21 November 2005

Art History: Problematic situation #3

My November issue of Vogue (UK) has a lot of really interesting stuff in it, and one such thing relates to one of Art history’s many problems. They’ve published an article about photographer Diane Arbus, who committed suicide in 1971. Here’s a quote from that article.

. . . Arbus’ life and work, her reputation – all the things, in fact, that contribute to the enduring hold of the Arbus myth – are all but impossible to extricate from the fact of her suicide.
Its effect on the reception of her work was almost instantaneous. It was one of the reasons why so many people who were otherwise uninterested in photography flocked to the 1972 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And it continues to play a part in luring crowds to the far more comprehensive show of her work now at the V&A.

For more information about the exhibit click here.

So, about art history. While Arbus was alive and making pictures, she obviously wasn’t dead at her own hands. Suicide, even if she was morbidly obsessed with death, wasn’t the great punctuating mark at the end of her life because her life wasn’t over. The same is true of Van Gogh or any other artist whose suicide has become the final word about their art.. What if these suicides hadn’t been—what if they were simply (to a greater or lesser degree) nuts and died of old age? Would their works mean something else, or something less? Should we go back and re-evaluate art and rewrite history based on how an artist dies?

I don’t know if we should, and I don’t know if the author of Vogue’s article, Geoff Dyer, is right that Arbus’ legacy is inseparable from the mode of her death. This is a problem in all of history, not just art. We all respect Beethoven a bit more when we realize he went deaf. We find meaning in Hemingway’s suicide and the early deaths of musicians and actors. But prevalence doesn’t undercut the problematic nature of it for art and everything else.


joe said...

related to your thesis?

are you concerned that suicide draws interest to artists, or do you disagree that we can understand artists' work in the light of their deaths?

Mary Ann said...

Joe, it's unrelated.

I think suicide does draw interest to an artist--everyone loves a tale of torment and the psychoanalist lurking in each of us wants to see the "crazy" art.

I think I do disagree that the mode of death matters. But the broader point has to do with the way we look at history. For some reason, it matters to us today that FDR was handicapped, but it didn't matter and wasn't even known back when he was president. In terms of art, we are rewriting history when we look at an artist's work as directly influenced by how they died. What if it wasn't? What if the two were separate?

The deeper question is about the revision of history. Is it appropriate, can it be avoided, what are the ethical issues involved, etc. Hopefully, our modifications to history make it more accurate, but that isn't always a sure thing.