In philosophy, literature or the arts broadly speaking, death has always been a source of irresistible awe, fascination and mystery. In early 19th-century Britain, the taste for the Sublime and the Gothic Revival were all the rage and the alternative 1980s music stage saw another darkly inspired generation in the New Romantics and the so-called Goths. Whatever the fashion of the day, the Gothic spirit haunts us as much as death looms.
The gruesome has its place in the world of aesthetics. We stare at the strange, however disturbing, trying to make sense of what is in front of us and what is happening inside of us. It calls our attention, poking at some uncomfortable, taboo instinct connecting us to a basic, feral reality. Art portrays – and communicates – emotions first and foremost, not necessarily – and certainly not exclusively – pleasant or possibly decorative visual qualities. In Gauguin’s words, “Le laid peut être beau, le joli, jamais.” (The ugly can be beautiful, the pretty cannot.)
Gothic art doesn’t temper the wind to the shorn lamb. For all its vanity, it bluntly reminds us that we may not be as sophisticated or civilised as we like to think. Nor are we immune to death and decay, regardless of what medical science tries to prove (through animal testing and other gruesome forms of experiments on other creatures) or what straw the ego of those who crave eternal fame clutches at.
While some spend their life fighting or denying the inevitable, many also choose to face the greatest of human fears and embrace the intrigue and macabre beauty of the unknown.
(Centre Pompidou in Paris is hosting an exhibition on Mike Kelley until 5th August 2013.)