“Uncomfortably Numb”


Inspired by the art of Luca Signorelli, specifically Man Carrying Corpse on His Shoulders, Zadie Smith considers the role of the corpse in art and society:

Imagine being a corpse. Not the experience of being a corpse—clearly being a corpse is the end of all experience. I mean: imagine this drawing represents an absolute certainty about you, namely, that you will one day be a corpse. Perhaps this is very easy. You are a brutal rationalist, harboring no illusions about the nature of existence. I am, a friend once explained, a “sentimental humanist.” Not only does my imagination quail at the prospect of imagining myself a corpse, even my eyes cannot be faithful to the corpse for long, drawn back instead to the monumental vigor. …

Art that plays with the idea of mechanical reproduction—the obvious example is the work of Andy Warhol—teaches us something of what it would be like to be a thing, an object. Warhol was also, not coincidentally, an enthusiastic proponent of corpse art, his Death in America series being strewn with dead bodies, all of which are presented with no whiff of human pity—although neither are they quite cold abstractions. On one level, the level at which they are most often celebrated, Warhol’s corpses make you feel nothing. And yet your awareness of your own emptiness is exactly what proves traumatic about them. “How can I be looking at this terrible thing and feeling nothing?” is the quintessential Warholian sensation and it’s had a very long afterlife. Uncomfortably numb: that’s still the non-emotion that so many young artists, across all media, are gunning for.

(Image of Greeks and Troyans fighting for the corpse of Patroklos by Antoine Wiertz, 1836, via Wikimedia Commons)