actions are naggingly being judged for all time by yourself.”

Roth speculates on death and the afterlife in many of his books. This is often attributed to his age (75) or simply to the brooding and grim turn of mind that afflicts all artists. But the relationship between artists and death–or aesthetics and death–is far more complicated. What kind of question is ‘what happens when we die?’ to an artist?

The question itself–the most universal question and also the most personal–seems to be a philosophical or theological (or even scientific) one, and best answered by worthies of either field. When an artist takes on a “big question,” he or she is a little like a well-meaning toddler trying to answer a ringing phone by ringing in response–cute, perhaps poignant, but ultimately ineffective as a response. Roth’s playfully bleak imaginings of the afterlife seem to hold no more weight than any idle guess about death. And this is true if you think of art as trying to answer a philosophical, theological or scientific question. Art is not equipped to answer any question other than one it frames for itself. This is why the best writers and artists , like Roth, make death itself an aesthetic question.

How does an aesthetic question differ from any other? It is clearly different from a scientific question because it does not depend on quantifiable evidence. It is different from a theological question because its goal is not to offer comfort or continuity with a network of belief. And an aesthetic question is different from a philosophical one, though the difference might be subtler. Philosophy aspires to a kind of sense–a making of systems out of chaos, if nothing else. It attempts to find the links between things. An aesthetic proposition, on the other hand, is not concerned necessarily with systems and connections but arrangements–the arrangement of forms, words, people to their world. Arrangements, unlike systems, do not depend on the links between things but rather the effect of the space between them.

What would the afterlife have to be to create a compelling dissonance or a fitting compliment juxtaposed with life? That is the question art asks of the afterlife, and that is far different than simply asking what the afterlife might be. When other fields of thought discuss death and the afterlife, they are looking for either the answer most contiguous with what we know, or the answer that provides the most hope or comfort. Rather than trying to fill it in, art makes use of the negative space the unknown of death creates.

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