Today in our Semina Seminar, a lunchtime meeting with MFAs and Classics PhDs before my seminar on Ancient Philosophical Handbooks: Lessons, Lives, Communities, we were talking about death – the death of the artist and the death of painting. Biographical traditions of ancient philosophers, especially Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, often focus on the death-narratives of thinkers as a way of confirming or critiquing certain concepts about life. Heraclitus, for example, who died of dropsy literally enacts his claim that ‘for souls it is death to become water’ (B 36) and acts as water’s revenge against the philosopher for privileging fire as an element. In this way the death of a philosopher becomes a teaching moment; a way of succinctly embodying their ideas. (See Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers for a self-conscious continuation of Diogenes’ project).
Sometimes these lessons are made more explicit by the words that ancient philosophers speak at the moment of their deaths. Suffering from a kidney stone, Epicurus climbed into a cauldron of hot water, drank some wine and died. Before he went, however, he told his friends to remember his doctrines, one of which was, of course, that death is nothing to us. While some (including the Roman Cicero) lambasted Epicurus for the wine and the bath, as ways of easing the pain of death, for card-carrying Epicureans, the master’s dying affirmation of his doctrines was enough evidence to them that they too should not fear death. Epicurus’ words, furthermore, could be described as ‘autothanatography’ – a writing about one’s own death.
During the lunchtime seminar, the idea of autothanatography arose in the context of the so-called death of painting in the early 1980s. While discussing Joseph Kosuth’s 1982 Artforum article ‘Necrophila, Mon Amour’, which attacked the neo-expressionism of artists like Chia, Schnabel and others, we took up the intriguing later case of Steven Parrino. In his work The No Texts, Parrino had written the following about his own work’s relationship to the death of painting:
When I started making paintings, the word on painting was PAINTING IS DEAD. I saw this an an interesting place for painting…death can be refreshing, so I started engaging in necrophilia…approaching history in the same way that Dr. Frankenstein approaches body parts…
Parrino’s reaction to painting’s death was to double-down and ‘love’ painting harder; constructing a monstrous body from painting’s corpse. Following a philosopher in antiquity often meant a comparable doubling-down of that philosopher’s death, as for Socrates and others, to philosophize was to learn how to die. What singles our Parrino and Epicurus, however, was the explicit autothanatography of their gestures, each painting and philosophizing about their own deaths. It is no coincidence that in the publications (Black Noise) and exhibitions (Born to be Wild) that honored Parrino’s untimely death in 2005, the artist’s account of his necrophiliac relationship to painting loomed large. Finally, Bob Nickas acknowledges the way that Parrino directly inserted himself into the debate about the death of painting by calling a section of his Painting Abstraction book: ‘Necrophilia, Mon Amour’, citing Kosuth’s critical essay and Parrino’s celebratory autothanatogrphy in the very same gesture.