Saturday, October 22, 2016

Entry - 10.22.16

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry, merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
-         Leonard Cohen, Who By Fire

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 57th birthday.  It recently occurred to me that my father was the same age when he lost his brother to a tragic car crash one snowy winter’s morning.  I didn’t know my uncle very well since my father’s family had fractured somewhat as the years had passed and the needs of offspring took precedence over those of siblings.  All the same, I was affected deeply.

The hazy years of my early childhood had been dotted with a few scattered deaths of superannuated relatives whose services I had been too young to attend, though I do recall an afternoon visit to a funeral home for the wake of one of my great uncles.  Most clear in my mind is the memory of hooking up with my equally young cousins and causing a bit of a disturbance in that solemn edifice by racing through the halls, hiding behind a wall of coats on a coat rack, exploring the viewing rooms and letting out squeals of terror and laughter when confronted with a lonely corpse laid out in his coffin awaiting visitors.

I was really too young to “process” these early deaths.  For me, they meant an unpleasant car ride or an evening with a babysitter.  At that time, the universe revolved solely about me, rendering me unable to empathize with the pain and sense of loss that others were experiencing.  Such is childhood.  After these early deaths, there followed what felt like an endless span of years during which there were no wakes or funerals, when my banal existence was focused on school or sports or friends without the shade of mortality intruding on my consciousness.  In fact, death seemed such an unreal concept that I was impatient with art, literature and lyrics (particularly in the folk music I listened to at that time) that sought to remind us how fragile a thing life really is.  To me, life seemed eternal and guaranteed, and art that contradicted that perception was contrived and the product solely of artifice and convention.

Albrecht Durer - Death and the Landsknecht- 1516

“My name is Death, cannot you see?
Lords, dukes and ladies bow down to me
And you are one of those branches three
And you, fair maid, and you, fair maid,
And you, fair maid, must come with me.”

“I’ll give you gold and jewels rare,
I’ll give you costly robes to wear,
I’ll give you all my wealth in store
If you’ll let me live, if you’ll let me live,
If you’ll let me live a few years more.”

“Fair lady, lay your robes aside.
No longer glory in your pride.
And now, sweet maid, make no delay.
Your time is come, your time is come,
Your time is come and you must away.”

                                        -Traditional Folk Song

Sebald Beham - O, Die Stund ist aus - 1548
So when my uncle died so suddenly in a senseless accident, the event had a profound impact on me – sort of like the result of dropping a stone in a placid pond.  Being in my last year of high school, I was now fully capable of appreciating the gravity of the event and could empathize with the suffering his family was experiencing.  Especially difficult for me to process was that my uncle’s children were of similar ages to those in my own family, his two youngest daughters being my juniors by a year or two.  In a flash, “death”, that unreal concept, had become a tangible reality for me.

After the wake, funeral and burial, my family stopped by my uncle’s house to share a meal with his family before returning to our home.  The place was filled to the rafters with aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, neighbors and business acquaintances, and I felt lucky to have found a free chair in their TV room upon which to sit while I balanced a plate of food precariously on my knees and ate an uncomfortable meal.  Among the folk that had sought refuge in this little annex was my father’s older brother who was nearly identical to my father in appearance but night and day as far as their personalities went, my uncle being somewhat of a gregarious joker while my father was serious and quiet.  While I watched two agitated Irish setters bounding in and out of the room, my uncle stopped eating a moment, looked up at his companions sharing the room and declared with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, “Well, that’s the first of us to go!”, referring to the seven original siblings in my father’s family and seeming to suggest that now that the floodgates were open the remaining siblings would fall like a line of dominoes.  His observation shocked me for being flippant and, while uncontestably factual, in spirit quite alarmist.  No one was going anywhere.  This death was an unforeseen blip on an otherwise clear radar screen.  Or, at least, so I thought.

I came into this world with a surfeit of aunts and uncles, there being seventeen in all, both by blood and by marriage.  At the time of my uncle’s declaration, I thought of my parents’ generation of relatives as rock solid, bound to be around for eons to come.  Within a decade, half of them were gone, taken by a host of ailments: heart disease, cancer, diabetes… the usual.  During that ten year span, I also lost my own father, an event that seemed ridiculously early and particularly avoidable.  So Death, that elusive and remote figure, became a regular companion of mine.  Health updates became common fare at family gatherings.  Someone was almost always going into or coming out of the hospital.  And there were those phone calls in the middle of the night informing our household of the latest passing.  I became indoctrinated in the culture of death, attending many a wake, funeral and burial.

And how did I change over the period?  Well. I can’t say that I became grim or morose, dwelling on the mortality of man throughout my average day.  I was young, and, at that stage of life, troubles have a fleeting impact.  Some deaths were harder to endure than others, but, for the most part, college then grad school, girlfriends and employment were my most pressing concerns during those years.  But, inevitably, my perception of the human condition had to shift.  My childhood belief in the reliability and constancy of the folk who populated my world gave way to the recognition that our little sitcom was performed by an ever changing cast of actors.  A dip in ratings or some mischief on the set could result in the exit of even central characters.  And, worse than that, it was entirely conceivable that the plug could be pulled on our show altogether.  That was my new reality.  In truth, I guess I should feel fairly privileged that I was able to maintain my childhood illusions for so long.

Prior generations were not so lucky.  Before the advent of modern medical and sanitation practices and the development of vaccines and antibiotics, there was a vast array of serious maladies thriving that could rapidly take the life of even a healthy, robust individual.  Cholera, typhus, typhoid fever and influenza epidemics routinely broke out in isolated pockets or swept across entire continents. From the 14th to the 17th century, plague outbreaks were regular occurrences in most European nations.  Tuberculosis, a potentially deadly, infectious, bacterial disease of the lungs, was particularly prevalent in the nineteenth century.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543) created a series of woodcuts on the theme of The Dance of Death which presented a selection of scenarios in which “Death” stole away healthy and active individuals from their loving families or in the midst of performing a critical role in the extant social structure.  In the series, the victims display no outward manifestation of illness and appear surprised and distressed to be escorted away by the skeletal figure of Death.  The purpose of the series seems to be religious.  Rather than explore the realities of dying, Holbein chooses to remind his audience that death could come at any moment, regardless of age or social status, and the time to repent is nigh.  In one print, a duke turns away in distaste from a beggar woman and her child unaware that Death is already laying his boney hands upon him, and, in another, a judge accepts a bribe from a litigant while Death removes the staff of office from his grasp.  Clearly, Holbein lived in an age when death struck indiscriminately and often.  Under the circumstances, the artist felt compelled to remind his audience of their moral obligations, the fulfillment of which would determine their circumstances in a promised afterlife.

Hans Holbein - Death Taking a Child - c1538

Hans Holbein - The Duke - c1538

Hans Holbein - The Judge - c1538
While Holbein explores death within allegory to instruct his audience, for Edvard Munch (1863-1944) death was personal.  His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old, one of his sisters succumbing to the same disease nine years later at the age of fifteen.  His only brother died of pneumonia at the age of thirty.  This series of deaths experienced throughout his youth had a profound impact on Munch and colored his understanding of life.  Early in his career, he sought to capture the suffering and despair experienced not by the dying but by those who remain to live with the loss.  In these works, Munch pares down detail to absolute essentials: a glass of water at a bedside, the thinned and matted hair stretched across the brow of a sick girl, exaggerated floorboards spanning a barren room, a sickbed, a coffin.  Eventually, the dead or dying individual becomes a secondary character positioned inconspicuously within the image or hidden altogether.  We are invited to empathize with the survivors who are represented not as individuals but as emblems of the various responses to death.  As a whole, these images do not delve into the artist’s particular experience but seek to transcend them to arrive at the universal.  All the same, these images are extremely moving, informing us of an artistic outlook defined by a prolonged exposure to illness and death.

Edvard Munch - The Sick Child - 1896

Edvard Munch - Death in the Sickroom - 1895

Edvard Munch - By the Deathbed - 1895
Like Munch, Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) chooses to explore the experience of death through the eyes of mourners.  She too suffered the loss of siblings during her early youth.  Surely the most devastating loss she was to withstand was the death of her son, Peter, at the age of eighteen in the opening battles of World War I in 1914, an event that sent her into deep depression and transformed her into a committed pacifist.  Her work often documents the impact that an untimely death effects on family members and comrades.

Kathe Kollwitz - Woman with Dead Child - 1903

Kathe Kollwitz - Memorial for Karl Liebknecht - 1921
Surely the most commonly portrayed death in European art is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the philosopher/activist who was put to death, as have many before and since, for preaching love and peace.  Often artists in depicting the dying have sought to reassure their audience that dying can be a gentle passing into the afterlife.

Carl Bloch - The Crucifixion - 1869
This is usually not the case with the crucifixion of Jesus.  Central to Christian thinking is the concept that Jesus suffered humiliation, torture and a horrific death to expiate the sins of the faithful, thereby opening the doors of heaven to them.  By exposing powerfully the full extent of his sufferings, artists were reminding the people of the burden of debt which they owed to Jesus and exhorted them to ignore their own penances as they committed themselves fully to leading Christian lives.  Particularly, in Northern Europe at the time of the Renaissance, artists took a strange delight in documenting the agonizing death that Jesus suffered.

Jan van Eyck - The Crucifixion - c1440
Matthias Grunewald - The Crucixion - 1515
The Dead Christ by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) provides a unique consideration of the subject of the death of Jesus.  The viewer is presented with the image of Jesus’s corpse laid out upon a slab.  The stigmata inflicted during his crucifixion are clearly documented, and, besides the bier, two women draped in shawls kneel in prayer.  But in many ways, this image is very impersonal.  In fact, if not identified by its title, this painting could be of anyone.  Furthermore, this image is primarily an unemotional exploration of what were then radical theories of perspective.  Unencumbered by pathos or a desire to proselytize, Mantegna selects the theme of the dead Christ as a convenient foil by which to explore technical developments in how three dimensional space is represented on a flat surface.  Looking at this work, I feel little empathy with the individual portrayed; instead I become absorbed with the visual distortions imposed by the artist’s choice of an unusual vantage point, noting inevitably what he got right and what he didn’t quite pull off.

Andrea Mantegna - The Dead Christ - c1480
While we are addressing religious themes, I think taking a look at Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Dying Slave might be in order.  In many ways, this work is as unusual as that of Mantegna.  But while Mantegna chooses to take a scientific approach to a subject matter that clearly presupposes a strong religious construction, Michelangelo’s faith determines his execution of Dying Slave, a theme not readily associated with a religious context.  A first look at this sculpture suggests to the viewer anything but a dying slave.  A few silken bands encircling the figure’s chest are the sole attribute that would identify this individual as a slave, and nothing in his facial expression or overall pose would suggest that he is in the throes of death – usually an exhausting and agonizing ordeal.  In truth, the Dying Slave appears to be experiencing a kind of orgasmic ecstasy, which seems totally at odds with the theme of the work.  Only after consideration does the viewer realize that the slave is slipping the bonds of servitude and suffering to enter another dimension free from earthly concerns.  And, as such, the sculpture serves as a metaphor for the faithful, documenting the moment when an individual is released from the pains and cares of daily existence and enters the realm of heaven.

Michelangelo - Dying Slave - 1513 to 16
Other artists were able to find heroism in death.  Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) depicts Socrates about to drink a cup of hemlock, a sentence he chose over the disgrace of exile.  Socrates, undaunted by his fate, continues to philosophize to his followers who are not nearly as unemotional about his imminent death.  Perhaps David, recognizing the Revolution’s propensity to execute its most ardent supporters, was exhorting its leaders to continue to work tirelessly and stay focused on the goal of creating a just and egalitarian society, in spite of the high personal risk assumed by them.

Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Socrates - 1787
Throughout history, War has provided most consistently the opportunity for an individual to die a heroic death.  Well, maybe I should say that War provided artists the opportunity to depict a heroic death.  No one can be sure exactly what really transpired in the chaos and mayhem of any battlefield, but a heroic death, especially one suffered by a commander, presented a great vehicle for inspiring patriotic zeal and served as a great recruitment tool.

Horace Vernet - La Bataille du Pont d'Arcole - 1826

John Singleton Copley - The Death of Major Pierson - 1784

John Trumbull - The Death of General Montgomery at the Attack on Quebec - 1786

John Trumbull - The Death of General Warren at Bunker's Hill - 1815 to 31
With the development of modern warfare, the battlefield experience changed.  The slaughter of ever larger numbers of combatants became possible.  Death became indiscriminate and impersonal.  The demands of rapid deployments meant that the dead and wounded were often left on the battlefield for days before being attended to.  Mathew Brady (1822-96) was one of the first photographers to document the aftermath of modern conflict, and his raw and unflinching photographs of the American Civil War dead changed the way that civilians on the homefront viewed the war.  At the war’s start, Brady’s New York photography studio was doing very well as soldiers sought to secure ambrotype or albumen portrait prints of themselves before leaving their homes and families for the front.  But Brady decided that he wanted to document the war itself and hired 23 assistants to work in the field, each of them equipped with a traveling darkroom.  The slow speed of exposure required for these early photographs made recording active battles nearly impossible, but the aftermath of these battles became ideal subjects.  So a large number of the over 10,000 plates used to record the war were devoted to documenting the war dead in the field.  These deaths were not presented in a heroic or idealized manner.  The dead were recorded where they had fallen, their corpses often contorted in agony, their flesh bloated from decomposition.  Endless rows of bodies were stacked side-by-side in open fields awaiting processing and burial.  Probably for the first time ever, the public was introduced to the unfiltered realities of death in the field, and these realities were exceedingly gruesome.  Brady even held an exhibition in his New York gallery of The Dead of Antietam, devoted solely to photographs of the casualties of that Civil War battle.

Mathew Brady - Fredericksburg - 1863

Mathew Brady - Gettysburg - 1863
Brady anticipated eventually selling his plates to the US government, but, once the war was over, interest in his stark images waned as the nation preferred to leave the painful memory of the war behind.  Brady lost his studio, went into bankruptcy and ultimately died in the charity ward of Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

During Germany’s Weimar Republic, a period of liberal reform following the collapse of the government after World War I, artists enjoyed greater freedom than ever before.  A new movement called Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity flourished in the post war years, with artists documenting the atrocities they had often experienced firsthand in the field and condemning the social institutions that had supported and profited by the conflict.  George Grosz (1893-1959) and Otto Dix (1891-1969) depicted the war dead in a manner never permitted before.  The stagnant fronts of trench warfare resulted in the establishment of a no man’s land between enemy lines, a few hundred yards of barren ground too dangerous to intrude upon without great risk to life.  The bodies of soldiers killed in past assaults on enemy lines were necessarily abandoned where they had fallen and would decompose with time.  Using exaggeration and caustic wit, Grosz and Dix exposed to the public the horrible wounds, ignoble deaths and eventual deterioration of World War I’s combatants in a manner that would be difficult to tolerate in most of today’s liberal, democratic societies.  Such truths are too ugly to stomach and deny the public the comfortable illusion of noble sacrifice in war.

George Grosz - Freedom - 1936

Otto Dix - Dead Man - 1924

Otto Dix - Dead Man in the Mud - 1924

Otto Dix - Dead Sentry - 1924

Otto Dix - Skull - 1924
Recording the features of the dead is not a new interest.  Even in Ancient Rome, a wax death mask was made of the face of the recently dead and was worn by a participant during death rites.  During their Coptic period, Egyptians attached naturalistic portraits painted on wooden panels to the mummies of the dead.  Throughout the centuries plaster masks were made of famous and powerful individuals at their deaths.  They were also used to document the facial features of unidentified corpses before decomposition made recognition impossible.  Making these masks was an involved process, requiring some preparation of the deceased and multiple applications of plaster.  Often the corpse was positioned with head upright during the procedure.  Even after the development of photography, this tradition continued.  Why?  Clearly the death mask doesn’t capture a “true” likeness of an individual.  Often features are distorted by wasting, settlement and other physical changes occurring with death, and, unanimated by the spark of life, even those features accurately recorded seem artificial and vaguely unhuman.  On the other hand, I guess the death mask provided a precise, dispassionate perspective of the deceased, documenting in real proportion his or her features: the length of the nose, the width of the forehead, the pockmarks left from a childhood ailment, a scar testifying to a careless fall years ago, the lines of age incised sharply about the eyes and mouth.  At the most elemental level, death masks attest to the futile desire of the living to hold onto the intangible, the ephemeral and the fleeting and to deny the finiteness of human existence.

Egon Schiele

Ludwig van Beethoven

Napoleon Bonaparte

William Blake
Damien Hirst (b1965), a British artist who throughout his career has garnered great attention presenting work overtly ghastly and macabre, created a unique work of art in 2007, For the Love of God, which addresses the theme of human mortality.  From a London taxidermist he purchased a human skull, which was later determined to have come from a man who died at about 35 years of age in the 18th century.  Hirst made a cast of the skull in platinum which he encrusted with jewels including 8601 flawless diamonds.  The teeth from the original skull were inserted in the jaw of the platinum cast.  The resulting artwork is a strange anomaly.  Hirst has violated societal norms in his handling of these human remains, creating an object that the squeamish might as a rule avoid.  As a reminder of human mortality, it might, like Holbein’s woodcuts, serve to warn us that we should make good use of the time we’re allotted to strive for elevated goals, to seek achievements of real significance, to assist and ease the suffering of our fellow man, except that this skull is comprised of jewels and precious metals, which render it a ridiculous bauble, a decorative piece meant to be admired and coveted.  For Hirst, Death has become a commodity which can be packaged and marketed to the public; in fact, this work supposedly sold for £50 million almost immediately upon completion.

Damien Hirst - For the Love of God - 2007
There are some artists who have attempted to explore death with a cool inquisitiveness devoid of a social or religious agenda.  Theodore Gericault (1791-1824), the same artist who painted unemotionally a series of portraits of the insane, chose in 1818 to document the severed heads of executed prisoners.  Once guillotined, the heads were unceremoniously piled together waiting to be collected and discarded.  Gericault captures the clean incision left by the rapidly descending blade, the gray-green pallor of each face, the final expression frozen on the features of these individuals at the moment of death.  Gericault offers his viewers a detached glimpse at the moment of death, the split second when the thread of life is severed.

Theodore Gericault - Heads of the Executed - 1818
 Gericault himself was to die in 1824, just a few years after painting Heads of the Executed.  He was only 32 years old and endured a long and painful death after suffering injuries from a riding accident further complicated from the effects of untreated tuberculosis.  Ironically enough, his death was memorialized by his friend and fellow artist, Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), who portrayed the event with unreserved Romantic excess.

Ary Scheffer - The Death of Gericault - 1824
The Impressionists applied scientific principles concerning color theory and optics within their work.  In many ways, they chose to observe their subjects dispassionately, making their works studies in light and atmosphere.  Among the Impressionists, Claude Monet (1840-1926) is certainly the artist who maintained most consistently throughout his career the tenets of the movement, striving diligently to record nature as it truly is perceived rather than intellectually or technically conceived.  When his wife lay dying in 1879, Monet naturally determined to record her image on her deathbed.  The resulting painting does not painstakingly record the symptoms of wasting and deterioration in his wife; instead, his interest is drawn to the play of light on her body, the obfuscation effected by the lace veil draped over her form and how the mass of flowers laid upon her chest becomes visually enmeshed with the lace of her gown and veil.  If the painting’s title didn’t inform us otherwise, Madame Monet could easily be taking an afternoon nap under mosquito netting.  This painting reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of the Impressionist approach: the interest in light, broken brushwork, color and atmosphere is applied regardless of subject matter, but there follows an inevitable loss of context and a prettiness inappropriate to the gravitas of the situation.

Claude Monet - Camille Monet on her Deathbed - 1879
In a particularly moving photograph, Sally Mann (b1951) records an image of her father being treated for brain cancer in a hospital bed, her two children perched on the edge of the bed staring sullenly into the camera.  While the children are in focus and properly lit, her father is bathed in harsh light, his hand grasping the bedrail, his face turned to the viewer.  His features are distorted and eradicated in the strong light, suggesting that he is already slipping into another dimension, his hand on the rail a last desperate hold on life.  The impossibility of finding an exposure that will permit the camera to accurately record both the children and her father declares that the void between the living and the dying is too wide to breach, that all the empathy and concern that survivors can muster will never allow them to comprehend the awful moment when consciousness ebbs from another being.

Sally Mann - He is very sick - 1986
Perhaps some of the most poignant works on the theme of death that I know of are the series of studies executed by Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) of his mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel, as she lay dying of cancer.  Hodler produced over 70 sketches, gouaches and oil paintings documenting Godé-Darel’s decline between February 1914 and January 1915.  It’s impossible to know exactly what Hodler’s motives were in recording these intimate moments.  Hodler, who in his later years primarily painted landscape on location, must have made the decision to spend as much time as possible in the sickroom tending to the needs of his companion and found the need to keep busy during the tedium of his vigil.  But surely a pact had to be made between the living and the dying permitting this intrusion, this unique dissection of the process of dying.  Early on, communication is still possible with Godé-Darel eyeing the artist imploringly from her bed.  Eventually, her wasted form no longer shares the same dimension as the artist; her eyes no longer take in her surroundings, her lips no longer speak but fall agape drawing in laboriously another breath.  But even as the artist documents Godé-Darel’s decline with almost scientific detachment, somehow Hodler’s commitment to this woman and his terrible grief at losing her predominate these images.

Ferdinand Hodler - Madame Valentine Gode-Darel Ill - 1914

Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel Sick - 1914

Ferdinand Hodler - Valentine Gode-Darel in Hospital Bed - 1914

Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel - 1915

Ferdinand Hodler - Portrait of Valentine Gode-Darel Dying - 1915

Ferdinand Hodler - Die Tote Valentine Gode-Darel am 26 Januar 1915 - 1915
It is only to be expected that artists present varying perspectives on death.  After all, it’s really all speculation.  I mean if one is making artwork about death, then it goes without saying that one has yet to experience it.  For many of the artists surveyed here, the theme of death is used as a tool to propound a sense of morality and civic duty, to proselytize a faith, to further a political agenda or instill nationalism in their audience.  Conversely, other artists have asked us to consider objectively the price to be paid for unrestrainedly embracing the rhetoric of political extremism and militarism.  My favorite works out of this selection are those that document the experience of death on a personal level, that permit a discomfiting glimpse into the intimate and disagreeable realities of dying, that allow us to witness through the eyes of the mourner the aftermath of loss.

Dover Stone Church
A week ago my youngest son and I went hiking at the Dover Stone Church, the site not of a church at all but a cave formed during the glacial retreat at the end of the ice age.  The cave, though shallow in depth, is lofty in height and is graced with a waterfall whose pattering notes fill its dark interior.  Maybe it was because this is the spot where the Pequot grand sachem, Sassacus, fled to after his defeat by the British, only to be executed by the Mohawks.  Maybe it was because my lower back was killing me that morning, making every step a penance and reminding me that the passing years were taking their toll on me. Or maybe it was just the autumn season when minds naturally turn to endings.  Whatever the reason, we fell into a discussion about death.  We both agreed that death is simply the end of consciousness and, as such, offers an end to pain, suffering, desire, responsibility, regret, boredom, shame… honestly, I could go on forever.  We also agreed that death should not be feared at all, a concept easier to embrace at the age of 15 than 57.  As we hiked, we came across a sign warning of the presence of bears and timber rattlesnakes in the park, and my son became a little anxious, seeing a bear behind every tree and checking out the dark crevices between rocks along the way for snakes.  He practically jumped out of his socks when he nearly trod upon a slithering garter snake sunning himself on a rock in our path.  Apparently, he wasn’t ready to move on to the sweet hereafter just yet.  And there lies the perplexing contradiction inherent in most people’s attitude concerning death: intellectually, we can abide with death while, emotionally, we cling tenaciously to life.

As always, I encourage all to comment here, but if you prefer to do so privately, you can write to me at:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Entry - 7.23.16

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Sumpf - 2005

I came across the image above on a site that indiscriminately presents art, fine and commercial, in all media by artists both professional and amateur.  I really like the democratic nature of the site.  It forces the viewer to evaluate artwork without any background information or preconceived notions.  If you like a work, you can simply put it in your “stack” for future reexamination or reference.  So I put the image above by Sebastian Meschenmoser into my stack and, from time to time, would see it there.  I’d never heard of Meschenmoser before, but the image intrigued me.  It pictures a stocky toddler in lederhosen and Tyrolean hat wading through a swamp.  In spite of the potential for disaster inherent in the situation, the moment caught by the artist seems calm and peaceful.  I think it was this strange duality, the contradiction between situation and mood, that brought me back to this image again and again.  This contradiction captures quintessentially the innocence of childhood which is characterized by a vulnerability unrecognized.

Being intrigued by this image, I eventually made the inevitable search on the internet and found many other images by this artist, most of which were based in fantasy and often presented violent and extreme situations.  Animals behaving like humans are commonly included in these images – as comrades of humans or battling against them or dispensing justice to them.  I liked his paintings.  I found them engaging and disturbing.

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Abgrund - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Baeren - 2006

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Diorama - 2009

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Eastern Lynch Party - 2012

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Still - 2013

Sebastian Meschenmoser - Wanderer - 2013

Digging a little deeper, I was surprised to find that Meschenmoser is an author and illustrator of children’s books; I was also somewhat pleased.  These works would be considered completely inappropriate for a younger audience here in America – by the way, Meschenmoser is a 36 year old German born in Frankfurt am Main.  I think that too often we Americans underestimate a child’s ability to process powerful, emotionally dense material, the exact kind of material that stimulates associations and sparks a rich fantasy life.  We filter and sanitize the art and literature that our children are permitted to experience, which, I believe, ultimately hampers creativity and originality.  Now I must admit that I was unable to gather a lot of information about Meschenmoser; he may have a very compartmentalized dual career as both a children’s book illustrator and a fine artist presenting work to an adult audience.  But, at a minimum, if his output is so diverse in content, it certainly can initiate a discussion concerning what material society deems appropriate for consumption by children.

Long ago, when just a teenager, I joined a friend in our Long Island neighborhood to celebrate New Year’s Eve and to babysit his younger sister, a child of about six or seven.  After my friend had performed on his guitar for a while and we had played a great number of ping pong games in the basement, the hour was approaching when it was determined that my friend’s sister should go to bed.   More for our amusement than hers, we decided to read her some bedtime stories and after some searching found stashed on a bookshelf a collection of children’s stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the nineteenth century Danish author.  I was only familiar with Andersen from the Hollywood movie starring Danny Kaye and believed him to be a sweet, gentle soul who wrote cute stories about the Ugly Duckling and Thumbelina.  My friend and I took turns reading stories, which we selected arbitrarily by thumbing through the thick tome.  Imagine our surprise and delight when we discovered that one story after another was filled with bizarre happenings, injustices, masochism, violence, maimings and death – all presented, of course, within a moralistic framework.  We particularly loved “The Red Shoes”, a story in which a young girl covets a showy pair of expensive red shoes which she, inappropriately, desires to wear to church.  Unfortunately for her, her pride is not overlooked by god.  Her feet, imprisoned in the offending shoes, begin dancing of their own accord and refuse to stop, carrying her over the landscape, from town to town, until the girl is utterly exhausted.  Since she is unable to remove the diabolical shoes, she decides to have a sympathetic woodsman chop off her feet.  But even then her penance is deemed insufficient; the amputated feet in the red shoes continue to dance, following the fleeing child, forever haunting her.  As we read these strange stories, our enthusiasm swelled and soon we were roaring with laughter, tears of joy literally streaming down our faces.  My friend’s sister was amused more by our hilarity than the stories.  But she was far from terrified by our readings and went to bed when requested to do so quite unperturbed by the evening’s entertainments.  Though I am certain that Andersen intended his stories to be edifying rather than humorously macabre, I am equally certain that he didn’t believe it odd or inappropriate to address eerie, sad and violent themes in his stories intended for children.

Another nineteenth century children’s book author, the German Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann, really had no intention of ever being published.  Frustrated by the dearth of good children’s books available for purchase one Christmas, he determined that he would write and illustrate a series of cautionary tales for his three year old son.  Delighted by the ten rhymed stories that Hoffmann created, his friends urged him to have them published, which he did anonymously in 1845.  The stories, mostly about children, tell of the exaggerated consequences, often ruinous and grotesque, that result from mildly bad behaviors.  For instance, a boy, who never watches where he’s going, falls into a river and nearly drowns, and a girl, who plays with matches, lights herself on fire and burns to death.  My youngest son and I became aware of Hoffmann’s work during a random internet search.  We came across an animated video of “The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb” and were delighted, my son laughing gleefully at the absurd and macabre storyline.

Link to Little Suck-A-Thumb video:

I am sure that many people would object that these stories are not suitable for children, but I think they would be underestimating the natural intelligence of children.  The real fun of the stories is to see revealed the absurdly horrible consequences of fairly benign bad behaviors.  The more extreme the punishment, the funnier the story.  Of course, these stories are satirizing the predisposition of parents to attempt to modify their children’s behavior by forewarning of the undesirable ramifications of continuing to engage in said behavior.  “Don’t do that or you’ll put your eye out!” or “Keep making that face and it will get stuck that way!”  Ultimately, these unusual stories are poking fun at adults and do not seriously seek to provide edifying lessons for young children – only to entertain them.  Obviously, Hoffman did not want to terrify his three year old son.  It would be sheer folly for a sleep deprived, working parent to foster nightmares in a young child, but clearly the good doctor recognized that children could differentiate between real and fantastic activity.  I guess many others recognized this also for, when published under the title Struwwelpeter, these stories became popular throughout Europe and were printed in numerous editions.

Taking a look back at most classic children’s literature created prior to the twentieth century, I find that many of the most beloved stories were populated by sinister, terrifying characters and presented eerie, frightening and often gory storylines.  Having evolved organically within a folk culture, most fairy tales, but those of the Brothers Grimm in particular, reflect the subconscious fears, aspirations and associations of the members of the communities in which they developed and function without regard of any standards of what is appropriate for children.  The cycles of Arthurian romances and Robin Hood stories, ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, all traditional staples of a child’s library, contain many adult and violent themes.  Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan all contain underlying contexts addressing sexual themes approached from an adult’s perspective.  In the twentieth century, Roald Dahl is probably the premier children’s author, yet his books are rife with strange, unsettling and gory occurrences.   The cartoons I grew up watching (Looney Tunes, Tom and Jerry and Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse) were often incredibly violent.

Now I’m not promoting a steady diet of violent and frightening reading and viewing material for our children.  When still a kid, I sometimes thought that the persistent presentation of violent subject matter in the cartoons I watched was somewhat over the top – really a bit sick.  But, even at a young age, I was able to process the material and empathized with the characters on the receiving end of all that hilarious violence.  My point is that children can process difficult and unsettling material.  Not only can they tolerate it but, as I stated earlier, may find it essential to establishing a rich and satisfying fantasy life, a key component to the initiation of creative thought.  It seems that these days we’ve reinvented children’s literature and animated movies, diluting or avoiding completely scenes of horror and violence, seeking a mildly pleasing pablum of positivity and edifying material easily digestible but lacking much flavor.

For instance, though Disney used Hans Christian Andersen’s story as the inspiration for The Little Mermaid, the studio changed the ending dramatically.  In Andersen’s tale, a mermaid, seeking to secure the love of a handsome prince, takes on human form at great cost to herself.  When the prince chooses to marry a princess from another kingdom, the mermaid has the opportunity to return to her true form if she will kill the prince.  The mermaid actually intends to fulfill this obligation but at the last moment cannot act.  Brokenhearted she leaps into the sea, dissolves into seafoam and is transformed into an earthbound spirit, thereby receiving a spiritual reward for her compassion and commitment.  Disney revamped the story completely, making teenage rebelliousness the central theme of their animated movie.  Ariel, the mermaid, feeling stifled by the restrictions imposed by her overprotective father, surreptitiously takes risks, exploring forbidden realms, and, during one of her forays, saves Prince Eric from drowning, instantly falling in love with him.  I won’t go through the whole plot, but you can rest assured that Ariel never considers killing the prince in this version, the story ending happily with the newly married Ariel and Eric sailing away on a ship together.  The movie version, stripped of the tension, excess and religious underpinnings of Andersen’s tale, now serves a dual purpose, cautioning parents not to be unreasonably restrictive with their charges and warning children not to push the envelope too far.

Clearly, the contemporary model for media marketed to children does not permit the excess and edginess that was par for the course just a generation of two ago.  No longer do writers and artists seek to intrigue, thrill, excite or, heaven forbid, frighten their audience.  Today the goal is to edify, to present a prepackaged, mundane truism for ready consumption by our youth.  So the plots of children’s books and movies will usually revolve around a central lesson like: “Girls can do things too!” or “We should protect the environment!” or “Racism is bad!” or “It’s okay to be different!”  All admirable concepts, but I can’t help wondering a few things.  If a child hasn’t been brought up to embrace these elemental ideals, is a Disney movie really going to make a difference?  And after being bombarded over and over with the same enriching messages, are our children feeling bored, numb and a bit manipulated at this point?  Finally, I can’t help but wonder if any of this material will stand the test of time.  One or two hundred years from now, will anyone be interested in this stuff?

These changes in children’s media shouldn’t really surprise us.  We as adults are undergoing regular indoctrination in our daily lives.  For instance, at my office, all workers must undergo regular training on a number of topics often addressing professionalism and personal behavior.  A decade ago, we might have received training on a pertinent topic every two or three years.  Today, annually, we are enrolled in an ever expanding array of online courses which focus on a wide variety of topics including, among others: ethics, workplace violence, reasonable accommodation, equal opportunity employment and sexual harassment.  On a fairly restrictive schedule, we take the same courses every year while trying to meet the demands of our jobs.  I sometimes feel like I’ve been banished to a Maoist reeducation camp.  It’s pretty clear that management believes that with repetitive positive tutelage it’s possible to effect major changes in the attitudes and behaviors of the workers.  We Americans are bombarded continuously with a wide range of material intended to make us better people; commonly, news programs, advertisements, television shows, movies, social media, the courts and our jobs push an agenda intended to shape us into ideal humans – never mind that the definition of “ideal human” changes every fifteen minutes.

America has become a nation of thin-skinned milquetoasts poised to succumb to the vapors at the slightest offensive gesture or ill-chosen expression.  Under the banner of “Political Correctness”, an army of avengers fight the good fight, vanquishing all those who stand in the way of the establishment of their Utopian society.  A momentary lapse in judgement, a drunken comment or a poorly conceived joke can easily result in public condemnation, social ostracism, loss of employment and loss of community.  A career, indeed a life, can be defined by a slip of the tongue, the choice of the wrong word.

And I’m not so naïve as to believe that these slip-ups, faux pas and missteps do not result from deep-seated, long established opinions, convictions and prejudices.  Often they do.  But isn’t it better to permit people to air their opinions, to encourage an honest and open dialogue on the issues most pertinent to our continued survival and well-being, than to shut down discussion and vilify those who disagree with our sacred truisms?  Do we really want to live in a gray society in which everyone says the same thing, in which everyone holds the same beliefs true?

I am currently rereading The Joke by contemporary author Milan Kundera.  In this novel, Kundera, who matured in the heady postwar period as Czechoslovakia embraced Communism, presents a protagonist (Ludvik) who, made jealous by his girlfriend’s effusive communication about participation in a distant Party training session, writes a sarcastic postcard to her, critical of optimism and a healthy atmosphere.  He tosses in the phrase “Long live Trotsky!” just to shock her, even though he has no idea what the then disgraced revolutionary stood for.  Ludvik, a committed and loyal Party member, writes the postcard as a joke – but also recognizes that he intends to zing his girlfriend for innocently expressing enthusiasm at being separated from him.  Unfortunately, the postcard is intercepted, and he is summoned to District Party Headquarters to explain himself.

And what do you think of optimism? they asked. Optimism? I asked. Why, nothing special.  Do you consider yourself an optimist? they went on.  I do, I said uneasily.  I like a good time, a good laugh, I said, trying to lighten the tone of the interrogation.  A nihilist likes a good laugh, said one of them.  He laughs at people who suffer.  A cynic likes a good laugh, he went on.  Do you think socialism can be built without optimism? asked another of them.  No, I said.  Then you’re opposed to our building socialism, said the third… And you are a Trotskyite.  For heaven’s sake, whatever gave you that idea? I protested.  Did you write it or did you not?  I may have written something of the kind as a joke, but that was two months ago, I don’t remember.  We’ll be glad to refresh your memory, they said, and read me my postcard aloud: Optimism is the opium of the people!  A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!  Ludvik.  The words sounded so terrifying in the small Party Headquarters office that they frightened me out of my wits.  I realized they had a destructive force I was powerless to counter,  But, Comrades, it was meant to be funny, I said, knowing they couldn’t possibly believe me.  Do you feel like laughing? one of the Comrades asked the other two.  Both shook their heads.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

At first, he expects his fellow Party members to understand his intentions and believes the whole storm will simply blow over but later is forced to see things differently.

Slowly I came to realize that there was no power capable of changing the image of my person lodged in the supreme court of human destinies, that the image in question (even though it bore no resemblance to me) was much more real than my actual self: that I was its shadow and not the other way around; that I had no right to accuse it of bearing no resemblance to me, because I bore the guilt for the lack of resemblance; that the lack of resemblance was my cross, to bear on my own.
-          Milan Kundera, The Joke

Ultimately, he is expulsed from the Party and is forced to leave the university he attends, thereby losing his right to defer military service.  He is assigned to a penal battalion and, as a result of an infraction, serves some prison time.  Meaningful employment becomes an impossibility.  His previous involvement in an artistic ensemble is severed, as well as all ties to the community in which he matured.

Of course, we would feel justified in condemning how the protagonist is treated as resulting from the misguided intentions of a totalitarian, Communist regime that prioritizes the welfare of the collective ahead of that of the individual.  But we must recognize that the Party saw itself as a vehicle in creating a better society, and, to accomplish this goal, the way that people thought and functioned had to change.  Evidence of “bad” thinking had to be addressed or society would slip back into its old comfortable and abusive patterns.  I don’t feel that the Communists of postwar Czechoslovakia were any less idealistic or well-meaning than America’s social crusaders of today.  They both share the same goal: to make positive change in their societies.  The tools for accomplishing this goal are also the same both then and now: 1) consistently use all forms of media available to disseminate your message and 2) ensure that any violator of your code of ethics is punished quickly and severely.  In America today, social media is the primary tool used to assert a new enlightened morality on the population; it’s the fear of public embarrassment and the potential loss of revenue that drives individuals and businesses to act swiftly to atone for even minor indiscretions.  The pattern is predictable.  A statement is issued or press conference is held in which full culpability is assumed by the offender(s), a sincere apology is tendered and punishment is meted out (whether that means resignation from position, loss of endorsements or exile from a social or power structure is determined by the specific circumstances).  There is usually no investigation, hearing or trial.  Intense media pressure assures that justice will be meted out swiftly.

I’m not sure what the answer is.  I do want to see positive social change made in our society, but I’m also dismayed to witness the erosion of one of our central freedoms: the right of free speech.  Of late, I’ve been reading a lot of American history, particularly focused on the period of the Revolution, and I believe that the Founding Fathers would be troubled by our willingness to accept ever-tightening restrictions on a freedom that they saw as essential to the balanced functioning of a democracy.  Whether these restrictions are imposed by the government or special interest groups or the population in general is immaterial; the results are the same.  A truly flourishing democracy is by its very nature sloppy, irreverent and contentious and presupposes a citizenry of robust, mature adults that can weather the storm of uncensored debate necessary to it survival. 

As always, I encourage all to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: .