Compared to the culture of the East, where death is perceived as a part of the reincarnation cycle and not the end of person%uFFFDs existence in our world, the Western worldview assumes that humans have only one given life, and death puts a complete end to it. Thereby, the problem of death is one of the most relevant phenomena, which are discussed in philosophic treatises, and can be distinctly traced in art. In the 20th century, art does not simply depict death as a crucial event of life of every human being, which gives value to its existence, but a mass method of fighting the negative feelings and emotions caused by the loss of close people.
Theater is one of the forms of art in which death plays the central role. The theme of death of the main characters was especially significant for Greek tragedy, the interest in which resumed at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. T. Beaney in her work Beautiful Death claims that many philosophers of that time, such as Hegel and Holderlin brought much attention to this play (Beaney, 2009, p.1). The author believes that such particular interest of the great thinkers of that time to Antigone was caused by the major theme of this play – the death of the main female character. Antigone’s death is the theme that is discussed through the plot because it is anticipated by the viewer from the beginning. It is performed in the middle of the play, and the significance of her demise is likewise mentioned in the end. Thereby, the structure of the plot is constructed in such way that death is not simply demonstrated as a tragic resolution of the situation, but turned into a central element of the action of the play, which gives the entire story much greater significance.
Antigone is very significant for European art and culture in general because the way death is portrayed in this play has become canonical for the Western civilization. Usually, in written stories and theatrical performances, death is used to bring the sense of finality and completeness. In Antigone, death gives a concluding meaning to the life of the main character. The author explains that Antigone is allowed to give a long final dialogue before she is sent to death in which she discusses the purpose of her life and the reasons why it ends just before her marriage (Beaney, 2009, p.2). Thereby, death becomes the measure of human life and shapes the value of individual existence. Thus, the concept of death is the superior climax of human life in this play.
The other reason why philosophers gave Antigone their attention is because death in the story does not simply give meaning to the character’s life. Instead, conscious death is demonstrated as an act of the free will of an individual. For a significant period of time, the play was associated with heroic death that was not resisted but willingly accepted (Beaney, 2009, p.3). Antigone emphasizes that she chose to die on her own, thus she is not submitted to death passively by some external power, but rather she embraces it. When Antigone is sent to her tomb to starve to death, she decides to hang herself. Beaney claims that for Hegel this act was a demonstration of absolute personal autonomy (Beaney, 2009, p.3). For the philosopher, individual freedom is won only by sacrificing personal existence. Thus, Antigone’s death in the play is the demonstration of the subject’s achievement of their own independence.
Thereby, the problem of death in Antigone became strongly connected to broader problems of culture in the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. For the philosophers of that time, the play gave a new perspective to the problem of understanding of self: Antigone’s death became a symbol of personal strive for freedom and autonomous self-realization. Therefore, the tragic death in the play is perceived as a fascinating act of individual transformation, which gives completely new sense to human existence. Thus, death in Western European culture is interpreted as a powerful aesthetic phenomenon of finality, through observation, experience, and acceptance of which every person can find his own new meanings.
Moreover, death was the central topic of the majority of visual art. Starting in the period of Renaissance, the theme of death was present in religious art, which portrayed either the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or heaven and hell. Similarly, sculptures often portrayed the grief for those who died. In the 20th century, the problem of death became central in European visual art due to the tragic events of the World War I. For example, it is possible to notice the images of the destroyed conditions of the German society after WWI in the woodcuts of Kathe Kollwitz. Similarly, Pablo Picasso expressed the agony and despair of the people,= who suffered from bombings in his famous Guernica. Furthermore, Frida Kahlo created many works that discussed death. For example, her painting Thinking About Death, in which she depicted herself with a skull and cross bones above her head, demonstrates the artist’s preoccupation with the issue of death and mortality.
Distinct contemporary death-shrines in a form of artefacts, images, or rituals that are publicly visible create specific places where people can demonstrate their mourning, or give tribute to those who died. This shows that death remains an important topic that bothers people. For example, in 1995 the office building in Oklahoma was blown up by T. McVeigh who sought revenge for the previous attacks conducted by the US government. As the result, he killed 168 people, 19 of which were children in the day-care center, and more than 600 people were injured (Doss, 2002, p.66). After a few days, the ”Memory Fence”, a seven-foot steel barrier, was created around the entire city block. Many people, both locals and foreigners, came to express sympathy to those who lost their relatives and close people. Those who lost family or friends brought distinct personal belongings. This way Memory Fence has turned into a pilgrimage site, where people came to give tribute to the killed or to support the grieving.
The other example of a death-shrine can be found in Colorado. In 1999, two students started shooting at their classmates and teachers at one of the high schools in Littleton. It is believed that they started the killing spree due to constant bullying at school. As a result, 12 students and one teacher were shot. In the end, the boys committed suicide. Straight after the tragedy, the local citizens created a memorial in Clement Park near the parking lot of the school. In two weeks, thousands of people visited the shrine and left messages on scraps of paper and sympathy banners (Doss, 2002, p.68). Eventually, the shrine has grown and brought attention of a great number of reporters and media.
Such examples of visual culture that are centered around national tragedies like the Memory Fence and the shrine in Littleton have significant therapeutic effect, because they allow legitimate mourning in the public sphere. Doss emphasizes that the existence of an interconnection between grief and material culture persists, because monuments represent the human desire to capture memories or specific historic or social perspectives, to give tribute to people, and to mourn. Previously, US memorials were established to commemorate victories or heroes (Doss, 2002, p.79). However, the contemporary visual and material culture of the modern American society demonstrates that death once again becomes one of the leading concepts in art. Distinct shrines and memorials created by common people prove that death is meaningful on both personal and public levels. It is no longer a forbidden and avoided topic.
The problem of death is likewise present in musical art; the ideas of dying and resurrection are central to requiems, created both in the past and today. Many music compositions that are related to religious themes discuss the death of Christ. Composers often created music for funerals. For example, Mahler utilized funeral marches in his works, the greatest instance of which can be traced in the opening of his Symphony No.5. The problem of grief for the dead can be noted in the works of blues musicians. Similarly, certain contemporary branches of rock music, such as death metal, discuss the problems of death in their songs.
It becomes obvious that art, production of paintings and sculptures, or writing help people express and cope with their fear of death or loss. Thereby, T. Walter suggests that contemporary art can be used to help people live through painful experience of loss of close friends or relatives. For example, art therapy can help people discover new ways of exploring their disrupted self after going through difficult thoughts and feelings; Rosy Martin practiced photography to find a way to express the un-representable and to rethink her emotions after the death of her father (Walter, 2012, p.84). Similarly, if creative work were habitual to those who are either preparing to face death or recovering from loss, art might have allowed such people to strengthen and comfort themselves. Therefore, art therapy is an effective method of coping with the negative feelings and emotions that emerge due to deaths of close people.
In conclusion, the art of the 20th century offers a rather positive approach to the problem of death. Starting the end of the 19th century, death was perceived as something inevitable due to the revision of the concept of death in theatrical performances. However, it still provided value to individual lives. Similarly, modern material culture and distinct art therapies are directed at helping people cope with their feelings of loss and grief. Thereby, death stops being a private problem and becomes a public issue, which can be overcome through cooperation and mutual support.
Beaney, T. (2009). Beautiful death: The nineteenth-century fascination with Antigone. Opticon1826, 7. doi:10.5334/opt.070902
Doss, E. (2002). Death, art and memory in the public sphere: The visual and material culture of grief in contemporary America. Mortality, 7(1), 63-82. doi:10.1080/13576270120102553
Walter, T. (2012). How people who are dying or mourning engage with the arts. Music and Arts in Action, 4(1), 73-98.