Have you ever stood at the edge of the train tracks and thought about jumping for no reason? or pushing someone else onto the tracks?
The instinct to run towards death was explored by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure principle, where he proposed that “the goal of all life is death.” the Death Instinct, or Thanatos, was seen as the remnants of Man’s chaotic primal past, and is associated with anger and hatred. The life instinct, Eros, is seen as the driving force or libido. Now this isn’t libido in the purely sexual sense (though sex is definitely involved) but more about a lust for life. Eros is focused around preservation for life, safety, and social harmony.
In the same way Freud claimed the self was built up in the conflict between the ‘should’ of the superego and the ‘want’ of the id, the life and death instincts are seen as dualist forces. For example, the flipping of intense love and hate, crying and laughter, deep pain and intense pleasure.
No where else is this interaction better incapsulated than in Giacometti’s Woman with her Throat Cut 1932. This biomorphic sculpture depicts an abstracted female nude, the gender evident in the presence of breasts, writhing after being raped and murdered. The nick in her elongated neck makes violence at the forefront of the sculpture. The curve of the back and splayed legs imply the spasms of death, and simultaneously the throes of sexual ecstasy. This relationship between sex and death was seen by Giacometti in many other elements of society besides Freud’s publications. For example, the french term for orgasm is “petit mort” which directly translates as ‘little death’, and the figure is also distinctly insect-like, which could be drawing on the female praying mantis who devours her sexual partners after mating. The play between the consumer and the consumed, aggressor and victim, is depicted through both the sexual and the violent by Giacometti – in which gender is integrally interlaced.
Psycho-sexual tension continues to be a presence in contemporary art. For example in the works of Louise Bourgeois, who’s Spiral Woman (1952) sculpture also explores female sexuality and torture. Other artists include Emin’s open discussion of rape in her art; Nan Goldin’s 1970s photography of the vibrant gay scene in New York City and the violence that surrounds it; and Bruce Nauman’s infamous neons combining crude and cruelty.
What of the relationship between sex and violence in 21st century society? The rise of porn in such excess has lead to an epidemic of desensitisation. The saturation of such content causes the reduction of physiological arousal, the same with violent media in general, and causes an individuals threshold to rise and rise. There’s now a call for novel, increasingly aggressive and degrading pornography, such as gagging, gang banging and facials, that didn’t really exist even a decade ago. This has leaked into real-world relationships, seen in the increase in risky sexual-practises in the face of the educative information available; or things like BDSM, to dogging, domination and the likes. The most worrying being the increase in sexual assault, for example in female anal rape, which closely correlates with the legitimising of sexual violence in porn. The fetishizing of female pain that you’d think would have been to put to bed somewhere in the 60s has clearly not subsided. At the very least, just look at the popularity of the 50 shades of grey series, and the apparent secret desire of the modern feminist woman to be sexually dominated in an aggressive manner.
The stereotypical thrill-seeking millennial: entitled, selfish, and with delusional-invinciblity, is the perfect vessel in which to explore The Death Drive. The technological age, started with hopes of the utopian progression of humanity (which in many ways it has done,) has also given both platform and market for man’s darkest desires. At this time it’s important to look to artists, who continue to hold a mirror up to contemporary culture, exploring the destructive and productive dynamics at play within in a completely unprecedented climate.