The frailty of the human condition—and the cruelty of untimely loss of life—is one of art’s oldest and most enduring themes. Every year on December 1, we’ve reflected on this theme for Day Without Art, an international day of observance of the impact of the AIDS pandemic on cultural life.
Many works of ancient art speak poignantly of the grief and bewilderment caused by untimely death. Death was a vivid reality in the ancient world, when lifespans were short and medicine still relatively primitive. The pain of loss is particularly evident in the many Greek and Roman funerary objects used to commemorate the passing of loved ones, like this grave stele depicting family members saying good-bye to a deceased woman. Sarcophagi lamenting untimely death often use representations of mythological heroes and gods to tell their stories.
Yet these works of funerary art also celebrate life, both of those who have passed and of those who remain to savor the beauty of the image left behind. From earliest times, loss has also provided artists with a opportunity to recognize the accomplishments and uniqueness of a departed individual—as with a grave relief of a freed slave who made his living as a silversmith and a beautiful mummy portrait of a wealthy Egyptian matron.
The art of our day, of course, also deals with loss. A starkly modern version is captured in Weegee’s Their First Murder, which shows a woman in a state of violent mourning surrounded by children laughing and carrying on. This dramatizes a less noble, but equally human reaction to loss: mockery and emotional distance.
Dorothea Lange’s poignant photograph of a migrant mother in California, whose grim countenance makes evident her family’s economic struggle, reveals a different kind of loss—of hope, of stability, and of the most basic human requirements, food and shelter.
Some artists convey loss without a single human figure. I particularly like Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s Landscape with a Stairway and Balustrade, which depicts a desolate, overgrown garden landscape marked by melancholy, loss, and decay. The passage of time here leads to the destruction of the inanimate as well as the animate. No one and nothing is exempt.
Day Without Art is an opportunity to remember the many lives cut short by AIDS and to reflect on the impact of this cultural loss. But it’s also a day to celebrate humanity’s shared artistic legacy. Although the AIDS pandemic has claimed hundreds of artists, our continued interest and appreciation for art keeps their work alive. That is something loss will never destroy.