Click ‘like’ to send a condolence? The art of mourning in the era of post-modern technology

in Art & Culture/Philosophy by
Zdzisław-Beksiński-grim-reaper
Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled

Grief is an inseparable part of the human condition. But what is grief today and how do we mourn as compared to mourning in the recent decades? As humans, we are used to place our feelings in words, spoken or written; instinctively, we need to make them tangible, formulate them and mould them in order to make sense of the world. The super-speeded attention driven character of the social media, namely Facebook, and the specific language it uses has significantly altered our perception of grievance. By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

The essence of this instinctive need to vocalize our personal grief is, above all, the need to share it. Indeed the urgency to express ourselves generally differs from one to another but ultimately, to share our feelings, offer little parts of ourselves in language is a natural thing to do. By ventilating our grief and our loss of a beloved one, we not only act upon the responsibility to inform our friends and family of a sad event. We also ask for support, for stories to hear that we never heard, for love and memories to share. Internally and individually we start to reflect upon the many different values of life: love, friendship and family support, empathy, fulfilment, values we hold. And, naturally, upon encountering death, the awareness of our own life’s mortality becomes stronger and more urgent.

By bringing the grief online, we take what used to be the very private matter to an essentially public podium and allow it to be openly disseminated.

Themes originating in grief and responding to humans’ questions of life and death have been explored in art for centuries. Memento mori, or ‘remember you must die’ in Latin, is a classic reminder of our mortality and inevitable end. It stands on the very other end of the antiquity’s Nunc est bibendum (‘Now is the time to drink’) theme of debauchery and joie-de-vivre. Memento mori scolds us for enjoying the pleasures of life. Its suggestive depictions and symbols can be found in all spheres of artistic expression, from paintings of well-known Renaissance painters, through music (such as, but not only restricted to requiems) and literary masterpieces. Funeral aesthetics and cemetery architecture is a memento mori story in itself. Think of the famous ossuary in Rome, the Capuchin Crypt or Kutna Hora Ossuary in the Bohemian part of the Czech Republic. Another genre of memento mori is the ‘danse macabre’, the dance of the death. The grim reaper, usually in form of a skeleton or two, accompanies a living flourishing human, hovering discreetly in the background or tugging on her clothes to invite her to a dance from which there is no way back. Below is a depiction by Italian Baroque painter Giovanni Martinelli, ‘The Death Comes to the Banquet Table.’ The merriness from around the table has just been interrupted, the guests are in disbelief and refusal: “You want to take me?” asks the nobleman to the right, “why me?” We are shocked and apalled at this unseemly interference.

Death_Comes_to_the_Banquet_Table_-_Memento_Mori_-_Giovanni Martinelli_NOMA
Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table, between 1625 and 1638

In still-life painting, such pieces, a sub-genre of memento mori, are referred to as vanitas. The term originates in the opening lines of the ‘Book of Ecclesiastes’ in the Bible: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ In vanitas, the presence of death is shown in symbolic depictions of the fleetingness of life and earthly possessions. They are meant to convey a moral message to the audience – do not waste your time on the passing pleasures and lustre of material things, as they will not last. Life is in your hands, measure it carefully. Vanitas were especially spread amongst Dutch painters of the 16th and 17th century, the real masters of the discipline   Artists such as Pieter Claesz were seemingly obsessed by the macabre topic. Have a look at the image below, Cleasz’ ‘Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball’ – we could name nearly a dozen of vanitas symbols embedded in the canvas. Of course there is the skull (a straightforward symbol of mortality), the watch (the passing of the time, the clock is ticking), the violin (the fleetingness, ephemerality of life), the glass bubble in which we can see the artist’s reflection; a reference to the fragility of our daily realities, ready to pop at any moment.

Pieter_Claesz._-_Vanitas_with_Violin_and_Glass_Ball_-_WGA04974
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628

We can find hundreds and thousands of examples of memento mori in literary works throughout centuries. Writers, poets and philosophers seem to have even more pressing urgency to explain and dissect the predicament of grief. Grief tends to be magnified as the ever present burden of human life, but also beautified and caressed, nearly appreciated in the smooth lyrical form. ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis, Roland Barthes’ ‘Mourning Diary’ or ‘A Very Easy Death’ by Simone De Beauvoir – all of these are masterpieces of mourning, beautifully put together in remembrance of a person, experience, though, a lifetime.

The title image of this article is by Zdzislaw Beksinski, who, now that I mention this, actually never titled his works. All Beksinski’s works are filled with dark sorrow. Understandably so, since Beksinski got his share of tragedies – in 1998 died his wife Zofia and on Christmas Eve a year later his son Tomasz committed suicide. After the tragedy, Beksinski is known to have always kept an envelope hanging at his apartment’s wall addressed “For Tomek in case I kick the bucket.” The artist himself came to a tragic end when he was stabbed to death by a young relative in 2005. What is clear, however, is that despite, or maybe due to such uneasy life Beksinski succeeded in making his art as beautifully breathtakingly sorrowful as they are. (Have a look at his website here, a piece of art in its own.)

French philosopher Jacques Derrida published only couple of years before his death, ‘The Work of Mourning’ (2001) a collection of essays, articles and reflections collected from period of some twenty years. The texts originated as memorials and condolences written after deaths of famous personalities, Derrida’s peers and friends, and persons he admired. These texts are artfully written, nailing down both personal and collective, emotional and intellectual sense of loss. In his work Derrida pays his homage to these great personalities but he also highlights the importance of friendship, and what becomes of friendship after we lose the friend. He touches upon the feeling of guilt and that of unpaid debts. ‘There come moments,’ he writes, ‘when, as mourning demands [deuil oblige], one feels obligated to declare one’s debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to friends.’ (Derrida, 2001)

Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living.

Of course, we cannot all weave masterpieces of our griefs and transform our losses into novels and paintings, and that is not my point here. These examples show the fact that there can be a certain quality of expression found in grief. Expressing ourselves not only helps us deal with mourning, but can also preserve this certain element of beauty and artistic value of life that are vital to remember for those who go on living. Saying this, we should note that Derrida was originally opposed to this exhibitionism of feelings and words, hesitant to write and later on to gather all the mourning texts together in a collection. He explains his reasons:

What I thought impossible, indecent, and unjustifiable, what long ago and more or less secretly and resolutely I had promised myself never to do…was to write following the death, not after, not long after the death by returning to it, but just following the death, upon or on the occasion of the death, at the commemorative gatherings and tributes, in the writings “in memory” of those who while living would have been my friends, still present enough to me that some “declaration,” indeed some analysis or “study,” would seem at that moment completely unbearable. (Derrida, 2001, pp. 49-50)

According to Derrida, one who speaks of the recently deceased puts himself in great danger of dishonesty, if unintentional. What is this dishonesty he speaks of? What Derrida had in mind is how easily the words we carefully select to praise our lost ones can turn into small-scale privately conducted ‘political’ moves. We pity ourselves for having to live without the deceased, we turn a homage for another into the ‘I’ and ‘me’ reflection of simple narcissism. We grief for ourselves to have been left behind. We tend to share this transformed ego-driven grief, instead of the initial pure one. It needs to be remembered, states Derrida, that we ought to give credit to a unique friendship without falling into such trap of self-regard. (Derrida, 2001)

‘The works of mourning’ touch upon two points that I find to be of key relevance to the way mourning is processed today in social media. First of them, as Derrida highlights, is the utter uniqueness of a friendship’s status and its very individuality and unrepeatability once the person is no longer ‘with us’. No one knew our friend in the same way as we did.  The twofold character of contemporary Facebook-maintained friendship possesses at the same time a uniqueness of such connection (the unique context in which we knew each other) but also generality, a certain shallowness, that comes with a growing internationality and transiency of our lives. For some, Facebook and social media present the only contact they have with friends and families at the other end of the world. Constant flux of our daily realities makes it more difficult than ever to maintain personal contact with all the friendships created in another countries, on different continents. Facebook audience constitutes a very special sort of ultimately diversified audience – although making up a circle of ‘common friends,’ they are in fact people from utterly disparate backgrounds, stages of life, age, beliefs. You could be from a different world, and a Facebook friend of a friend of a friend would still be in the same (un)know about you as if you were his neighbour. An important factor when it comes to grief expressed in social media is to understand the nature of its users, of the generation who use it the most. That is, for example – and allow me this generalisation in order of simplification – predominantly young professionals who migrate from one country to another without necessarily needing any base ground to settle. Because yes, that is one thing social media allow us – a certain degree of ‘intimacy’ (if disputable) on distance, a means to keep in touch, an illusion of proximity.

The second point to note in Derrida’s collection is the heightened feeling of indebtedness in grief; the creeping feeling that we have not valued the time we had together enough, that much more could have been said. From this guilt partly comes the need to justify our knowledge of the person who is no longer with us. Inwardly, remembering him or her for ourselves, as they were in us, and outwardly, sharing with the others, what we knew of them; shouting: I knew her too! She was special to me too! We justify our friendship to our Facebook friends and families of our deceased friend who we have never met. Yet what else can be done? How else can we address these people, for us really just imaginary people living somewhere in the Facebook universe, since we never met them?  “Speaking is impossible,” writes Derrida in Memoires for Paul de Man, “but so too would be silence or absence or a refusal to share one’s sadness.”

Even if we call it inevitable, how does the way we speak of our grief and comment on the losses of our connections on Facebook differ from that in the ‘real’ life? Probably the most obvious difference is the directness with which social media bring personal loss to the utmost end of public attention. The very private is transformed into a spectacle, in this case not only to be seen but also available to be discussed by everyone. The scale of whom we grieve for has also changed. Not only we can now feel genuine sorrow for our close ones, but Facebook and Twitter allow us to pay respect to our favourite film star or musician. We can see such RIP messages popping up on our Facebook pages every so often, and we share them and comment on them. Can you imagine sending a condolence letter to Alan Rickman’s family? I love Rickman’s every single performance, yet I cannot imagine myself going as far as that. So why do that on Facebook? Why indeed – Facebook gives an easy story to be told by everyone: it gives us power to be part of otherwise inaccessible, grieving process. How simple and instant it is to post a RIP message on the wall and ‘remember.’

Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

In theory, this is a great way to share our sadness over the loss of our favourite actor or acclaimed director. Fair enough, it is a quick and painless way, as otherwise we would not have the opportunity to share this with the world. The problem is that often these RIP messages turn from harmless spectacle into absurd theatre, exactly into what Derrida warned against: a narcissist race for acknowledgment. Such situations become mad hunts for the funniest quote of the deceased, the rarest video clip, the best picture, the wittiest summary of someone’s life in Twitter’s 140 character limit. If we honestly ask ourselves why we have to share the sad news in a super-speeded-way on our wall – what will the answer be? Why can’t we just pay a silent homage to our favourite actor instead of shouting it on our walls? What value does a ‘RIP Alan Rickman Luv U 4 ever’ post add to the world?

Whatever the case, we should always keep in mind to whom we want to address our words and what reaction these words could produce. Derrida in text dedicated Roland Barthes writes:

“I would like to dedicate these thoughts to him, give them to him, and destine them for him. Yet they will no longer reach him, and this must be the starting point of my reflection; they can no longer reach him, reach all the way to him, assuming they ever could have while he was still living. So where do they go? To whom and for whom?” (Derrida, 2001, p.35)

The thing is that Facebook grievance presents a confusing situation from several points of view. Are you obliged to inform the Facebook community, the deceased friends and acquaintances, since they would otherwise never know? And how are you supposed to respond to someone posting of their loss on the social network? First step of thought is that if someone shares such private and painful information with the world, you may feel safe to assume that you can react. But what do you make of a person who ‘likes’ and RIP post, or a notice of a friend’s passing away? What do they think when they click that like button?

As I already noted, it seems to be a slightly different situation with condolence messages for the people we ‘knew’ on Facebook. Facebook messages and comments on the wall can provide huge support to the close family and friends and I am far from claiming the opposite. The wall becomes a memorial in its own, the love expressed becomes eternal. At least for now, when we still firmly believe in the eternal power of the digital world. Certainly, to send a Facebook message as a condolence if we do not have any other means of contacting the close members of the family, it is still better than nothing. Then again, in the digital era we live in, is it really impossible to find contact details online; to google up an email address, or a phone number? How much more would it cost us to send a condolence by mail, a bouquet of flowers or pick up the phone and call? Or, god forbid, to pay a visit in person? How much value has a like of an RIP post, if we compare it to Derrida’s texts singularly dedicated to his friends? Maybe these are incomparable subjects and it is unfair of me to put them together. It is clear that social media bring some very interesting elements of grief that are worth considering, both from their positive and negative aspects. However, following the great classics of painting and literature, even mourning can be taken with all serenity, with feelings of beauty and life that prevails. I cannot help myself but wonder that some of the most special selfless elements of grief get lost in the social media’s display of mourning, whilst some of the worst ones become easily highlighted.

 

Alice Maselnikova


References

Derrida, Jacques. The work of mourning  (2001) The University of Chicago Press Books

Images

Zdzisław Beksiński, Untitled. Oil on canvas Available at www.beksinski.pl

Giovanni Martinelli, the Death Comes to the Banquet Table. Oil on canvas – 114.2 x 158 cm, Raleigh, North Carolina Museum of Art, Photo : Galerie G. Sarti

Pieter Claesz, Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, ca 1628. Oil on oak – 35.9 × 59 cm. Germanisches Nationalmuseum.

Alice Maselnikova is Czech artist, curator, and art coordinator based in Stockholm. Fond of (in alphabetical order): art, books, cheese, chess, jazz, nudes, philosophy, politics, whisky, wine and writing. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in Art, Philosophy, and Contemporary Practices and is taking an MA in Curating Art at Stockholm University. Most recently she was awarded the Transfer North Critical Curatorial Writing Residency 2016-17 and is focusing her research on curatorial practices in the rural context of north-west Russia.

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