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  • Susan Elaine Jones

What is art for?

So this week, month, and some of this year, and years before, I have been contemplating art.

In a classic photographic text, I came across a statement of three questions to think about when contemplating a photograph, which can apply to any piece of art:

  1. What has the artist done?

  2. What was the artist trying to achieve?

  3. Was it worth it?

The first is a straightforward description of what you see. The second, an analysis of what you think it means. The third...?

That third point is a real kick in the nuts.*

Let's take an example:

  1. Damien Hirst has (paid some people who) stuffed a shark in formaldehyde and put it in a gallery.

  2. He titled it "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living", which draws a strong message of confronting death in the modern world.

  3. Many people said it wasn't worth doing, there was nothing original about it, it was sick, and no one should have to see such things. But - it drew a massive amount of shock, publicity, debate and discussion to the topic.

So, as a now classic piece of modern art, despite all the negative statements and criticisms, I think it was worth it. In fact, I think that work helped spark a whole new movement of "visible death" that I based my degree dissertation on.

Path of cranial nerves in the skull, Susan Elaine Jones

I have tried, in my own, understated, modest, far from the line of shocking, way to share images of human skeletons without trying to shock or be controversial, but to quietly make the images more accessible and interesting.

It is still with no little trepidation that I put photos out there, for people to comment and pass judgement on. I still feel protective and vulnerable about them as every comment is also saying something about me; because I thought it worth doing, and thought it might achieve something that was worth doing.

Relapse photo, Susan Elaine Jones. Apparently just to suicidal.

I thought some of my skull photos would cause some disagreeable comments. And after what I had considered somewhat risky images of skulls, trying to combine an artistic aesthetic with educational information on the path of cranial nerves, instead of complaints, I have received compliments. I have sold pictures of them to osteologists and archaeologists and medics.

The first time I received negative feedback was actually from my "fun", "playful" pictures of my very depressing relapse. Apparently, though, they look much too suicidal-y. They were taken down from their first public showing because of complaints. I hadn't tried to be controversial. I actually had tried to be the opposite. So it was a bit of a shock to be "banned".

Steven Katzman, 1994, Anatomical preparation of a skull with dried Dahlias

And still I know I am nowhere near the controversy of Joel Peter Witkin (NSFW, or before dinner - pictures contain dead babies, amputated arms and improbable sex acts) or Sue Fox with their morgue pictures. I'm not even Steven Katzman, putting Dahlias in the skull in the Mutter Museum.

So I was surprised by a strong negative reaction from one person on a series of images I took of flowers with skulls. I had tried to step outside the gothic and morbid view, move away from the black background and muted colours, and try to be more "death positive".

The negative reaction hit me very badly, and made me question my whole motivation behind the images. I had hoped to make skulls more approachable, more acceptable, and just less niche.

Skull with flowers, Susan Elaine Jones

There was a long informed background to this, trying to emphasise how avoiding seeing human remains can make mortality more difficult to comprehend, and even in my own culture, this is only a recent thing: Charnel houses and ossuaries were a large part of English history, as was public mourning, memento moris and later, photography of the dead. And, I can't speak to any other cultures, but it is only the recent trend of the past 100 or so years where many English people like myself have grown up in a new culture of death denial and hidden death, and we are slowly trying to find a way back to relating to this stuff.

However, I was shocked and taken aback by the negative reaction. I never want to offend anyone. But, not everyone will like what I do. And, it is my job, as an artist, to challenge people in their views. I don't want to go as far as shock or be offensive (that is far too easy. If I wanted any controversy for the fame, it is a very simple to think of shocking things to do with skulls), but I do want to challenge. And, every so often, especially it seems when I use colour, I seem to upset some people. That is unfortunate, and I will always, I think, take it badly and personally. But, there are enough pictures of rainbows and calm landscapes and cats in the world. I found it hard to understand death and skeletons in part because I didn't see enough photos to help me. And I can help change that for others.

So, I've published. As I think the images are worth it. And will try to not take any criticism too personally (as I certainly never manage to accept compliments that way).

And please, if you're going to kick me in the nuts, try to be gentle.


*Yes, I'm female, both born and bred. But with few feminist icons to look up to in the 1970s, I spent a lot of time identifying with male characters in films, so yes, I have a visceral, gut reaction to being kicked in the nuts in a way that being kicked in the vagina, real or imagined, just doesn't achieve.

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