Explore the undiscovered country

Image of Peter Aspden

Serious art mostly addresses two themes: love and death. Less serious art pokes its nose into many more frivolous aspects of the human condition. There have been pop songs about milkmen and paintings of elderly women poking each other’s bottoms while playing bowls. But if art is to have any lasting relevance, it must tackle the big issues.

Love is one of them. The ways of the heart have provided an infinite number of stories that furnish our imaginative lives. But death is something else again. No subject is bigger than the imminence of our own non-being. There is no void more terrifying, no journey’s end less appealing.

Though the theme of human mortality is never far from the thoughts of most great artists, it still seems counter-intuitive to celebrate their achievements in speaking so eloquently of human demise. That is why it was brave of London’s Southbank Centre this week to announce a season, early in the new year, devoted to “lifting the lid [get it?] on the subject of death”.

Christmas celebrates a birth, so it makes a kind of sense to mark those ever-more depressing January days with a reminder of the opposite end of the human life-span. Of course, Easter should perform that function but it palpably fails to do so in its modern form, so unmoored have we become from the theological significance of Christianity’s calendar.

So it is off to the Southbank we go, to indulge in four days of performance, talks, music and poetry calculated to set us thinking afresh about how to handle the end of our days, a pleasingly varied range from sharply pragmatic discussions on assisted suicide to the almost unbearable yearnings of a Mahler symphony. It is fashionable for such events to include a piece for children, but you would think this one might be an exception. Not a bit of it. Goodbye Mr Muffin is a “heart-warming children’s play of the last days of a much loved guinea pig”, the very thought of which already has me welling up. And surely no room for popular music? Wrong again: In “‘Angels’ or ‘My Way’”, the DJ Paul Gambaccini “spins the nation’s favourite funeral music in Desert Island Death Discs”.

For a touch of flamboyance or kitsch, try the exhibition of bespoke coffins from Ghana and the UK. You can be buried these days, courtesy of the Pa Joe workshop in Ghana, in a lurid pink fish, a bright yellow eagle or a giant cocoa pod. Crazy Coffins from Nottingham can encase you in a facsimile of Antony Gormley’s “Angel of the North” (without the wings, naturally), a corkscrew or an electric guitar.

The festival, in other words, is a well-rounded affair, combining earnest discussion, profound artistic interpretation and a celebration of the death-defying, that streak of wilful humour we use to sidestep the ultimate taboo. I personally cannot imagine paying last respects to a loved one as they are lowered into the ground in a cocoa pod, but then I also dislike the pompous solemnity of a Requiem Mass, however beautifully executed. Our attitude to death seems forever suspended somewhere between those two extremes, laughing it off and emoting to the high heavens.

There is a cultural question hanging over proceedings here. In an increasingly secular culture such as Britain’s, death is regarded by more and more people as an end, rather than as a gateway to an alternative reality. This may be a good thing, in that it encourages a more rational discussion of our finite status. And rational discussion of death leads, surely, to a more reasoned examination of life. If this is all there is, we need to address “this” more respectfully.

But whether this leads to better art is a different question entirely. The frightened speculations of tortured artists on death form the innards of some of art’s greatest masterpieces. Rip them out, and we are left with slighter stuff. When Beethoven conceived the famous opening bars of his Fifth Symphony, it was the terrifying hammer blows of fate that played on his mind, not the polite knockings on the door of the local Dignitas clinic.

We mustn’t be, in artistic terms, too cool about death. In an impassioned exploration of the relationship between art and religion, Real Presences, philosopher George Steiner spoke in explicitly Christian terms of our being caught in the no-man’s land of Easter Saturday, between the “suffering [and] aloneness” of Good Friday and the “dream of liberation, of rebirth” of Paschal Sunday.

That can be an uncomfortable place to be, but also an inspiring one. Death’s mysteries feed our deepest yearnings to understand life. To make the discussion too sensible is to impoverish it. In some ways, we are no more cosmically significant than a cocoa pod. But we still have plenty more to say for ourselves.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

Death: Southbank Centre’s Festival for the Living, January 27-30 www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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