Museum of Contemporary Religious Art

January 5, 2011

The art of dying

Artist Tobi Kahn, who has a long association with MOCRA (including the exhibitions Metamorphoses and Avoda: Objects of the Spirit) , was featured in a recent New York Times article on the role art can play in the dying process. (Read the article here.) As he relates in the article, Kahn found that through his artwork he was able to provide a measure of solace to his mother as she lay in the hospital during her final days. From that experience, Kahn was inspired to consult with clergy members, hospice workers and funeral directors about what qualities in art would be comforting to people who are dying.

Expressing through his work both the pain of suffering and the hope for healing is not new ground for Kahn, who has completed a number of commissions for hospices, hospitals and memorial chapels, along with several Holocaust memorials. And, as MOCRA has demonstrated amply in exhibitions such as Consecrations: The Spiritual in Art in the Time of AIDS, The Greater Good: An Artist’s Contemporary View of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Robert Farber: A Retrospective, 1985-1995, Junko Chodos: The Breath of Consciousness, Good Friday: The Suffering Christ in Contemporary Art, Georges Rouault: Miserere et Guerre, and Lewis deSoto: Paranirvana, numerous contemporary artists confront the reality of suffering and death in their work.

MOCRA Director Terrence E. Dempsey, S.J., was interviewed for the New York Times article. He remarks, “One of the common bonds across traditions is the human concern with suffering, love, mortality, immortality. The role of religious art at the end of life is that it helps us focus on what’s really important–an interior healing, even if there is no physical healing, and finally a sense of gratitude.”

I am struck, though, that Kahn is creating art for this privileged point in people’s lives with a measure of intentionality. While many (if not most) health care facilities select art that will be soothing to its patients, and even commission specific works of art and even sculpture gardens or meditation rooms, I wonder how often that art is considered from the perspective of those who know that death is near, that there is no further physical healing to be expected. How can art contribute to palliative care? How can it complement the services of chaplains and hospice workers in accompanying people as they approach the end of life?

Samuel Freedman, the author of the article, suggests that Kahn’s works “subscribe at least loosely to the Judaic concept of ‘hiddur mitzvah,’ sanctifying something (a commandment, if one is literal) by beautifying it.” Amidst all the trappings of current American healthcare–cutting edge technology, powerful pharmaceuticals, agonizing contention over how to pay for treatments–can all parties in their own ways help to beautify, and thereby sanctify, the process of dying?

— David Brinker, Assistant Director

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