Salon 19 Modern Death

The term modern has been central to MoMA’s identity since its founding, yet to be modern holds many connotations. To name just a few interpretations—not all canonical—modern can be understood as a static historical and aesthetic marker of the 20th century; a frenetic socio-cultural response to rapidly developing technology and industry; an expression of public and private identities; a contested site in struggles over race, class, and gender; or a fluid and dynamic relationship with global symbols of contemporaneity. Especially in architecture and design, modern privileges a slant toward a deeper understanding of the past and the present in order to design and build a better future, and it encompasses all aspects of life. So how does death fit in this perspective?

In this salon we discussed death in contemporary art and culture, exploring some of the following questions. What have been the critical moments—cultural, scientific, political—that have changed the face of death over the past generation? Can an arc be drawn from one incisive and popular publication, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 On Death and Dying, to another, Atul Gawande’s 2014 Being Mortal, and does that span articulate a deep cultural change? With more global exchanges possible—some violent and traumatic—what have we learned from different cultures that see death differently? How can we build more compassionate institutions (including museums) and empower those facing death to reclaim autonomy over the ends of their lives? Is medical technology leading to an “invisible death?” Can designers and architects, who are consumed with designing for a better quality of life, also design to improve the quality of dying and death? What role can artists and museums play in addressing, describing, and celebrating mortality?

This salon took place on January 23rd, 2017.


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