Thursday, July 12, 2007


The starting point for art is our five senses. Yet sight, touch, and other senses are no help when it comes to one of the most powerful themes for art.

In his final play, Shakespeare laments, "Our little life is rounded with a sleep." That sleep-- vast, profound and impenetrable-- defeats artistic understanding. There are no colors or shapes or designs to portray it. In fact, the clues we receive from our meager senses usually end up making the artist look silly.

In Robert Frost's poem Home Burial, a mother wails at her inability to accompany and understand her dying child:
The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short,
They might as well not try to go at all
Perhaps for this reason, most artists satisfy themselves with depicting the observable detritus left behind, rather than trying to get any closer.

Artists who do try to explore what lies beyond consciousness usually get about as far as the veil:

The powerful painter Arnold Bocklin employed a similar device-- a distant island-- but the point is the same: no sneak previews allowed.

If art cannot help us see past the veil, what insight and consolation can it give us?

For me, one of the most successful efforts was George Herriman's lovely dialogue between Krazy Kat and the afterlife. Here, Krazy Kat uses an ouija board to seek the wisdom of the spirits on the other side of the veil.

Herriman's light and elegant touch combines profundity and humor. Most of all, his tenderness and humanity seem to me a far better response to our ignorance than the grim and ponderous approaches of Bocklin or Brueghel.