At the end of James 4 we read: ‘Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin’ (v.17).
The active ignorance described here—working against truth and justice in full knowledge of what is right—is in the context of the whole passage revealed as a sinful symptom of human pride. James targets those who speak with certainty about their future plans, as if they were unquestionably achievable. These people have forgotten their finitude, ignoring how it is only by the will of God that they live, or do this or that. Arrogance has led them to deny their limitations and that their existence is given them from without. They have, in idolatrous defiance of the eternal, made gods of themselves.
There are myriad memento mori paintings hanging in the world’s art galleries which signal the vanity and futility of human plans by featuring a skull prominently among other worn-out objects—bottles, candles, well-thumbed books. The skulls in these pictures disclose the inevitability and routine quality of death; like the flow of time and the process of ageing, death qualifies life and should not be ignored. The works by Holbein and Hirst featured here push beyond this simple, forlorn note about the mundane nature of death, but in divergent ways.
The distorted skull in Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of the French ambassadors is at once prominent and difficult to discern. Death is made central to the double portrait of these men, but it slips in sideways, in an out-of-the-ordinary way. We must watch for it carefully. Recognizing life’s limits means cultivating our powers of attention.
By contrast with this obliqueness, but just as out-of-the-ordinary, Damien Hirst’s skull announces itself with brilliant light bouncing off its copious diamonds. Gemstones line even its open eye sockets and nasal cavities. The skull becomes more than a reminder of a once-living creature. Its jaw may be full of human teeth, but the face has become an inhuman, sparkling mask, which grins a fixed and unnatural smile. Death in this imagining is hypostasized, made concrete. It screams out at us, sublime and triumphant—coming at us as if from outside the flow of time. How can we ignore it?
If death here seems to take the form of a richly decorated idol, then perhaps Hirst’s work also plays on the ways our world has made death ultimate. Treating this life as all there is, we fear death as the moment when all is lost, and so expend our wealth (through medical science) in delaying death’s arrival for as long as possible—a kind of propitiation, for the love of this false god?
James 5 addresses the wealthy. We are told that the rich have taken what is not theirs to take, and are given a vivid image: the unpaid wages of labourers ‘cry out’ (v.4) as if from the very pockets of fraudulent employers. Profit gained through oppression and dishonesty, these unpaid wages witness, wailing, to their misappropriation.
The works by Banksy and Holbein meet this theme of unworthy consumption and unjust possession from sharply contrasting perspectives. Banksy’s graffiti, executed illegally on external, publicly visible walls cannot by design be valued or possessed in the same manner as Holbein’s painting, which was commissioned at great expense for Jean de Dinteville’s residence in Polisy. Banksy creatively appropriates surfaces which are already visible in public spaces, to draw attention to matters of shared concern—injustice and inequality. He trespasses on the customary uses of buildings (in this case, a performance space and a commercial art gallery) and gives them a renewed political meaning for passers-by. Sweeping it Under the Carpet prompts us to think critically about the proper relationship between ownership and enjoyment in our world.
The politics of possession are also evoked by the objects represented in Holbein’s work. The distorted skull in the foreground derives its eeriness in part from its juxtaposition with the ornate and rich objects above it which—unlike the skull—are eminently visible and ownable, many of them instruments for aiding human conquest and control. By thus evoking the frailty of material life in time, Holbein’s painting, despite being an expensive private commission replete with variously lavish and sophisticated objects, relativizes the supposed virtues of ownership and possession, just as Banksy’s does by disrupting private property claims over artworks and external walls.
Possessions are not sources of ultimate value, security, or joy. Living as if they are—accumulating pridefully, unjustly, in a way that harms others—is misdirected and futile, as the book of James maintains.
Fuchs, Rudi. 2008. ‘Victory over Decay’ in Damien Hirst: Beyond Belief (London: Other Criteria/White Cube)
Rowlands, John. 1985. Holbein: The Paintings of Hans Holbein the Younger (Oxford: Phaidon Press)
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; 14whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. 4Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.