In an age when nothing is seemingly forbidden and everything is on the table, the last frontier of the verboten is the tease of death.
A typical example is Werner Herzog’s new movie, Grizzly Man, in which the savage, bone-crunching murder of grizzly lover Timothy Treadwell and his unfortunate girlfriend is caught on the audio part of a videotape. In the film, director Herzog is depicted listening to the tape with one of Treadwell’s friends, all the while admonishing his viewers that the recording is too gruesome to hear, thus titillating us even further.
In the art world, we face a similar dilemma with the work of Diane Arbus (1923-1971). In her current successful traveling retrospective, organized by her daughter, everything is reportedly shown, including Arbus’ voluminous diaries, her methods of taking photographs and her personal thoughts on the often mentally shaky subjects whom she romanced.
But in the spirit of the Forbidden, one "treasure" remains, the allegedly grisly self-orchestrated photograph of Arbus’ suicide. According to the revelation in the Arbus exhibition catalogue, Diane Arbus over a chilling weekend set up a series of cameras, which depicted over a lengthy period her self-immolation slitting her wrists in a bathtub.
So, while everything Arbus appears to have been dumped on the public, the tease remains. Perhaps we will see Nicole Kidman in the forthcoming Arbus biopic earning another Oscar by slitting her thin Aussie wrists in the bathtub, but this still will not satisfy the hunger for what lies beyond.
For guidance let’s turn to Marcel Duchamp’s Etant Donnes, the secret project ultimately revealed in the PMA after Duchamp’s death. Since art is all about what we most want to see and aren’t allowed to see in this context, perhaps the Arbus daughters could arrange for these tantalizingly presumably unlookable photographs to be released after their deaths.
Let the beholder beware!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).
"Diane Arbus Revelations" was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it appeared Oct. 25, 2003-Feb. 8, 2004, before traveling to New York, Los Angeles and Houston. It is currently on view at the Museum Folkwang, Essen, and is scheduled to appear at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Fondacion La Caixa in Barcelona, and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
A new exhibition of Arbus photographs, "Diane Arbus, Other Faces, Other Rooms," opens at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Sept. 14-Oct. 15, 2005.