Housebound, and enjoying a brief respite from the cancer that is killing him, the New Yorker’s longtime art critic Peter Schjeldahl has been pondering Big Questions.
Given his profession, his Big Questions might seem rather different than yours or mine. Among them, this one: “Why does the art of what we term the Old Masters have so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries?”
His answer is simple and profound: “a routine consciousness of mortality.”
Until very recently, as human history goes, life expectancy averages were low—not because adults were routinely keeling over at forty or fifty, but because terrible infant mortality rates were so high. If you got to age five, that is, you might well live to sixty or seventy—even in the middle ages. But families everywhere were marked by death: death of children, death of mothers. Lots of death.
If you did get past your fifth birthday, moreover, life for most would be largely as Thomas Hobbes described it in the state of nature: “poor, nasty, and brutish.” Even kings and queens until well into the modern era lived without hot and cold running water, indoor sanitation, refrigeration, central heating, and air conditioning.
And everyone did without the very basics of effective medicine—analgesics, anaesthesia, antibiotics, and sterile procedures until just yesterday, historically speaking.
Memento mori—“Remember that you must die”—doesn’t have to be intoned much these days, does it? But how grateful are we for the lives we do live?
Many of us are suffering badly right now for lack of employment and lack of funds. Can we all of us nonetheless give thanks for what is still ours: law and order, compassionate friends and family, a measure of social support, and the promise of recovery in months, rather than years—or never?
Schjeldahl’s peculiar take on things leads him to say that “when we are again free to wander museums[,]…everything in them will be other than what we remember. The objects won’t have altered, but we will have.” We won’t look at a sunset or a still life, let alone a pietà, the same way again.
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