The Great Power Of Art

To express the sorrows and ugliness of the world

It is a sign of the speed at which events are moving that many are longing for the past, for a simpler time when the neighbours were friends and the kids laughed at the muck on their knees. Life seemed more colourful back then.

But, of course, it is foolish to believe that the past was more cheerful than it is now. Anyone who says it was has not managed to disentangle their real memories from the later accretions. And yet everyone yearns to return to a moment in their past. I cannot think of a reason why except that we rather enjoy it.

All those gurus, they say, ‘Live in the moment and practice non-attachment.’ But we are not saints, nor do we wish to be one. The average person is a failed saint, but the average saint is a failed human being. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is prepared, in the end, to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the unavoidable cost of trusting one’s love and vulnerability with others. Often the pain of the past is exactly what brings us to the present. Sometimes, the past is all we have to show for ourselves.

No one has ever shown that man is cheerful by his nature. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. For nature has armed man beyond his competence. We have transformed the world, we have thought the world, we are the world, yet we are alone, without the privilege of enemies. And so, we have no choice but to wield the power nature gifted us against ourselves.

For it is only we who can confuse pleasure from sadness, who suffer pain without realising it is, in fact, happiness, who can appreciate the melodies of the songbirds whilst destroying their habitat, who cry for help without ever uttering a word. This is the burden of consciousness, a disease as some have called it — the great struggle that plagues all human beings.

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We see, hear and taste just how momentary, how pathetically short-lived nature is; we understand that one day everything we hold dear in our little worlds will vanish without ever filling the emptiness in our hearts. The rivers will run black, the ones we love will leave us and the flowers will once again retreat into the ground.

And even when we do feel true happiness, we are suspicious and afraid of it. The light shines upon our faces, yet we are so fearful of life that we hunch over, shielding our hearts from the darkness that will follow. Man is far too aware to enjoy the present moment. He would rather cry for the past or worry about the future than enjoy the way the rain dashes across his face.

But if life is so tragic why, Peter Wessel Zapffe asked, do we continue to persist?

‘Why, then, has mankind not long ago gone extinct during great epidemics of madness? Why do only a fairly minor number of individuals perish because they fail to endure the strain of living?’

And Zapffe believed that he had found the answer:

‘Cultural history, as well as observation of ourselves and others, allow the following answer: Most people learn to save themselves by artificially limiting the content of consciousness.’

The safety and anchor of home, beer, commercial sports, celebrity gossip, gambling, movies, pornography, television programmes and, of course, drugs fill the depth of most people’s mind. These distractions ease the dullness, the discomfort, the dreariness and the anxiety of life; they allow most people to maintain the belief that life is reasonable and worthwhile. And so, the horizon of most people’s attention is limited by constant immediate gratification and indulgence.

Indeed, the whole tendency of human beings is to narrow the experience of his life so that he should feel as little pain as possible. We find ourselves in a fight against nature, against the pain of our immense awareness. Because if one is to make the most of his life, he must be prepared to suffer the most awful sorrow and grief.

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But few are willing to grasp the fullness of life; most prefer to stay in the middle, to avoid the highest of promises and the lowest of pains. So, in times of darkest, most curse their consciousness and do whatever they can to distract themselves from the world.

Humans have been doing this since the very beginning. History was not as rosy as the school teachers made it out to be — it was full of drunkards, gambling addicts, and violent crooks. Alcohol was the often the only thing that got men through their miserable lives. But it is difficult to understand this fact nowadays. For at least half a century now we have been prosperous enough to consider the necessity of alcohol. Still, we have found other ways to distract ourselves.

‘Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he’s happy? Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?’

― Aldous Huxley, Antic Hay

But there are people, creative sorts usually, whose awareness and consciousness extends beyond the forms of distraction that entertain the majority of people. These people see, hear, feel and embrace immeasurably more than the ordinary person — they are incredibly sensitive to the frequency and vibrations of the world around them. Their compassion, empathy and electric creativity allow them to feel the tide of the sea, to touch the emotions in the landscape and to see the twists and turns in the architecture.

And yet this immense awareness is a disaster. Because the more one comes to understand oneself as a ‘self’, and the ensuing responsibility of becoming his own self, the more one is inclined towards hopelessness and despair — and ultimately, a hatred of the self. You cannot live blissfully unaware if you have great intelligence and a beautiful heart.

“The intensities of my feeling make me shudder and laugh; several times I could not leave the room for the ridiculous reason that my eyes were inflamed — from what? Each time, I had wept too much on my previous day’s walk, not sentimental tears but tears of joy; I sang and talked nonsense, filled with a glimpse of things which put me in advance of all other men.”

(Selected Letters of Friedrich Nietzsche)

Many great thinkers, including Zapffe, encouraged people with sensitive souls to channel their energy into art. For art revives the heart from the suffering caused by a delicate mind that looks into life too deeply; it is the discipline that prevents the all-seeing eye from gazing into the darkest of corners.

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To express the sorrows and ugliness of the world is better than to depress it within you. Art eases darkness and tension into beauty, and with beauty, you revive the experience of life itself. For it is beauty that inspires men to suffer the worst of all evils, to endure the harshest of uncertainties — it is ‘the great seduction to life; the great stimulant to life’.

But by shielding ourselves from terrible certainties, we also hide from the fullness of life, the true rapture of nature and emotion. The artist embraces his suffering, he may even declare his pain to be beautiful. He understands that because life is sorrowful, art must also be sorrowful.

The challenge of the artist, then, is to turn his heartache into inspiration, laughter, hope, anger, joy or glamour. And as he brings new worlds into existence and destroys only what needs to be destroyed in order for something more alive and virtuous to appear, he feels the increased strength and vitality of kingship and mastery. Suddenly, the ephemeral is replaced by the eternal, by that which does not leave us, by the beautiful.

When we laugh at our own misfortune or watch a tragedy at the theatre, we learn that the highest beauty is that of catastrophe. If it was not for art, if it was not for beauty, then the heartlessness of the truth would suffocate us. Art is a lie, a masterful illusion. But it is also a necessity if those with delicate spirits are to find a belonging in this world.

harry stead