The essence of art

Therese asked:

What is the essence of art?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

I hope you will not expect an essay from me on such a large and problematic issue! All I can do, is to give you some clues that might go some way toward an answer.

First, it depends on time and place — there is no universally agreed ‘essence’ of art across all cultures where it is practised. Nevertheless (point 2), underlying this diversity we find a common thread, which is the impulse to adorn and embellish ourselves and our environment, as well as making utilitarian objects attractive by beautification. But this is not yet art; nor is it unique to mankind — we share these traits with many animals which exhibit the same impulses.

So we need to look elsewhere. We need to look at how we express ourselves on occasions of high intensity. There are two ways, one associated with our relations to the gods (let’s call this ‘religion’); the other with the sorry fact that “we are all born to suffer”. When we look at our resources in these contexts, we find our imaginative faculties straining to find modes of expression and self-expression that reach for greater profundity than prayers or sacrificing, weeping or becoming depressed. We might feel something stirring in ourselves, that seeks to connect us more intimately with the gods or our grief and suffering. Then instead of mumbling and wailing, we begin to sing — as Goethe said in one of his poems, “when as a creature I fall mute from pain, a god gave me tongue to sing of what I suffer.”

Elaborating a bit: Art thrives on aspiration and inspiration. Take note that these are ‘vertical’ directions, ‘the spirit’ rising above and descending below the thresholds of quotidian experience.

It stands to reason that this is not a matter for logical analysis or verbal confetti about cause and effect. It has to do with soul, emotion, feeling and related impulses which resist clear-cut conceptualisation, although we clearly have the capacity to experience them. Though born from a religious sense, they do not compellingly involve religious faith. On the contrary, art is deeply entangled in ‘the meaning of life’; it represents the imprint of our humanness on a cold, unfeeling universe.

All this is of course thoroughly ambiguous, so that skeptical eras like ours can easily “lose the plot” and treat art as merely another form of entertainment. When this happens, it doesn’t diminish the relevance of art, but leaves a hole in our self-conception where desperation and meaninglessness creep in, which we cannot combat with the web’s “millions of songs” or the millions of paintings in our galleries and cruise ships, that are all stereotypes of each other.

At any rate, the essence of art and the essence of human life are are so tightly interwoven that one could say: Art alone of all our attainments puts our fingerprint on the world’s face, imparts meaning to it, connects us to ourselves collectively and reconciles us to the bitterness of necessity. As Nietzsche once said, “let us have art so as not to die of the truth!” Which means nothing other than that the truths of art are ingrained in us, whereas all other truths are tyrants imported from science, philosophy, religion, politics, economics, what have you. Therefore art is the mirror of our creative consciousness, whose essence it is to create the values that impart meaning to our existence. Take them away, and existence itself would hardly matter a jot.


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