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Discussing Western Societal Reactions Towards Death and 

Exploring the Changes Through the Work of Modern Artists and Designers

Vanitas Kodatrace1.jpg



As a designer, it is always pertinent for me to look at real life for inspiration. Not only the natural world with its endless amounts of fascinating creatures and incredible landscapes, but also to the human reaction and interpretation of it. 


During my Bachelors degree in Printed Textiles, when responding to a brief to design a ‘floral collection’, I naturally took a distaste to the ‘what-was-expected’ or ‘traditional’ approach for a floral printed textile design, and instead chose to look at the Vanitas art movement. My designs derived from the often-overlooked beauty of dead flowers- the gnarly shapes and twisted edges much more interesting to sketch and the study and inclusion of human skulls that I had seen in the paintings. As I am someone who has always been interested in anatomical drawings, studying biology, and also being the daughter of a nurse, I perceived the subject of a human skull to be as natural and as relevant as the flowers studied by my peers. I was therefore surprised by some of the reactions to my designs being ‘too morbid’ and ‘distasteful’. Throughout my life my uncle has often quoted ‘nothing is certain, but death and taxes’[1]and it has always fascinated me- the idea that death is the most outstanding certainty of all of our lives, but never or rarely spoken about. I don’t consider myself to be a morose or depressive person, but on the contrary, find it to be slightly untruthful to dismiss the subject so vastly to deem it ‘distasteful’ to even see a drawing of a human skull- albeit ironic, considering we all have one. 


Paradoxical to some reactions towards my work, I believe we are all innately drawn to trauma, death and disgust. Even beyond the obvious examples: historically, there were gladiator fights and public executions, but even in modern day there are phantom traffic jams created by passers-by ogling accidents, and even to the extent of weird and wonderful social media pages like ‘Dr Pimple Popper’, an Instagram account with 2.7 million followers, which consists only of videos of ‘pimple popping’ by a professional dermatologist.[2]This undeniable human fascination with disgust and morbidity is evident throughout history and still prevalent in modern media, so my curiosity throughout this text lies in exploring what our modern perceptions of morbidity in the West are, questioning our levels of distaste in modern society, and how designers and artists are reacting to and utilising this.


When analysing societal understandings, it is valid to reference art as it demonstrates reactions to current affairs- whether that is making a political statement, expressing a culture or challenging aesthetic norms. Art is honest and is open for discussion because whether it is being praised or critiqued, the reaction towards the art itself reflects an individual opinion. Art and design should be stimulating, reactive and comprehensive and whether or not you agree with what it is trying to express, the fact it is there to provoke the thought or conversation is in itself important. Sir Peter Bazalgette, the chair of the Arts Council, pioneers the arts as a celebration of an inherent value of culture, a symbiotic relationship with education, and boosts economic growth- without it we would be a ‘society bereft of a national conversation’.[3]       


Although in a modern, digital age art can be described as ‘globalised’ due to our expansive reach, as discussed in Schneider’s ‘Alternative Art and Anthropology’, it is evident that art is still indicative of those who made it, their surrounding culture, their insights and experiences- therefore to try and keep this text authentic the focus will be based on British artists and designers and gauging ‘Western’ reactions. Not promoting Western ideas in a view of being a ‘cultural arbiter’ but merely reacting to my own perspective and experiences as a designer.[4]Although the term ‘Western’ is broad in its definition, not only containing Europe, but also America and Australasia; it is just a generalisation to represent the core group similarities regarding societal values, historical attributes and ethical customs.[5]


Nature is arguably the biggest source of inspiration for many different artistic medium- whether it is a J.M.W Turner watercolour landscape, a commercial Cath Kidston ditsy-floral textile, or a Damien Hirst formaldehyde-suspended shark. The natural world is unrelenting in its diverse matter for artists and designers to draw from and utilise in their work; it is, however, less common to highlight the undeniable demise of us all- death. The purpose of this text is to explore Western societal reaction towards death through the work of modern artists and designers, as well as first-hand accounts from professionals dealing with death directly; in the trading of taxidermy and human remains, and from a healthcare perspective with both palliative care and post mortem.


[1]Daniel Defoe, The Political History of the Devil, (London; Anonymous, 1726)

[2]Dr Sandra Lee, ‘Dr. Pimple Popper (@doctorpimplepopper)’, Instagram<> [accessed 29 March 2018]

[3]Sir Peter Bazalgette, ‘We Have to Recognise the Huge Value of Arts and Culture to Society’, The Guardian, 26 April 2014, section Culture <> [accessed 3 July 2018]

[4]Arnd Schneider, Alternative Art and Anthropology: Global Encounters(London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) p.48

[5]Science Daily, ‘Western Culture’, ScienceDaily<> [accessed 2 April 2018]




LIST OF IMAGES                                                                                                                                    4


INTRODUCTION                                                                                                                                    5




Western Society and How it has Changed

- Technology                                                                                                                                             7

- Medicine                                                                                                                                                 7




Quantifying Western Reactions Regarding Death

- The Context of Death in Art                                                                                                              11




Morbid Fascinations?

- Polly Morgan                                                                                                                                       20

- Damien Hirst                                                                                                                                       26

- Alexander McQueen                                                                                                                          28



CONCLUSION                                                                                                                                       33



BIBILIOGRAPHY                                                                                                                                 35




- 1. Interview with Philip Hodson from Spitalfields Taxidermy                                                 40           

- 2. Interview with Deputy Ward Sister Aimee Sparks                                                                 42           

- 3. Interview with Sue McCourt ‘A patients perspective’                                                            45

- 4. Interview with J.T. Gorman & Sons Funeral Directors                                                         46           

- 5. Interview with Carrie Hill, Designer for Alexander McQueen                                             48

- 6. Survey Complaint & Feedback                                                                                                    49

- 7. Survey Results                                                                                                                                50

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