In Dead Man (1995), a Native-American guide named “Nobody” confronts an accountant from Cleveland (played by Johnny Depp) about his own name. When Depp’s character affirms that, indeed, his name is “William Blake,” Nobody exclaims:
Then you are a dead man!
Each artist suffers to learn in her own way what William Blake must learn. Whether it is Anselm Kiefer making gigantic paintings in a huge studio in the south of France or a student in grad school in the Midwest sharing a refurbished office with three others, the suffering and the death is the same. A young person initially becomes an artist to live in a particular way, but he learns over time that art is really about a particular kind of death. On Friday, we’ll talk about the artist’s studio as the location of this particular kind of death.
However, this is most certainly not what we think goes on in the artist’s studio. It strikes us as fun place to be—full of freedom, creative energy, interesting ideas and exotic conversations, perhaps even a bit of loafing, coffee and a cigarette or two, and of course, smearing some paint around on scraps of canvas—all in all, a pretty delightful place to spend a work day.
But my career as a museum curator and art critic has shown me otherwise. The artist’s studio is indeed where a person goes to die—each day. This daily death, it seems to me, is absolutely necessary for an artistic life, one that can produce works of art that have life outside the studio, works that can perform their work by killing you and me.
Curators, dealers, and collectors want to call this death and the killing that works of art do something else, because it’s such a buzz kill to have gallery receptions and collector parties with a dead man or woman and to pay thousands of dollars for paintings that kill.
But in my breakout session we will follow the theologian of the cross and call a thing what it is. I’ll share my experiences with specific artists and their studio practices, exploring the unique challenges that they face by showing examples of their work, which has, in many different ways, killed them. And me.
Art won’t save us. But perhaps it can show us that in order to live we must first die (Rom. 6: 1-14).
Here’s the audio recording from the breakout session: