“Qualis artifex pereo” the Roman emperor Nero’s famous last words. The English translation of this quote I’m comfortable with is: What an artist dies with me (?). When I looked up each word on an online Latin to English dictionary, I drew up a translation that roughly is: qualis (what kind of an), artifex (artist), pereo (perishes, passes away). What kind of an artist perishes? I’ve found many other ways this statement is translated. What a great artist the world loses with my death. What an artist the world loses with me, or as what kind of artist do I perish. I have not seen any of these with a question-mark. I suppose this might be due to the fact that such punctuation wasn’t around (in ancient Rome) &/or most people/scholars don’t regard this statement as a question.
I personally like to think of Nero’s last words as a question, a question asked after his death. All sum: what kind of artist was Nero? Well, he seems to have been a poet, actor, singer & charioteer. We also have the well known image in our mind of him “fiddling” (playing the lyre) & singing the “Capture of Troy” on the rooftop of the palace gazing down on the great fire of Rome. Was this a result of his artistry? Was this the 1st performance art—on a grand scale? Who knows? This scene, however true, IS how the artist/emperor will be remembered (whether its veracity is debated). Other unsavory images of the artist/emperor come to mind, the matricide of the crafty Agrippina, the persecution & mistreatment of the Christians, & other questionable behaviors. Again I’ll ask: what kind of artist died when Nero committed suicide? I’ll say not a very good one. I don’t really even see him as an artist (usually), rather, I see him as the worst of Roman imperial decadence. His creativity & supposed talent were somewhat overshadowed & obliterated by his monstrous character. Who knows, perhaps he was a great singer, actor & artist—I’ll never really know.
“I believe that the artist doesn’t know what he does. I attach even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” This quote of Marcel Duchamp’s seems relevant here, because it points to one important factor; how you will be remembered is not entirely in your grasp—even if you ruled the Roman empire. This question (What an artist dies with me?) becomes a question an artist (or anyone) can ask at the moment of death, but the truth of it will be how one is remembered is simply out of our reach. How will I be remembered? How will history judge me? As Duchamp seems to be saying, the artist doesn’t understand completely the effect s/he will have on an audience. The audience more or less completes the artwork, the missing variable (for a particular artwork, or the body of an artist’s work) is that it can only be finished with the viewer, and this variable is out of the artist’s control. I’m trying to reposition the question (What an artist dies with me?) to something more universal & general. How will anybody’s work be regarded when they are dead? Whose work gets forgotten, who will be remembered? Whose work will be overshadowed by their life’s (mis)deeds, their mistakes? How is someone remembered & for what reasons? A mediocre artist can be remembered & a great artist can also be forgotten. Who can say—either way, why or why not?
Yes, Nero’s last words initially sound selfish & arrogant, but I believe that once the statement is deflated of its ego, there is a strange truth that is revealed. The truth is, how one is remembered is not (completely) under our own control. I am not claiming this as new idea, rather a little something to think about when regarding our own lives, the lives of others & even the life of Nero.