What Do Artists’ Final Works Say About Their Lives?

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The photographer Duane Michals imagines his aftermath: as a taxidermied figure in a shop window.

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Duane Michals

ONE OF THE CURSES of the modern age is the terminal diagnosis. We live each day knowing that we will die, but most of us find it easy enough, and more than congenial, to forget about it. To be told that you have two years or one year or six months left is to be excused from a paradise of ignorance into rude knowledge. And yet to have this appointment in Samarra inked on your schedule is also a kind of blessing or special power. We expect that those facing death ought to live a little differently because of it. They have an opportunity, or so we think — to put things right, to make reparations and bequests and ‘‘arrangements.’’ To book a special experience, long desired but deferred. To prepare a statement. For artists, the knowledge that the end is beckoning may provoke a last surge of inspiration to begin or complete final works, works that invariably come to acquire an extra significance, no matter how flawed the works themselves.

Every age believes itself to be in a special relationship to the end of everything, but the threats that we live with now — from foreign dictators as well as more local demagogues — have heightened our appreciation of the closure a final work brings. And it helps that recently, many artists have delivered late-career achievements just before dying. Leonard Cohen, discussing his 14th and final studio album, ‘‘You Want It Darker,’’ which came out less than three weeks before his death in 2016, spoke of the luxury of having ‘‘a chance to put your house in order.’’ He described hearing a divine voice that goaded him on in making his last work. He had heard this voice all his life, but now it spoke with more compassion: ‘‘At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ ’’ If Cohen had lived, he would have continued to create. But he knew that he was dying of cancer when he made ‘‘You Want It Darker,’’ which bestows the work with both a dismal grandeur and a somber authority.

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David Bowie in the video for ‘‘Lazarus,’’ a song from his final album, ‘‘Blackstar,’’ released two days before his death in 2016.

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