If we listen to the people who pretend to know, Catholic literature is dead, poetry is dead, pop music is long dead, jazz is dead, classical music is dead, sacred art is dead, activist art is dead, and more. It would not be a surprise to find out that there is a case to be made for the death of all mediums of art and even art itself.

The response to these claims is to mount a defense through falsification, pointing to this or that work of contemporary art that makes a farce out of its obituary, followed by the implication that the “death of art” is really about ideology, not art. My sense is that this back-and-forth about whether the aesthetic sky is falling or not has little to do with the present state of art and more to do with having very different senses of what it means for something to die.

Life and death, after all, are hardly opposites; they embrace and complement each other. It may be the case that, to the person in mourning, art is dead and, to the person hard at work curating or making a work of art, art is very much alive. This is not willy-nilly relativism: It is simply the much-abused good sense inherent in a great deal of clear thinking and, coincidentally, William James’s unoriginal conception of pragmatism.

The more fundamental question is neither sociological nor metaphysical. We must ask an alternative question: What does art do? What happens when art happens? One response is that art kills. Art even kills itself, at every level. Art kills artists; art kills epochs and eras; art kills convention; art kills beauty. Art kills everything. In the wake of art we cling to life and conserve it poorly through fear and well through love.

Art kills all through desire.

On this view, art is a killer, a dangerous and violent entity like gravity. The alternate view to this fatalistic one is the vitalist position that seems to be generating so much anxiety about the axiomatic death and life of the arts. These disputes of memory and counter-memory, past and present, project equally plastic futures: the apocalypse, nostalgic revival, or business as usual.

The vitalist assumption expects art to conquer all, change the world, and waxes sentimental about beauty in ways that turn fresh spring water into stale vomit. How many more essays must we read about the enchantment of the arts to be convinced that perhaps art is something altogether different and more radically normal than these mediocre dreams of Eden?

The reduction of all art can be found in its folk expression. There is no form of art that escapes a folkloric foundation. The Gospel demand of death to self treats the selfhood of the human person as a piece of art. The developmental sickness of values in our time, and times past, often mistakes this personalist firstness of the folk as a trivializing or infantilizing inferiority, on the one hand. On the other, it celebrates it in a naïve and hipster way, without understanding or caring about it.

To understand folk music, for instance, is to know that it does not exist. This is not populist music that “everyone can sing along to easily”; these are songs that die as soon as they are born and often become impossible to share because each region and people cling to “their” expression of the song. What makes folk art universal is its suicidal aversion to notation and memory, its weakness and fragility and tendency to go extinct. This is what Dylan understood so well when he went electric.

The ultimate and most rare climax of folk music is improvisation, always dead on arrival, always the last gasp of a dying soul. The screams and applause for a jazz soloist who moves, confuses, and excites a room of people is always tragic, I suppose, but it is also expected and staged for that purpose. Find a song trapped in a room of people who don’t expect or know it, and give it no chance for retrieval or YouTube sharing: this is improvisation. What is left behind we can love and should treasure, but the chronological remnant is never the same as the phenomenological origin.

The vitalist mourners and defenders of art have nothing to lose. All we have to lose is the boredom and tedium with which they torment us, their words, and my word about their words. To admit that art kills has no effect on this quarrel and takes nothing from nor adds anything to the studio, the stage, and the daydream. What it asserts is not an alternative. It is a truth that does not need to defend itself; it is sufficient enough to outlast its own demise.

Art kills all. Art kills death.