PRINT February 1990


I shall soon be quite dead at last in spite of all. . . . Yes, I shall be natural at last, I shall suffer more, then less, without drawing any conclusions, I shall pay less heed to myself, I shall be neither hot nor cold any more, I shall be tepid, I shall die tepid, without enthusiasm. I shall not watch myself die, that would spoil everything.
—Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, 1955

Consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly, for most of us, is dearer also than consideration for the living.
––Sigmund Freud, “Reflections upon War and Death,” 1915

MODERN ART IS FUELED BY a sense of death, unconsciously permeated with it. John Ruskin thought death was the muse of great art,1 and by that standard Modern art as a whole is a great art, as great as the traditional art that consciously and overtly reflected on mortality. But the traditional and the modern worlds differ in attitude here, for in the modern world, which has lost the old belief in eternal life, death has become a newly pervasive pressure. Accordingly, there is a greater inward effort to constrain it—to inhibit awareness of it until it seems not to exist. The consequence is that the sense of death manifests itself indirectly as well as directly in Modern art. In traditional painting and sculpture, death is a subject matter elevated to a certain contemplative distance by style; in Modern art, though death appears sometimes with a declamatory, even demagogic bluntness worthy of Hans Baldung Grien, Pieter Bruegel, or Hans Holbein, the major zone of its appearance is style. Style, as it were, becomes pathological, incorporating the slips and slippages that have led such artists as Maurice de Vlaminck and Willem de Kooning to speak of “stylelessness,” and other artists of “antistyle.” Where traditional style was a distance defending against life, and at the same time bringing life into ideal focus, Modern style is a realm of parapraxis, an intimate space where what is unconscious becomes conscious as a symptom––an obscure but telling sign.

If the driven, Faustian modern character can be understood as in part a defense against the special power of death in this age—the special way it has triumphed in the contemporary world—then Modern art, which is equally full of urgent, heroic ambition and is an aspect of modern character, must also be defensive. It too must reflect our sense of death, irrepressible despite all efforts to deny it. Precontemporary Western society may have lived more intimately, more comfortably, with death than we do, but that was because the old belief in immortality made it less fearsome. To a world deprived of that belief, death becomes far more unbearable,2 and the knowledge of it is far more repressed—but we only need to repress it because it has become so nakedly visible, unmasked, and undeniable. It was possible once to imagine death as a rebirth into immortal life, a passage that, however painful, brought us into a world superior to our own. Today this fantasy’s absurdity seems apparent. The enhanced sense of human possibility and vitality that our science and technology have created does not avail us in this emotional situation; a nagging suspicion of the nothingness of existence undermines us from within, gnaws at our self-respect. We feel a general disillusionment with the idea of our everlasting existence. Death embodies this psychic sense of nothingness, or seems its instrument.

Modern ambivalence about death is intense: on the one hand, it seems less inevitable than in the traditional world, because of our greater control over nature; on the other, it is experienced as all the more merciless because no longer redemptive. At the same time today we see people who plan to survive forever, freezing their bodies in hope of scientific resurrection, and proliferating epidemics of wars and suicides, new holocausts and genocides, that seem to threaten daily (the current relaxation of tensions in Eastern Europe notwithstanding, detoxifying as it is). In our secular civilization, the belief that death is rebirth seems insane, even if ratified by the collective insanity of religion. (No doubt the fear of death has proven convenient to the powers of church and state that have manipulated this mass anxiety—though it is worth noting that in some societies, the church serves as an alternate institution and thus a refuge against the state.) It is part of the mind’s modernization to strip itself of the faith in immortality, but the resulting explicitness of death arouses an unconscious sense of nihilism. Without the protective emotional security that the illusion of immortality afforded, to face or to intuit death may be emotionally annihilative, utterly destructive of the sense of self, as if in prelude to death’s actual, physical annihilation. It is as though deep awareness of one’s transience made one disown oneself—as though at the end of the tunnel of introspection one found one’s nothingness rather than one’s realized being. This is a madness antithetical to the madness of the belief in immortality, which gives one the illusion of an indestructible, indivisible self. Instead, we have the fear of imminent self-destruction.

Our subliminal awareness of the bluntness of death haunts our art as much as it does our life. It drives both more than we realize—sometimes like a car out of control. Much has been made of Modern art’s dynamic, innovative character, which seems to signal the vitality of the life force, of the erotic. And this energetic newness has certainly proven strong enough to be surprising and shocking in the past, though today, when an increasingly manufactured-looking novelty is an invariable product of the culture industry—it is the most essential part of the spectacle (because Modern art cannot face its inner sense of growing old)—one must be in a special state of collective mindlessness to be stopped in one’s tracks by it. Modern art’s erotic life force should not blind us to its other, thanatopic side, which is less obvious but more insidious and far-reaching. One could even argue that in this art, erotic force is the facade of the thanatopic—a vital appearance that masks a morbid reality, a creative commitment and fruitfulness that hide an involuted preoccupation with nothingness, a dynamic external engagement that checks a passive internal disenchantment, an energy that obscures an inertia. Modern art is Perseus, mirroring, in style as much as in image, the active and passive forms of death that combine in the Medusa’s head of nothingness—the writhing snakes and the blank, literally petrifying stare, equally deadly and dreadful, that constitute Janus-headed death. And through that mirroring, art triumphs over death—but is turned to stone in the process. Modern art is a Potemkin village of lively, vibrant styles behind which lurks a sense of emptiness, of depression—the modern living death.

If, as Hegel and Heidegger argue, “Only death . . . can put the individual in authentic relationship with himself,”3 then Modern art is ambiguously authentic, for it is only partially conscious of its being in relation to death. In its parapractic style, it compulsively rehearses its own end—an acting out of an unconsciously repressed intuition. This art may not be self-conscious about death, and thus may have an incomplete sense of self, but the thought of its own mortality appears repeatedly in its disequilibrated manner, its fascination with incongruity, ambivalence, and irony. Such psychic unease is detectable in art, of course, before the Modern period; in fact, although I believe that there are general conclusions to be drawn about what I have been calling “traditional art”—which I recognize as a vast, disparate body of work—I would question whether the Western artistic impulse has expressed itself in a truly intact style since the Renaissance. Where Renaissance artists idealized perfect form, and the perfect integration of content and form, the Mannerists who succeeded them distorted the picture space, rebelliously abandoning the earlier balance and harmony. Mannerism was a distraught style, an art of disequilibrium and fragmentation. For normative beauty was substituted the uncanny—revealing these artists’ desire to hold on to traces of the beautiful, though it was no longer available to them entire. (One sees a similar rejection of a normative style in the revolt of diversity that followed Greenbergian formalism in the 20th century—though formalism as Clement Greenberg defined it was empty of anything except the painting, which he misconceived as a new integrity of art.)

No important art since the Mannerist period has been entirely untroubled, entirely undivided against itself, though art preserves an appearance of unity until the breakdowns and schisms of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet traditional painting and sculpture are still reinforced by the belief in immortality. This is perceptible in their relative continuity—their moments of rupture are generally more material than ideological, their history involves more sustained ideas than abandoned ones, and they tend to integrate old and new in a fresh unity rather than constantly attempting to overthrow the old. Modern art, in contrast, suggests the lack of belief in immortality through its convulsive, rapid-fire development, its amazing profligate restlessness. It is as though its entire torturous, self-contradictory passage—its driven, desperately relentless inventiveness—were an agonizing labor to give birth to something unknown, something altogether beyond the art that used to be called “divine” (a term that not only expressed praise but conveyed an intention). Modern art wants to intimate the unknowable itself, as an alternative to divine immortality.

The alternative to immortality, however, is nothingness—the nothing that Ernest Hemingway has one of his disillusioned characters acknowledge in a revised, updated Hail Mary: “Hail nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”4 It is the same “nothing” that ends Joseph Conrad’s ironically titled Victory, 1915, several of whose characters are parodies of Christ—losers in life, like Christ, but unlike him, also losers in death. Hemingway and Conrad neurotically struggle with their loss of faith in immortality. Their characters never triumph over life, but are irreparably wounded by it—are irreversibly tragic, for without our former godlike immortality, the sickness unto death that is life becomes irreducibly meaningless, a mode of nothingness. A similar struggle appears in Modern visual art, not just in imagery—in the compulsive repetitive presentation of morbid, grim, tragically flawed figures, of which there is an abundance—but in style itself. Cubist, Expressionist, and Surrealist styles—the major traditions of 20th-century art, and the starting points for all other stylistic innovations—are quintessentially disintegrative. This is what constitutes their newness. Modern style as a whole tends to become an articulation of discontinuity for its own sake. When it deals with objects, it “disillusions” them—treats them as what has been called an “as if” phenomenon. This tends to “nothing,” to make into a no-thing, any and every object, giving it a stylistic kiss of death—hurling a death wish at it.

According to Freud’s final formulation of instinct theory, we are all born with an instinct or wish for death, as well as with one for life. This death instinct is the force behind the principle of constancy, that is, the effort to establish a tensionless state, akin to inorganic existence—as opposed to the dynamic change inherent in the life appetite. To deal with this unconscious desire to die, we externalize part of the death wish in the form of aggression. At the same time, the ego retains part of it—the instincts are inalienable—as masochism.5

I submit that the quasi-annihilated appearance of so many objects and figures in Modern art is an expression of the death wish—all the stronger because of the loss of the belief in immortality, which is an expression of the life force, the instinctive will to live. More crucially, I submit that the generally disintegrated, unstructured, disorganized or incompletely organized, messy, almost chaotic, chance or accidental look of many works of Modern art has a masochistic dimension, whatever its erotic potential. This look is evident in Modern painterliness, in the discarded junk—dead object—look of certain sculpture, in works from Marcel Duchamp’s readymades on through Surrealist poetic objects and Jasper Johns’ bronzed pieces to the neo-assemblage “collection” works of contemporary appropriationists. Preferring the inorganic and often the manufactured object to the human or animal body, or, like Johns, fragmenting and then petrifying the body, such works seem to oppose themselves to organic life. Indeed, Duchamp’s antiart, and related works by many artists, overtly signal Modern art’s death wish—its wish to kill the very idea of art. Duchamp’s replacement of art with nonart is in fact a destructive replacement, a demolition. For the nonart substitute, even if we label it “unconventional” art, hardly suffices even as that.

The antisublime, demystifying art of our century, including the work in the Duchampian tradition, engages in a deconstruction of art’s sacredness—art’s aura—that is itself a symptom of the loss of belief in immortality, the old center of faith. The illusion of immortality was the source of the old sense of the sacred, the numinous; it provided an ideal of transcendence, a faith that life was more than the sum of its material moments and could rise above its contingencies. The sacred is supposedly resuscitated, or renovated, in those Modern surfaces and images full of a hallucinatory sense of absence, surfaces and images that push the limits of the visible until a sense of the inchoate, the unspeakable, the inconceivable emerge—of the invisibility and emptiness that have been mistaken for the infinite and named the sublime. I’m thinking of the paintings of artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko, who sought the sublime but found themselves fiddling while it burned. For in that emptiness is actually death, nothingness. And when Modern images deal with objects and figures, they generally lack the sanctified, “still life” look—the look of immortality—for which traditional art so often strived. In the passage from Caspar David Friedrich to Arnold Böcklin to Giorgio de Chirico to René Magritte, one finds the sublime progressively degenerating into the uncanny, almost to the point of bathos. The alternative is a petrified sublime.

The unfinished look of many Modern works of art does not have the same meaning as the non finito in some of the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Those pieces are fully realized mentally; what is physically incomplete shows strong signs of being whole in concept. But the 20th-century non finito signals creative frustration, difficulty in conceiving whole, unannihilated forms—both the inability to do so and finally the lack of interest in doing so. The forms rendered in Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism are ruins that were never complete or intact in the first place. They suggest that we no longer know how to signal the necessity of completeness as the first requirement for being. The incompleteness of the Modern artwork—the much-remarked unfinished, fragmentary look—is thus another form of masochistic self-defeat. The very idea, quintessentially Modern, that the artwork should be a thing in itself, nonreferential, nonallegorical, separates and distances it from partaking in the vitality of life. (In traditional art, allegory was a crucial mediator of life experience in essentialized form; it has only recently been restored to credibility in 20th-century art, signifying a retreat—an advance?—from Modernism.) Modern art demonstrates the strange workings of death in life, especially when they are not counterbalanced by a confidence in the life in death.

The atmosphere of incomplete temporal process in Modern art reflects a morbid sensitivity to time. If there is no timeless, true, authentic being enduring beyond the contingency and incompleteness of human life, then art’s temporal thrust has no sense of a destination to be reached. Furthermore, art must seem timely to seem credible. To make visible art’s temporal process—as a multitude have done, from the Cubists through performance artists such as Vito Acconci and on—is to acknowledge art’s transience while giving it the appearance of arbitrary life. This is a broad direction in Modernism: to Picasso, for example, art was a project to be abandoned rather than an object to be completed.6 This general sense of incomplete process mirrors the sense of death as an abandonment rather than a fulfillment of life. And this recognition of both art’s and life’s inherently incomplete, abandoned condition—of their pathos—is in part responsible for the intense inner dissatisfaction that haunts Modern art’s development (as well as for the dissatisfaction that initially greeted it in society). The dissatisfaction also appears in this art’s masturbatory thematization of certain visual ideas—from geometry to the deranged figure, from the would-be spontaneous gesture to the ambiguously two-and-three-dimensional surface—which it elevates only to restlessly toy with and ironically manipulate their appearance. It is as though an intensely ambivalent effort were under way to determine the theme as absolute, while at the same time undermining and disputing its axiomatic, or immortal, character.

THE UNCONSCIOUS SENSE OF vulnerability that comes with our heightened awareness of death has its dialectical structure. For implicit to me in Freud’s thought is the idea that the death wish is actually a fantasy of death as a return to the moment of one’s birth, of one’s coming alive. The instinctive desire to return to one’s inorganic origins, in order to erase the tension inherent in organic existence, disguises a desire to do something still more emotionally fantastic: to see oneself being born. Even more: our curiosity about the primal scene reflects the wish to see our parents not only in the act of intercourse, but in the act of sexual intercourse that conceived us. And the bed of life, the bed in which one was conceived, bears an uncanny resemblance to the deathbed. If just that sperm and just that egg had not fused, then one would not have been born; someone else would have, or no one else. One would have been nothing—just as one will be on the deathbed—and no one would have known the difference.

The doubly taboo desire to see our parents copulating and to see ourselves conceived or born—coming to life—is profoundly akin to the desire to be spectators at our own death.7 The one involves the wish to witness the moment when we became separated from nothingness and became something—separated from death to become alive. The other involves the wish to watch our return to nothingness from being something. At its most fundamental, creativity is a compulsive recapitulation of these spectacular, tricky, unconsciously linked instants, fraught with chance: the moments of coming into being, coming alive, and of dying, becoming nothing. Our unconscious coupling of these moments becomes an unconscious feeling of seeming to exist between life and death, nothing and something, or, even more deeply, as we will see, of seeming to be alive and dead, something and nothing simultaneously. The awareness of death incorporates this deeply buried fantasy, which in Modern art takes the form of the repetitious rebirth of art in every new style.

If the sense of death has been intensified in the contemporary age, the sense of life must also intensify, if death is not completely to dominate. The issue becomes: How is one to feel alive in a world of death—in a world that actually seems dead, because, as a last despairing measure, we have projected our unconscious sense of death on it as a way of defending ourselves from it, after the defense of immortality has failed? The trick is to make the world seem as dead as oneself or more so, so that one is alive in comparison. And in fact, the modern world blindly pursues death: it has been said that more people have been destroyed by society in the 20th century than in any other. (Previously, nature was the leading destroyer of human life.)

The modern self is generally uncertain how alive it is; it often feels dead.8 And the sense of living death pervades the contemporary world. Whatever the reasons for this—and many have been projected, from industrialization, which makes us feel like drones in a hive, to the associated collapse of the idea of individuality (reinforced by the contemporary mass media), to the frenzy of analysis that has reduced life to a maze of codes—Freud’s fantasy of the death scene as, in my interpretation, a perverse “extension” of the primal scene reflects our uncertain sense of life: one wants to see oneself being conceived or born in order to confirm that one is, indeed alive. It is like pinching oneself to make sure that one is awake—that one’s life is more than someone else’s dream, that one is not living someone else’s life, a very common feeling, associated with the forced compliance (to which there seems no alternative for survival) that is an everyday condition in the modern world. But the fantasy of the death scene also acknowledges that we experience ourselves as half dead and half alive, in effect hovering on the border between the two states. This is the quintessential experience of modern life. Art also struggles with it.

D. W. Winnicott’s distinction between the True Self and the False Self can help us understand this experience. From the “True Self,” writes Winnicott,

comes the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea. The spontaneous gesture is the True Self in action. Only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real. Whereas a True Self feels real, the existence of a False Self results in a feeling unreal or a sense of futility. The False Self, if successful in its function, hides the True Self, or else finds a way of enabling the True Self to start to live. . . .There is but little point in formulating a True Self idea except for the purpose of trying to understand the False Self, because it does no more than collect together the details of the experience of aliveness.9

Winnicott’s True Self embodies the experience of the body’s aliveness and “the idea of the Primary process,” that is, a process “essentially not reactive to external stimuli, but primary.”10 The False Self, on the other hand, exists as an organization of reactions to external stimuli. It is entirely a derivative extension of the outer world, even if it is partly devoted to shielding the inner world and to integrating manifestations of that world into a protective coherent form. The False Self cannot escape feeling dead, a feeling articulated through its sense of its own futility and unreality, and especially through its intuition of not being primary.

When the feeling of death in life is not counteracted by an awareness of life’s ultimate reality and worth—an awareness previously supplied by the illusion of immortality—the sense of life’s transience, with its associated feelings of the falseness, inauthenticity, and futility of being real, tends to dominate. One gives up looking for signs of life, traces of the experience of being alive. And art, which is in part an activity of the False Self, also becomes false—false to itself, for it no longer collects together the details of the experience of aliveness. Art becomes pure style, style stylized. Self-sufficient and hermetic, it supposedly remains a cabalistic code, a secret system of “higher” signifiers, but there is no kind of consciousness to which it is the key, no inner or outer reality it signifies, and whose significance it suggests—except the consciousness of making art, the superior (but unspecified) significance of art as such. It tends to become emotionally problematic, issuing in repressive styles that struggle to show no affect, to be “disembodied,” that shy away from the struggle to embody an attitude to reality and to take an emotional stand within it. Attitudelessness —“selflessness”—is the danger that haunts Modern style.

The ambition to make style eternally new is an attempt to overcome this danger. The avant-garde compulsion toward perpetual stylistic revolution once reflected a dissatisfaction with traditional modes of articulation and the supposedly shallow level of experience they signified. Avant-garde style was in part an attempt to signal more subtle, complex states of experience, making them articulate and ingeniously accessible. But it soon became a substitute for experience of any kind of reality, and above all an opium against depth experience. (The experience of revolutionary style alone is supposed to suffice as “experience.”) The supposedly regenerative cycles of avant-gardism merely replace one stylistic code with another, none a guarantee of true selfhood. However much artists have tried to bring signs of spontaneous life back into art (in Abstract Expressionism, say, or in Surrealist automatism, two deliberate—self-defeatingly self-conscious—attempts to make manifest primary process), they have ended up systematizing them back into indicators of style. The avant-garde’s self-consciousness is all that remains of its intention to articulate the revolutionary experience of being alive in the modern world. What began as a concern to find the right style for a subtle experience quickly became a concern with the right style for the experience of style.

Modern art is a Sisyphean effort to restore signs of spontaneity to an art entropically running down into pure style because it reflects no belief in its own immortality. A truly vital Modern art would not only collect the details of the experience of aliveness but would integrate them into a new kind of living whole: not a kind of god, or a surrogate for one, as much traditional art implicitly was, but an analogue of the True Self, of authentic inner being. Yet Modern art rarely offers images of such true selfhood, except indirectly, in that it often proffers the body of the work of art as the True Self. Modern works of art in fact tend to fall into two categories: those representational images that offer us images of False Selfhood—of bodies that seem (inwardly) dead, futile, unreal, implying self-obliteration or an extinction of self-image11 —and those abstract works that offer us the body of art as the true self-representation, that is, as the space where signs of aliveness converge and are given sanctuary. Of course the irony is that these abstract works of art are “dead” to the world. If they are inwardly alive, articulating an inner world of objects, they are externally incommunicado.12

Manet’s The Dead Toreador, 1863, and Degas’ Fallen Jockey, ca. 1896–98, typify works in the first category. They seem neutrally descriptive, but the bodies rendered are charged with understated futility. The clinical detachment of Manet and Degas—their sense of these bodies as specimens—is a subtle mask over the flat affect typical of depression. I see the literal deadness of the bodies as emblematic of inner deadness—the deep feeling of not being alive, covered over by the intellectual knowledge that one looks alive from the outside. Thus the bodies exist in a peculiar state of irreality rather than either pure unreality or reality. (This is especially true of Manet’s static, passive figures in general.) The tension between the outer look of aliveness and the inner feeling of death becomes explicit in the dramatic, allegorically tinged images by George Grosz, Otto Dix, and other Modern German masters up to Anselm Kiefer, whose paintings’ surfaces are full of self-consciously parapractic articulations of death. What counts in all these works is the sense of external death as a morbid kind of internal life, that is, a living death.

The carnival spirit characteristic of many works by Max Beckmann and James Ensor is an antidote to the sense of living death. But these paintings tend to synthesize the life and death instincts, each infecting the other, so that the life energy vigorously articulated through the carnival is corrupted by the wish for death implicit in its excesses. The aura of menace in the works suggests as much. And Ensor’s alternation between the mask and the skull —as though, between the False Self of one’s social facade and the truth of mortality, there were no room for the true identity of the face—is explicitly morbid. Freud held that life is an unwitting working out of death, implying an inescapable, spontaneous oscillation of life and death impulses. The manic-depressive character of Beckmann’s secular dances of death points to the modern inability to regulate this oscillation, to bring it under any kind of emotional control.13 This lack of internal mastery is responsible for the air of fatalism that haunts his images. (Two of Beckmann’s heirs in this respect are George Segal and Edward Kienholz.) Edvard Munch’s paintings, whether or not they overtly deal with depression—like the sickroom pictures and such works as Melancholy (Laura), 1899 —are stylistically manic-depressive. I would venture that any work that does not show a manic-depressive tension is not part of the Modernist mainstream.

The sense of being simultaneously alive and dead reflects this lack of regulation, the unconscious experience of wild oscillation. Self-regulation is basically the attempt to restrain the death instinct in order to advance life, and such control is the core of selfhood. Biologically, death always wins in life—only human self-consciousness softens nature’s victory, by reading it ironically—but successful inner restraint of the death instinct leads to the love of life, and to the ambition to prolong it. Modern society does not consistently encourage this kind of control, however; to do so would imply belief in the self’s “ultimacy,” a notion related to the illusion of immortality. It is precisely because of the self’s apparent transience and irreality in the contemporary world that the death impulse becomes violently irrepressible, dangerously contagious, “depressive.” In compensation, the life impulse becomes correspondingly erratic, or “manic,” and both threaten to overwhelm the ego’s defenses, even annihilate it entirely.

Through abstraction, the best works of art in the second category propose a true selfhood that seems beyond the reach of death. Yet they only simulate the look of immortality, rather than convincing us of its reality. Indeed, a conflict haunts abstract art: immortality is felt to be an insubstantial idea, but is also experienced as inwardly necessary for emotional survival. This seems the case in early as well as late abstraction. For example, it is possible to argue that both Piet Mondrian’s transcendence of Symbolism and Robert Ryman’s transcendence of Abstract Expressionism indicate a heroic effort to overcome the death instinct, yet no trust in immortality replaces it, although there is, no doubt, a wishful, regressive desire for that trust’s renewal. The illusion of immortality is a regression truly in the service of the ego, but the modern ego cannot let itself be fortified by illusion. (That is its tragedy.)

Abstraction’s disillusionment with mimetic representation involves a disillusionment with the false essentialization—immortalization—of objects, and to abandon images of objects is in part to abandon memory, the storehouse of internal pictures of what one has seen in the world. To transcend memory is in some sense to enter eternity. The paintings of an artist like Mondrian can be regarded as a militant forgetfulness of the world, replacing emotionally charged memories of it with irreducible primary colors and forms that supposedly possess a unique, intransitive immediacy. (In contrast, memory is always transitive, which is part of its morbidity.) Mondrian’s vividness is part of his struggle against the death instinct: his paintings completely evade nostalgia (for the world), which is always infected with a sense of death, indeed is a manifestation of it. Similarly, Ryman brings under control the aggressive impulse toward which expressionist gesture in general tends. He merges it with his white plane, whose silence is an anticipation of transcendence. Like Mondrian, Ryman seems to move beyond instinct without reaching ego-strengthening belief in immortality, although the idea is a necessary one in the art of both. The deathly symbology of the white monochrome is multifold. Indeed, the absence of color—the reliance on white and black, in, for example, German Expressionist woodcuts, the works of Franz Kline, certain paintings by de Kooning, or Ad Reinhardt’s black series—can often in itself be taken as a sign of morbidity.

Many abstract works manage to be less manic depressive than Modern art’s more explicit dances of death, precariously balancing the life and death instincts so that they seem to exist simultaneously, each tinging the other, impossible to separate. These works seem to articulate living death and to advocate spiritual rebirth in the same breath, as though they were aspects of the same indescribable, unnamable thing. Such works are remarkable double entendres, psychic Gordian knots, and a short list of the American artists who have produced them might include Adolph Gottlieb, Eva Hesse, Newman, Jackson Pollock, Rothko, and Robert Smithson. Robert Motherwell’s elegies and Robert Morris’ so-called apocalypses deserve special mention for the deliberateness and urgency with which they articulate the entanglement of the life and death instincts.14 Morris’ works tend to the manic, Motherwell’s to the depressive. Both groups of works seem as fraught with the ambition to hold on to signs of life as they are anguished by signs of the absence that is death. Marvelous articulations of that absence, they do not foreclose on the possible presence of life.

IN CONCLUDING, I WOULD like to call attention to the numerous images of skulls in Modern art, including a recent revival of such imagery—in effect a revival of the traditional genre of the vanitas. The skull is of crucial importance for an understanding of the death-in-life syndrome of Modern art as a whole. Paul Cézanne’s Still Life with Skull and Pitcher, 1864–65, Still Life with Skull and Candlestick, 1866–67, Three Skulls, ca. 1902, and Three Skulls on an Oriental Rug, 1904, are well-known,15 as is Georgia O’Keeffe’s use of the desert (deserted) skull as a symbol of sterility—or, rather, of the oscillation between sterility and creativity, the one haunting the other, as in Horse’s Skull on Blue, 1930, among many such works. But because human life seems more problematic than ever—even as it becomes socially unendurable, it seems less likely that it will naturally endure—the skull has once again become topical. (In some cases it is a political symbol—telling us we can’t take our toys with us, it is one in the eye for the greedy ’80s.) Particularly noteworthy are Karel Appel’s Running Through, 1983; Robert Arneson’s various skull images of the mid 1980s, loosely associated with holocaustal death and the “martyrdom” of Jackson Pollock; Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Skull), 1982 (many of his heads are implicitly skulls, or show a skull coming through the skin of the face); Maura Sheehan’s Mayarama wall, 1987; and many other works, by artists from Ashley Bickerton to Francesco Clemente, from Werner Büttner to Andy Warhol. More is at stake in these images than simple acknowledgment of a convention, or a standard meditation on death. We must go back to Freud to understand their import.

The skull is the ultimate spectator, watching life and art go by. To be the spectator of one’s own death, as Freud said, is to survive one’s death, which in a sense we do–but only in the form of the watchful skull that testifies to it. In the last analysis, this knowing, testimonial skull symbolizes art itself, as Büttner’s “Moderne Kunst” series (“Modern art,” 1981) suggests. Yet art, as the cliché says, is an enhancement of life—not of death. And by its very nature, death resists enhancement, idealization, sublimation. The skull is recalcitrant, intransigent; it cannot be subsumed by art. (Cézanne did not simply estheticize the skull into one more still life subject matter, as art historians have said; in the very attempt to estheticize it, he revealed it to be beyond estheticization.) The skull breaks through style the way Samson broke through the ropes that bound him. Spotting it in an image, we emotionally forget the work, and the subtleties of the stylistic rendering. Primary, beyond art, the skull is the ultimate spectacle, the ultimate vulgar object, and makes fascinated philistines of us all. (Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, at the opening of Max Ernst’s 1921 Paris show, gave a disruptive cry of recognition: “It’s raining on a skull!”16) At the same time, art wants to be like the skull: hard, obdurate, implacably there, “living” beyond life. Artists who render the skull are unconsciously articulating a deep generic wish. If their art is to last beyond the day of its making—to be immortal—it must be as definitive as a skull.

I submit that the artist unconsciously envies the skull without fully realizing that it embodies the perverse paradox of art itself. To the unconscious, the skull represents the moment of self- and art-recognition: to depict a skull is an ironic fulfillment of the wish to be an immortal self and to make an immortal art. Authentic art arises from an infantile creative impulse, from an emotional regression to preverbal existence. The etymological root of “infant” is “without speech”; the apparent ineffableness of the best art involves a tacit recognition that it has reached the infantile, preverbal, unverbalizable—incommunicado—depths of the self. Paradoxically, the passage to those inchoate depths results in works that seem stunningly adult, amazingly “progressive” psychically, irrepressibly articulate. But it is just this apparent self-assurance of being that indicates how brilliantly false to themselves these works are. For though the authentic work of art originates psychically as a profound “protest against being forced into a false existence,” to use Winnicott’s language,17 a protest necessitating a return to the “creative originality” inherent to the True Self of childhood, it is itself in part a dead object. To be sturdy and enduring, it must, skull-like, be a relic of the life force it intended to articulate (even replicate); it must be false to the original, regressive, life-saving impulse that led to its creation. Creativity at its deepest is a return to primary process rather than a response to external stimuli. But external stimuli necessarily figure in the artistic process of formalization and stylization, and the sense of primary process that the authentic work of art means to recover tends to be usurped by this secondary elaboration into the work of art. The artwork seems to become a realm of external stimuli rather than a primary space.

This is a familiar enough paradox, but it is all too often forgotten. It helps explain why most works of art become boring, dated—why reputations come and go, few of them truly lasting through the decades. Artworks initially serve as what Winnicott, in another context, has called “a basic ration of the experience of omnipotence”18 for their makers and for their admirers, but sooner or later they come to seem external to the inner process they mean to signify, the process that affords the infantile sense of omnipotence—of one’s own primariness—so bracing and necessary in the disillusioning modern world. They invariably come to seem more dead than alive. (It is not always clear whether critical theorizing about them is an attempt to find new signs of life in them or to confirm their death.) With no malevolent effort on anybody’s part, they come to seem false to themselves, no longer to believe in themselves. This strange condition is the consequence of their achievement of what their civilization regards as the look of immortality. But the look makes sense only as long as the civilization does; it is as transient as the civilization. And in the modern period, civilization changes rapidly. The work of art quickly comes to seem timebound. Where once it was timely, now it seems merely a matter of time.

The skull represents this cycle of psychosocial events. It is simultaneously a True Self and a False Self. The artist who represents it turns it into his or her personal idea and makes it seem to exist as spontaneously as possible, but at the same time implicitly acknowledges that it is a false form of existence—it is existence as absence. The skull is the hard ironic truth of immortality—real immortality—rather than some vapid, vague illusion. And those who depict it have their ironic immortality in the form of works of art that, like the skull, were once full of creative life but are now empty shells. Like the skull, art is the strange death in life, all along present under its surface—the morbid “depth” of life’s falseness, self-betrayal, at last nakedly revealed. Like the skull, art simultaneously represents innate authenticity and inevitable inauthenticity—the inauthenticity that is unavoidable, even necessary, in life, and that destroys it.

However ironically, the skull represents art’s inner conviction of its own immortality, the inner, narcissistic necessity to believe that it will endure forever (if only in the form of an eternal return of attention). This is the ultimate fantasy of infantile omnipotence, the ultimate delusion of grandeur, the ultimate form of belief in the omnipotence of thoughts. At the same time, the skull represents—without irony—the recognition that immortality is a fraud, or, rather, that one can only achieve it by being false to the original creativity out of which it arose. Immortality is simultaneously the glamorous package and the dregs of what was once a living creativity. Thus the desire for immortality is both an authentic affirmation of life and a self-betrayal. To make art is to be caught in a trap, or, rather, in a vicious closed circle of creative birth and death—the rebirth of authentic selfhood and the living death of self-falsification. At its best, art is a way of playing for and with time; at its worst, it is a socially successful creation of the illusion of immortality.

Donald Kuspit, professor of philosophy and art history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, contributes regularly to Artforum. He recently delivered the Ernst Kris lecture on art and psychoanalysis, “Idealization in Matisse,” at New York University.



l. See Elizabeth J. L. Sawin, “A Critical Meditation on John Ruskin’s Fear of Death,” Ph.D. diss., University of Iowa, 1980, p. 124. Ruskin presents this idea in the chapter called “The Lance of Pallas” in his Modern Painters, 1843.

2. This concept has been developed by Robert Jay Lifton in a number of important studies, especially The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of Life, New York: Simon and Schuster, Touchstone Books, 1979.

3. See Hans Georg Gadamer, Hegel’s Dialectic: Five Hermeneutical Studies, trans. P. Christopher Smith, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, paperback, 1976, p. 69.

4. Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 1938, in The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, the Finca Vigía Edition, 1987, p. 291.

5. Freud’s concept of the death wish, formulated in part to explain persistent masochism (which implies a tendency toward self-destruction), is perhaps the most disputed aspect of his thought. See Erich Fromm, “Freud’s Theory of Aggressiveness and Destructiveness,” The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, Crest Books, 1975, pp. 486–528, especially section 3, pp. 511–18, “The Power and Limitations of the Death Instinct.” See also Fromm, Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought, London: Jonathan Cape, 1980, pp. 110–16. Nonetheless the notion of a death instinct remains a viable part of instinct theory, as has increasingly been acknowledged—if instinct theory is to be retained at all, which Fromm resists doing.

W. Ronald O. Fairbairn’s object-relational reinterpretation of the death instinct is also relevant. In “Repression and the Return of Bad Objects (With Special Reference to the ‘War Neuroses’),” 1943, Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, Fairbairn argues that “what Freud describes under the category of ‘death instincts’ would . . . appear to represent for the most part masochistic relationships with internalized bad objects. A sadistic relationship with a bad object which is internalized would also present the appearance of a death instinct” (p. 79). But in fact such sadomasochistic libidinal manifestations do imply a wish for the death either of the ego or of the object.

6. See Dore Ashton, Picasso On Art: A Selection of Views, New York: Viking Press, “Documents of 20th-Century Art,” paperback, 1972, p. 38: “Unfinished, a picture remains alive, dangerous. A finished work is a dead work, killed.”

7. See Sigmund Freud, “Reflections upon War and Death,” 1915, in Character and Culture, New York: Macmillan, Collier Books, 1963, p. 122.

8. Enid Balint, in her paper “Creative Life” (which I found described in a psychotherapeutic newsletter), argues that many potential artists “have difficulty making contact with external reality and experience this process as traumatic,” leading to difficulty “with feeling alive in the world.” “To survive, they become older versions of passively-feeding infants, maintaining a constant silent relationship with a private world Balint calls ‘imaginatively perceived phenomena.’ ” “Enid Balint Speaks,” Newsletter of the Society of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, New York, Winter 1989, p. 1.

9. D. W. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” 1960, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, New York: International Universities Press, 1965, p. 148.

10. Ibid.

11. See Bernard Brodsky, “The Self-Representation, Anality, and the Fear of Dying,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 7, Madison, Conn., 1959, pp. 95-108. Obliteration of the self-image can lead to literal self-destructiveness, as apparently has happened in Lebanon, where prolonged war has destroyed the sense of self of Muslim militiamen; see Rod Nordland, “Playing the Death Game,” Newsweek, 30 December 1985, p. 28. Another reference to living death is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s remark that “a man can cross the threshold of death before his body is lifeless.” Quoted by Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, paperback, 1975, p. 74. Erich Kahler, in The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into the Transportation of the Individual, New York: Viking, 1967, p. 151, remarks that “the most frightening aspect of our present world is not the horrors in themselves, the atrocities, the technological exterminations, but the one fact at the very root of it all: the fading away of any human criterion”—the fading away of any sense of (inner) self.

12. A number of interesting exhibitions have dealt with the imagery of death, among them “Ashes to Ashes: Visions of Death,” organized by Geno Rodriguez at the Alternative Museum, New York, in 1983; “Memento Mori: Der Tod als Thema der Kunst von Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart,” at the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, in 1984; and “Memento Mori,” organized by Richard Flood at the Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, in 1985. The many important studies of the sense of death as it is reflected in culture and philosophy include well-known works such as Phillipe Ariès’ Western Attitudes toward Death, 1974, and Jacques Choron’s Death and Modern Man, 1972. It is worth noting that the Children’s Museum in Boston, in 1984, held an exhibition about “death and loss” to teach children that “you don’t come back again” from death. The exhibition was not well-received. See “Children Learn That ‘Dying Isn’t a Vacation,’” The New York Times, 26 August 1984, p. 25.

13. See Winnicott, “The Manic Defense,” 1935, Through Paediatrics to Psycho-analysis, London: Tavistock Publications, 1958, pp. 129–44. Winnicott’s “Use of Opposites in Reassurance” section, p. 134, is particularly to the point.

14. See Robert C. Hobbes, “Motherwell’s Concern with Death in Painting: An Investigation of His Elegies to the Spanish Republic, Including an Examination of His Philosophical and Methodological Considerations,” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1975; and Donald Kuspit, “The Ars Moriendi according to Robert Morris,” The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988, pp. 375–90.

15. See Theodore Reff, “Cézanne: The Severed Head and the Skull,” Arts Magazine 58 no. 2, October 1983, pp. 84–100.

16. Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, quoted in Malcolm Haslam, The Real World of the Surrealists, New York: Rizzoli, 1978, p. 72. Carl Sagan, in Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, New York: Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 12, points out that “cannibals in northwestern New Guinea employ stacked skulls for doorposts, and sometimes for lintels. Perhaps these are the most convenient building materials available, but the architects cannot be entirely unaware of the terror that their constructions evoke in unsuspecting passersby. Skulls have been used by Hitler’s SS, Hell’s Angels, shamans, pirates, and even those who label bottles of iodine, in a conscious effort to elicit terror.” I suggest that artists who use skulls also want to do so—to intimidate the spectator—as well as to externalize their own sense of terror not only at the thought of their own deaths but of the death of their art, especially the fact that it eventually comes to represent nothing but itself, the artist being reduced to a name as hollow as a skull.

17. Winnicott, “Ego Distortion in Terms of True and False Self,” p. 152.

18. Winnicott, “The Concept of a Healthy Individual,” 1967, Home Is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst, London: Pelican Books, 1987, p. 23.