I don’t know how to start this blog post. I want to talk about death. Generally American American culture compartmentalizes death from life. Instead of integrating into the “circle of life”, like the New Orleans dirge does, we see life as a linear start and finish. Death inevitably visits us all, and keeping death away from life slows the grieving process. I deeply appreciate when artists like Steve Prince speak about death and loss, as he did in his Kitchen Talk at Geneseo, which I will talk about below. When I see someone like Steve Prince who lives so wholeheartedly and creates positivity from painful experiences, I feel like I can talk about those things in my life too. The institutional, slow violence that Prince as a black man in America experiences and has spent his career being an activist against is different than regular medical tragedy, but death is a commonality that all of humanity can relate to.
The funeral dirge, that is the lament for the dead, and then the second line of jaunty, syncopated 2/4 beats (that we danced to at the end of the talk) meant to represent the afterlife forms the two parts of a classic New Orleans style funeral, that Prince captures in works like Second Line: Rebirth. You cry for the dead, then laugh with the living. Or both at the same time. That strikes me as an emotionally cathartic and wise wise societal tradition, better than solemnity.
I learned a lot about the art historical references that Steve Prince uses in his work, that I and a lot of the public would not recognize on their own. The visual language of Steve Prince impressed me with its education, its layers, and its personal quirks. For instance, I thought his borrowing of the pose from The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, where the man is surrounded by danger and very vulnerable but has casual, confident body language (“just chilling” as Steve described). He translated that into a painting about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, surrounded by dead bodies, decay, destruction, where a man on his porch sits the same way. Furthermore, this attitude of “cool” I also saw in the Four Horsemen, who represent death in various, amorphous ways, but wear black suits, have visually stylish spiked shoes, and are powerful. They are trickster gods. I see it as a radical response in the face of hardship, to make characters that believe in themselves to be able to handle tough situations.