Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Art is a double edged sword. It enhances our experience of life, but also obstructs and diminishes it.

We spend most of our time here at the good ol' Illustration Art blog focusing on that enhancement part, but today as a special public service we offer some thoughts on that dark side of art-- the part they never mentioned in your high school Art Appreciation class.

Goethe wrote about how the arts make us more sensitive. In The Sorrows of Young Werther, he described a young couple in love, visiting the countryside:
We went to the window. It was still thundering at a distance: a soft rain was pouring down over the country, and filled the air around us with delicious odours. Charlotte leaned forward on her arm; her eyes wandered over the scene; she raised them to the sky, and then turned them upon me; they were moistened with tears; she placed her hand on mine and said, “Klopstock!”
This reference to the poet Friedrich Gottfried Klopstock (1724-1803) was enough to cause our hero to quiver with emotion:
At once I remembered the magnificent ode which was in her thoughts: I felt oppressed with the weight of my sensations, and sank under them. It was more than I could bear. I bent over her hand, kissed it in a stream of delicious tears, and again looked up to her eyes. Divine Klopstock!
Now, I'm a fan of cultural refinement just as much as the next guy, but when sensitivity is left to run rampant, it can become downright debilitating. Goethe's tribute leaves me gasping for air.

There's no shortage of examples of art getting in the way of life. Consider the young males out there fixating on the art of bosomy space vixens in garter belts and spiked heels. This is a dandy pastime (I can personally testify) but after a certain point collecting such images in computer games, art portfolios and limited edition giclee prints distracts the viewer from real life relationships. If we let such art distort our values and expectations, we may find ourselves with only deluxe coated archival paper stock to fondle. Art can lure us away from Ruskin's principle that "the only wealth is life."

This did not escape the attention of Walt Whitman, who asked: "Have you reckon'd that the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted in a picture?"

Here, Ronald Searle shows us someone who apparently got the answer wrong:

It seems to me that there is a bargain between art and life. To derive the most from art, we should keep the trade offs of that bargain freshly in mind:
  • Art robs us of time, but with the promise that it will pay us back by saving us time later. In theory, art will mature us, enrich us, and educate us faster than we could ever experience just by living our solitary lives. It will expose us to a wider range of perspectives than we could ever experience in real time.

  • Art comes between us and the immediacy of experience, but with the promise that its filters will enrich the way we perceive those experiences.
  • Art tells us lies (often starting with the illusion of 3D on a 2D surface) with the promise that those lies will eventually help us see the truth more clearly.
  • Art is supposed to sensitize us, but as Werther demonstrated, it's possible to become too sensitive. There are a lot of complex, high strung people out there whose refined palates do them no good at all. They have trouble getting pleasure out of life or having good relationships; you see them picking at everything, having lost the ability to take pleasure in the merely nice.
If you weigh everything we surrender to art in exchange for the good things we receive from it, it is easy to see how art could become the enemy of life. In my view, maintaining a proper balance between art and life is a major part of the challenge of appreciating art.

I try to keep in mind the wise philosophy of Lionello Venturi, who wrote:

What ultimately matters in art is not the canvas, the hue of oil or tempera, the anatomical structure and all the other measurable items, but its contribution to our life, its suggestions to our sensations, feeling and imagination.

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