So I was doing my usual bout of procrastination on Gawker, and came across a fantastic story about Banksy’s latest escapades. The famously incognito street artist was in New York City, doing a series of his traditional graffiti, and apparently some quite bonkers, Halloween-inspired installations. The video below shows a traditional emblem of death, the Grim Reaper, riding a jerky bumper car underneath disco lights.
The soundtrack is, of course, ‘Fear the Reaper’ by Blue Öyster Cult.
An ‘audio guide’ was available on Banksy’s site (now unfortunately taken down!) for those heading down to Houston Street to see the temporary spectacle. It was spooky and hilarious, full of juxtapositions between the uncanny and the sardonic. Slow and creepy accordion music accompanies the voiceover. A few fantastic excerpts:
This sculpture perfectly represents death, in that it’s a bit…random.
Let us pause for a minute, and step back.
Not that far, Jesus!
It is often said that the role of art is to remind us of our mortality. Brasky’s [sic] take on that seems to be mounting an art show that goes on for so long we all wish we were dead already.
Each serious point, each creepy fact, is undercut with the ridiculous. The grim reaper rides a bumper car in a very undignified fashion. The viewer is asked to reflect and is then honked at. The viewer is reminded of the ‘fragility of existence’ and then in the next breath the narrator complains about the accordion music.
This is typical of Banksy’s style, to wrap heavy topics in humour to make them go down easier. Because in our culture we don’t face certain things head-on; I suppose you could call this exhibit a sugar-coated death pill.
It’s not as if we recoil in horror when someone mentions death in the abstract, we just don’t take it in. And we don’t mention it that much, really. Sure, we’ve got lots of films, TV and video games that seem to represent lots of death, but that is mere cartoon death. It isn’t real. And occasionally we must face it; a death in the family, or a serious illness transforms death from abstract idea into a real, dimension-changing possibility. People don’t know what to say to us, when our mother has died. We don’t know what to say to others, how to comprehend the finality of death. We have lost the vocabulary.
So, was there ever a culture which possessed a vocabulary for these experiences? Yup, and the audio narrator quotes a few famous lines from that culture:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
These are the final two stanzas of William Earnest Henley’s famous poem Invictus, from 1875. It is about facing death in all its uncertainty; confronting the possibility of damnation with dignity. The poet claims control over his soul, and the ‘Horror of the shade’ loses some of its menace.
They also had incredible rituals of mourning. Mourning was not merely the wearing of black, but the whole social behaviour of the bereaved person. They would avoid going out to parties, they would write everyday letters with black borders. This mourning must last a specific period of time. From two years for the loss of a spouse, to six weeks for a cousin. Wider society, too, played a role in these over-the-top rituals: churches would ring peals of bells indicating the gender and age of the deceased, and professional mourners (called ‘mutes’) were often hired for funerals.
Today, we’ve lost the morbidity of that time (hooray!) and with it, the ability to talk about or deal with death as an ever present reality (d’oh!). Therefore, we must borrow all our vocabulary, all our creepy-death-stuff from the Victorians, but to make it palatable, we must undercut it with humour.
After all, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. And by ‘medicine’ I mean ‘death’.