The Nobel Death in Western Visual Art Part III

by Donald Kuspit

If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that the “aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones.”

—Sigmund Freud1

The Burghers of Calais

The danger of being destroyed by the death instinct directed against the self contributes to the splitting of impulses into good and bad; owing to the projection of these impulses on to the primal object, it too is split into good and bad.... Together with the urge to split, there is from the beginning of life a drive toward integration that increases with the growth of the ego. This process of integration is based on the introjections of the good object, primarily a part object—the mother’s breast, although other aspects of the mother also enter into even the earliest relation.... A satisfactory early relation to the mother... implies a close contact between the unconscious of the mother and of the child. This is the foundation for the most complete experience of being understood and is essentially linked with the preverbal stage. However gratifying it is in later life to express thoughts and feelings to a congenial person, there remains an unsatisfied longing for an understanding without words—ultimately for the early relation with the mother. This longing contributes to the sense of loneliness and derives from the depressive feeling of an irretrievable loss.... One of the factors which stimulates integration is that the splitting processes by which the early ego attempts to counteract insecurity are never more than temporarily effective and the ego is driven to attempt to come to terms with the destructive impulses. This drive contributes to the need for integration. For integration, if it could be achieved, would have the effect of mitigating hate by love and in this way rendering destructive impulses less powerful. The ego would then feel safer not only about its own survival but also about the preservation of its good object. This is one of the reasons why lack of integration is extremely painful.

—Melanie Klein2

In part II of this essay, we explored the paradox of modern society, which is that—for all our material and technological progress—we have lost the sense of honor that ennobled death in the past. 

The only convincing depictions of noble deaths in modern art are Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais (1884–95) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Adams Memorial (1886–91). They are closely bound to tradition, indeed, late traditional works, yet modern enough to suggest violent death. The burghers will violently die at the hands of an aggressor.3 Marian Adams died violently by her own hand—if not as directly as Edward Kienholz depicts in The Birthday (1964), a horrific masterpiece showing death in dramatic action. The stateliness of the burghers, each absorbed in his own thoughts, and the memorial figure, a symbol but also a representation of a figure deep in thought (self-absorbed, as though to preserve herself even as she destroyed her body), convey a distinctly modern nobility: nobility in which the self is the ideal, not God. The self has to assert its integrity in the face of disintegrative death, with no aid from any higher being. And with no aid from the world: it has let the burghers down and let Marian Adams down, as her melancholy suggests. The world is untrustworthy, and as such disillusioning: one has to fall back on one’s self, for better, as seems the case in the brave burghers, or worse, as in Adams’s suicide. Traditional art is God-centered, however much God may be humanized, and, however god-like, imbued with sacredness. In contrast, modern art is self-centered, and the self is no substitute for God—the god within one, as Aurelius said—when it comes to dealing with death.4 It is the reason the modern body is far from ideal, and sometimes so banal that it seems to be living its own death. 

Adams and the burghers handle their disillusionment differently, but my point is that it is a very modern disillusionment. This is the disillusionment that the Enlightenment aimed at, when it aimed to liberate the individual from absolute power, the self from the tyranny of kings and God—to disillusion us about them so that we would no longer submit to them, and lose all faith in them and dependence on them, leaving us with faith in ourselves and reliance on ourselves. That the self did not always act in its best interests is evident from its aggression, but true Enlightenment believers—for example, Hobsbawm—thought that aggression could be controlled and eventually eliminated, even as they documented its disastrous effects. Hobsbawm was a utopian despite himself, which is why he failed to realize, as Freud did, that human beings are drawn to death—that the unconscious death instinct is often more powerful than the conscious will to live. 

I suggest that Rodin’s burghers came to understand that war—the war they were caught up in—was a social manifestation of the death instinct, but had enough ego strength to maintain self-control. With that dignity and individuality, in defiance of a fate beyond their control, they died nobly. I suggest that the death instinct took control of Marian Adams because she lacked self-control, that is, the ego strength to resist it, even as she became conscious of its hold on her. It is worth noting that Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture is a portrait of an idea, not an individual—the idea of death, not the death of an individual. The thought of death has stripped Adams of her particular personality, generalizing her into a symbol, while Rodin’s burghers are very particular and very strong personalities—not symbols—for they mentally refuse to die even as they go to their deaths. Her stillness suggests she is already dead, but their movement suggests they are far from dead. If psychic death precedes physical death, then the burghers did not psychically die before they physically died, while Adams’s physical death coincided with her psychic death. Death never triumphed over the burghers, who maintained their reason until the end; it waged total war against Adams, who unconditionally and irrationally surrendered to it. Adams and the burghers have not reached the state of “cynical reason,” with its “pernicious realism,” that Peter Sloterdijk thinks modern “enlightenment” dead-ends in,5 but they have a realistic awareness of it, and are unconsciously depressed by it, suggesting they are more “cynical” than they know, if Sloterdijk is correct in calling “modern cynics borderline melancholics.”6 

Rodin’s work suggests there is no justice in the modern world—that one is a helpless victim of circumstances, which is a modern idea. Saint-Gaudens’s work suggests the self-defeat that comes when one has no communal ideals to sustain one, when one has only oneself to fall back on. But, unlike Marian Adams, the burghers do not commit suicide—kill a self that has failed them. They march to their death and courageously give themselves up to the enemy to save their community from total destruction. They represent it, and form a community of their own, even as they remain distinct individuals, each alone with his thoughts. Death does not rob them of their minds—and thus they are not lonely (part of a lonely crowd, as it were, that is, mass men). Without communal ideals, the self feels insecure, unsafe, unsubstantial, empty, and finally commits suicide: unable to live for and with others—indeed, having nothing to live for, no raison d’être—it can only think of its own death. 

But it may offset its self-negation by deluding itself about its grandeur: it becomes its own narcissistic ideal, a typical modernist defense against meaninglessness. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident in modern art than in Lucas Samaras’s self-portraits. With typical modern hubris, he presents himself as a one-of-a-kind artist-god. Self-negation hides behind compensatory self-deification—a self-destruction and self-exaggeration evident in his Autopolaroids (1969–70). Grotesqueness and grandiosity—daemonic disintegration and fantasied omnipotence—go hand in hand in a precarious emotional balancing act. The self is distorted almost beyond recognition, suggesting its impending death. Samaras is the victim of his own aggression. He is beside himself with rage, has lost control of himself, even as he maintains a semblance of selfhood. We are witnesses to his sado-masochism. He is in the throes of psychic death. In a sense, he is artistically enacting psychic suicide. Unable to love anyone but himself, Narcissus unwittingly commits suicide, led on by his self-absorption—a suicide made all the more ironical because he thought the mirror image he fell in love with was someone other than himself, suggesting that he was a stranger to himself. 

Autopolaroids are finally about Samaras’s panic, the panic narcissistic isolation and grandiosity defend against, a panic that spreads to his art, lead- ing to its distortions. Panic distorts perception of the self and everything else. Panicked, consciousness is overwhelmed by unconscious forces, losing its capacity to see things as they are, however difficult that may be, and however complex they are. Distortion is misrepresentation, all the more so when it is willful, as it is in Cubism and Surrealism. It is not only a failure of reality testing, but involves withdrawal from reality, even psychotic aversion to it. Cubist and Surrealist works have a panicked look, as though the artists were panicked by what they saw outside and inside themselves. It is as though they distorted what they saw to deny it, leaving us with the artfulness with which they distorted it—with their abstract art, as it were. Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings are the ultimate panicked paintings—pure panic, however nominally aesthetically mediated and defended against. Known for his drunken aggression, Pollock said he began his all-over paintings with a schematic human figure and then painted it out—destroyed it, as it were, leaving chaos in its wake, as various critics have pointed out. 

From its Romantic beginnings, say, in Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819), modern art has been fascinated by panic and tried to express it. Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism itself became a form of panic. If Willem de Kooning was panicked by women, then Pollock was panicked by art itself. 

Pablo Picasso, Massacre in Korea, 1951

Modern art can be called “panicked art.” Far from serene, like much traditional art, even when it deals with suffering, death and violence, modern art is art suffering a panic attack, art in crisis—art of our Age of Anxiety, as it has been called. In panic, “ego control fails,” Otto Fenichel writes, and “affect becomes overwhelming.” “Anxiety becomes automatic and unspecific”—as it is in Pollock’s all-over paintings, where it is detached from human presence. (Think of what breton called “pure psychic automatism” and what Walter and others call the “free-floating anxiety” of modern life.) “All anxiety is fear of experiencing a traumatic state, of the possibility that the organization of the ego may be overwhelmed by excitation.”7 Modern society is traumatic because there is little or no empathy in it, which helps explain why nothing is sacred in it—although no doubt there is an attempt to restore nature (God’s creation, as it were) to sacredness—and why its “touch” is often inhuman, not to say ruinously irreverent. 

Perhaps the Adams figure is noble because she seems conscious of her self-defeat, deliberately contemplates her death, suggesting that she took her death in her own hands to control it. She sits, seemingly helpless: she doesn’t “stand her ground,” as the burghers seem to. But she is self-contained, however fragile her sense of self. In a sense, to commit suicide is to take control of fate, even as it confirms it. Rodin’s burghers also take their deaths in their own hands, however less obviously, which is also why they maintain their dignity—contain themselves—in the face of it. The modern noble death and the traditional noble death require self-control in the face of death, but modern nobility involves no consciousness of the place of death in the cosmic scheme of things, and tries to control death by deliberately willing it rather than waiting for it, whether it finally comes to one in war or during the peaceful interlude between otherwise endless wars. (Of course, endless warfare was a characteristic of antiquity as well as modernity.) 

I think the modern noble death requires a desperate assertion of individuality in defiance of mass society—mass death in modern warfare. It involves the refusal to be anonymous, brutalized and trivialized as a cog in a malfunctioning social machine. The Rodin burghers sacrificed themselves to prevent war, and Adams sacrificed herself to end her conflict with herself. In a sense, she maintained her integrity by refusing to succumb to her inner conflicts. Her body is shrouded, but her face is calm, even serene. However paradoxically, her suicide was an act of self-assertion as well as self-defeat. More paradoxically, it brought her peace, if only the peace of the grave. 

Certainly, the deaths of Saint-Gaudens’s female figure and Rodin’s male figures are more noble than the deaths of the modernized mechanical figures in Picasso’s Massacre in Korea (1951), a moronic modern “masterpiece” if ever there were one. It is an insulting reprise of Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, like his destructive reprises of Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1654), and an imaginative failure. Picasso is barely able to contain his aggression and rage—the aggression and rage evident in his Cubist and Surrealist attacks on art. Violence is done to art in response to the violence of war: Picasso is first, and foremost, a Dada barbarian—an anarchist, as some scholars have argued, noting his early political interests—at least when he acts as an avant-garde artist rather than a traditionalist artist, as he is when he emulates Ingres’s style. The idea that destruction is creation is the big lie of modern art. It doesn’t “advance” art but decivilizes it. 


    1. Sigmund Freud, “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” [1920], Standard Edition (1955), XVIII, p. 38.

    2. Melanie Klein, “On the Sense of Loneliness” [1963], Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946–63 (New york: Free Press, 1975), pp. 300–01.

    3. Robert Rosenblum, in Nineteenth-Century Art with H.W. Janson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall and New york: Harry N. Abrams, 1984), pp. 481–82, notes that The Burghers of Calais is a “monument to Eustache de St. Pierre, who had delivered himself, along with five other prominent citizens, into the hands of King Edward III as hostages to lift the siege of Calais by the English in 1347....Edward’s conditions were harsh indeed: the hostages had to be barefoot and in sackcloth, with ropes around their necks bearing the keys to the city and the fortress, and the king was free to do with them as he pleased, implying a threat of death.”

    4. Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (London: Hollis & Carter, 1957), p. 175.

      Sedlmayr makes the point succinctly: “the lost centre of man is simply God....The idea that God must not be conceived on any human analogy already implies the denial of the conception of man made in God’s image.” In their different ways, ancient and Christian art are based on this analogy. However different their ideas of God, both believe that god is within us, as Aurelius said. And however different their renderings of the human body, both are “humanistic.”

      The modern “flight from humanism” unleashes “chaos,” more particularly, art move- ments in which “the human form [is] shattered to pieces and utterly dismembered...a sort of ending to man as an entity.” These are Nicholas berdyaev’s words, quoted by Sedlmayr (p. 156). Picasso is berdyaev’s major example: “crumbling and being dismem- bered, we can watch its dissolution into its allegedly constituent parts....Picasso’s art breaks both with the patterns of nature and with those of antiquity. It no longer sees the complete human being at all, it has lost the faculty of seeing things as wholes.” The ironical fruit of modern man’s “creative activity” is “the negation of his own image,” in effect, self-negation (p. 145). Neither man nor God is the center of modern art; all that matters is the art itself—the “creativity” that goes into the destruction of man’s image, and with that the ideals symbolized by God. Art no longer mediates God, implying that he is dead—that we have no god within us, which perhaps is why modern warfare is mass suicide. The question is whether art itself has committed suicide by regarding itself as the only true God in modern times.

      Sedlmayr suggests that God didn’t just die, he was killed because he created death as well as life, implying that he was disillusioned with what he created, as his apocalyptic wrath suggests. The bible tells us that he repeatedly created and destroyed worlds, for no one obeyed his commandments, at least not for long. Sedlmayr correlates the death of God and anarchistic revolution—the Reign of Terror, a species of total war and a Triumph of Death. With both, the idea that “anything goes” begins, in both art (there are no rules, breton said) and in life, for there are no convincing governing ideals (they have been violated all too often to be believable), no individual and group superego strong enough to regulate social and individual behavior, and thus no self-respect and respect for others.

      Sedlmayr regards art as a psychosocial symptom, agreeing with René Huyghé that “art is for the story of human societies what the dreams of an individual are for the psychiatrist” (p. 2). The artist’s conscious effort is secondary to the “unconscious sphere of instinctive receptivity and of ‘possession,’” in which the “soul of the age” reveals itself as the soul of art (p. 3). It is worth noting that Sedlmayr’s “method of critical forms,” with its focus on “master problems,” remains a convincing, certainly useful way of analyzing art. Applying it to modern art, he offers a brilliant analysis of its master problems and their psychosocial significance. 

    5. Peter Sloterdijk, The Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 4.

    6. Ibid., p. 5.

    7. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (New york: Norton, 1945), p. 133.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2012, Volume 29, Number 1