“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle
Human beings as a collective entity have always struggled with the idea of immortality. We inherently shy away from the unstable, uncertain, and unknown. Similarly, we are reluctant to put any degree of faith into projects, ideologies, relationships, or even religions that do not offer at least some semblance of a long-term pay off.
From Greece to Rome to Byzantium, history has taught us that even the strongest, most invincible empires must one day meet their doom. In many ways, this is the inevitability of living: nothing lasts forever.
This does not, of course, prevent many of us from trying. The human race is genetically driven to seek safety, which we have long since come to synonymize with stability. Stability, in turn, implies the presence of longevity. Can our world today be defined as stable? Hardly. Within the last fifteen years alone, humanity has been rocked by wars, poverty, government overthrows, financial meltdowns, social unrest, and demonstrations of senseless, brutal violence.
We Are Vulnerable To The Tragedy Of Living
Despite our best efforts, we are exceptionally vulnerable to the tragedy of living. Triumphs have certainly come to pass within the course of human existence, but as Jean Tarrou points out in Albert Camus’ The Plague, “Your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”
Is there, then, anywhere we can turn in order to combat the negative side effects of the notion that neither man nor nation will last forever? As renowned German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (who, contrary to popular opinion, was not a Nazi sympathizer), writes in The Birth of Tragedy, “Art alone can turn those thoughts of disgust at the horror or absurdity of existence into imaginary constructs which permit living to continue.”
History speaks to the truth of his words. For thousands of years, the human race has gravitated towards the arts to grapple with as well as preserve what precisely it means to be human.
Only Art Can Save Us
In more ways than one, literature, art, music, and film save us from ourselves. They remind us of who we are and reflect bits and pieces of our individuality. They even demonstrate our incredible propensity to derive meaning out of seeming meaninglessness, which is especially observable in movements like Zürich Dada and post-modern literature.
The recurrent themes that are intricately woven throughout the history of the arts pinpoint the facets of our existence that we cherish the most: hope, the ability to connect with and relate to those around us, self-actualization, the pursuit of happiness, and, as J.K. Rowling has been championing since 1997, love. These themes are often juxtaposed with the nastier aspects of life: pain for the sake of pain, betrayal, loss, stigmatization, madness, and death.
This juxtaposition is precisely why it is a gargantuan mistake to conflate art with beauty. Whether we realize it or not, we intrinsically cherish meaning significantly more so than we do beauty. Beauty, much like ourselves, will eventually fade. Deeper meaning, though, is going to outlive us all.
We Are Thrilled By Disgusting Things
For example, can Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which revolves around the highly sexualized relationship between thirty-seven-year-old rapist-murderer Humbert Humbert and twelve-year-old Dolores Haze, be classified as a ‘beautiful’ piece of literature?
The story is repulsive, disgusting, and remarkably unsettling from start to finish, which makes the novel’s perception of beauty entirely up to the reader. Although Humbert’s relationship with language can certainly be contrived as beautiful, the overarching work is not aesthetically pleasing in the same way as, say, a sunset, which we tend to look at and exclaim, “Oh, how pretty!” before proceeding to Instagram a cleverly captioned picture.
Yet, despite the fact that Lolita was initially banned in France, the United Kingdom, and South Africa for its shocking perverseness and scandalous themes, it has lived on in the canon of great and laudable American literature since its publication in 1955. This is because the ugliness of the story harbors profound meaning in between the lines. This meaning speaks to the sheer power of the written word, and validates the deception that often lurks behind the most tantalizingly alluring of facades.
The same concept applies to art. Is Marcel Duchamp’s infamous 1951 Bicycle Wheel, which quite literally features a metal bicycle fork and wheel turned upside down and mounted on a wooden kitchen stool, verifiably ‘beautiful?’
Highly esteemed art critics went back and forth for years as to whether or not Bicycle Wheel could be considered ‘art’ at all; at the time of its unveiling, the idea of debating whether or not the piece was beautiful was downright laughable.
Not all art is supposed to be ‘pretty.’ Just like literature, art is oftentimes deliberately created to be jarring, disturbing, and utterly unnerving.
Art Pushes You To Think At A Higher Level
At their core, the arts are intended to make us think. They detach us from reality (occasionally in lucrative and socially unacceptable ways) and make us aware that we are a part, as opposed to the center, of an incredibly complex and interdependent universe. The arts disassemble social constructs and invite us to push the boundaries of our thinking beyond what we experience in the every day.
Lastly, it is through the arts that humankind gets a taste of the intrigue of immortality. Think, for example, of the RMS Titanic: the James Cameron film has outlived the physical, God-himself-could-not-sink-this ship by at least sixteen years. The fact that the movie was re-adapted for 3D and shown in theaters in 2012 (fifteen years after its original release in 1997) suggests that this number will only continue to increase.
Dating back even further to the days of oral tradition, Homer’s Achilleus (or Achilles, as he is referred to outside of the world of Ancient Greece) is perhaps one of the most immortalized characters in all of literature. Anyone who has read the Iliad will most likely recall these famous lines of dactylic hexameter:
“My mother, Thetis,
tells me that there are two ways I might die. If I stay here
and keep on fighting around the city of Troy,
I can never go home, but my glory will live forever;
But if I return in my ships to my own dear country,
my glory will die, but my life will be long and peaceful” (9.412-17).
In essence, Achilleus’ mother told him that he would die one of two ways: after a too-short life consumed by battle, or after a long, peaceful one spent in Greece with his friends and family.
If he chose the former, he would live forever upon the lips of men; if he chose the latter, the Fates made it clear that no one would ever remember his name. Given that the legacy of Achilleus is still discussed in classrooms and pop culture approximately 1,300 years later, it is fairly easy to deduce which option he chose.
Characters like Achilleus illuminate of the potency of the arts by reminding us that despite all of our vulnerabilities and shortcomings, we have the incredibly unique ability to leave a legacy.
It is thus critical to remember Dr. Rieux’s response to Jean Tarrou’s previously mentioned remark regarding the non-permanence of human victory: “Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”
-Laura Wiley (@lauraewiley)