Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on the Berlin artists claiming to be committing artistic suicide in order to protest against something, I want to consider the concept of artistic suicide per se. To then it seems to mean something like this: they are artists, they distinguish themselves from people who are not, they consider their work to have technical/aesthetic merit and also to be valuable in itself as the product of an act of creative self-expression. Valuable to them and to others, which I think is an important point.
There is, of course, no reasonable comparison between burning a painting and setting yourself on fire in front of the Ministry of Employment, but it does involve a definite sacrifice of something that not only belongs to you, but which you understand to be part of you. If this seems to be straying into pompous cobblers territory again, this time you’re probably right.
Nonetheless, there is some truth in it. Assuming that the works have some artistic merit and that they weren’t produced specially for the occasion, and assuming that they have done this with the real aim of saving these arts centres, and not just to get their picture in the paper, the symbolism of the event means more to these artists than would the mere destruction of their property. There is no reason why anyone should recognise the importance of that symbolism, or take it remotely seriously, but it is their work they have destroyed, something which is more important to them, and, they think, to you, or at least it should be, than mere belongings, even those that were worth much more than the flaming art. If their painting were worth money, they wouldn’t be in this position, so I think it’s safe to assume that the artworks were among the least valuable of their possessions. Yet they have not burnt their iPads and Prada handbags, because the sacrifice, and so the protest, would have been less.
I’m a writer. Not a successful one, it’s true, but an artist of sorts. I can never bring myself to destroy or delete any of the stories I write, even the ones I know aren’t very good or haven’t worked the way I intended. Or which I now recognise will never be finished.* So I know why they think they have made a sacrifice, and that their protest should be understood in that light.
To Paul Erdich, the eccentric mathematician (eccentric is something of an understatement, but there you are) death was a mere inconvenience. To learn that a colleague had shuffled off this mortal coil meant no more to him than that he would have to change his schedule and find someone else to bounce ideas off about that paper they were working on. To learn that a colleague had ceased to do mathematics, however, was a tragedy that could affect him very deeply. A mother will choose to sacrifice her own life before that of her child (or so we are told, and anecdote tends to bear it out). That which we think of as part of ourselves, for whatever reason, whatever we have made emotional investment in, has far more value to us than an observer would guess who didn’t know of that investment.
So with all these caveats, and mutatis mutandes, I recognise and accept the concept of artistic suicide.