The Unsettling Mission of a Masterpiece

Encapsulating mortality into eternity through art

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Art, creation, creativity: however we name the human will and capacity to extract, metamorphosize and immortalize the fleeting vapors of the imagination, intellect, senses and emotions, the enigmatic process seems to place recurring question marks after every implied full stop of rationalization.

Whence did Art as such come into being in the human soul? Why does civilization thrive on expression? Who is the addressee of Art in a century unspeakably more keen on probing outer space than inner self? What can present-day thinkers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, etc. add to the millennia of wisdom in our already bursting public domain library?

Far from rhetoric, the questions are part of an obsessive search for ultimate meaning for anyone employed in the pursuit of leaving a trace, a footprint, a speck of memory on our Pale Blue Dot, the one captured from 3.7 billion miles away in one of the most poignant valentines from the Universe itself.

Earth (the tiny bluish dot in the ray of brown light on the right) from 3.7 billion miles away. As photographed by Voyager 1 on February 14, 1990.

Faust: “Stay awhile, you are so beautiful!”

The XXI century is an unprecedented time of total availability — and a scarecrow for curiosity driven by rarity, uniqueness, and the act of overcoming vital to human development, thought, and intellectual survival.

To quote the socially-satiric 2018 comeback of the 90s television series X-Files, “Your time is past. We’re now living in a post-cover up, post-conspiracy age.” The post-conspiracy age, that is, where there’s no need to conceal any kind of truth. Everything is public domain; nothing is trusted. Including Art.

An artist living and creating in 2019 has a towering mission set out before him: endeavor to shift the reality of an audience more used to passively repeating schematic emotions in tune to the swiftly-flashing scenes produced by experts at marketing to our slipping attention spans, than giving time to the marvels of meditation, philosophy, and unsolicited thought. For the first time in history, it’s not unavailability that hinders the progress of enlightenment, but apathy.

In contrast to the dumbing-down of reality, the artist’s mission is to shift reality away from the passivity of existence and into the singularity of extending fleeting moments of existence. Art isn’t for sociopaths, out-of-this-world geniuses, or monks.

Art is only possible where there is mortality to begin with. In itself, art is the encapsulating of mortality into eternity.

This process of encapsulating the fleeting into the eternal may be the only righteous answer to Faust’s forbidden plaint, as immortally expressed by Goethe, “Stay awhile [oh moment], you are so beautiful!”, referring to the ultimate catch of Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles. As we may recall, the devil was to assist Doctor Faust in his wishes (including the return to youth) on one condition: as long as the latter never found a moment of life so beautiful as to wish to make it linger. If it so happened (as it did), the devil would have Faust’s soul. In a sense, the devil was willing to grant every wish of Faust, except for the wish to create Art.

Faust illustration by Harry Clarke, 1925
Faust garden scene. Illustration by Harry Clarke, 1925

Who if not Goethe knew the depth of the forbidden fruit and its deepest value? Only through Art are humans — both the initiators and the initiated— allowed to whisper to a moment of time, “stay awhile, you are so beautiful!” It is this “eternalizing of beauty” that is supposed to be extremely precious to a human being — precious enough for the devil to vouch that such a desire is impossible to resist!

“I think it would be rather narrow — and moralistic — to say that poetry must comfort us and point to what is good. I don’t think that is the function of art, though sometimes it is a happy result. […] I don’t want the reader to experience comfort — I want the opposite.”

So said American poet Henri Cole in an interview to the Paris Review. His words echo the submerged, ‘unsocial’ essence of art — and the reason for its lack of mass rapture. Add to that writer Susan Sontag’s, “true art makes us uncomfortable” or the composer Karol Szymanowski’s, “The only ground on which true art can grow is the deepest and most mysterious panicky human feeling concerning the fact of existence.”

These creators knew that there’s nothing pretty about the so-called “content” they were creating. Their mission was not to leave us with a Disney-ish happy ending or transform truth into something that goes down better with popcorn.

Art doesn’t comply with ‘normality’. Like a force of nature, Art is disruptive in essence.

Art has always been, in its essence, the two-edged sword that would separate human life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’, or at least endeavor to do so for the hour or so that we allotted to that play, novel, story, symphony, etc. It may even be the five minutes we dedicated to a poem or a short personal essay that washed us over with a wave of thought. Whatever form it takes, creative art always shouts out to us — linger a little longer! Don’t forget me in the whirlwind of your phone notifications, tasks and chores. Encapsulate me in that secret part of your mind and pay a visit once in a while — or create something personal from what I’ve given you. Take me for your own and continue the pattern.

The great problem with that plea—it demands time for itself. Not only the time of the giver but the time of the receiver. And time is like the elusive rainbow that we chase with all sorts of technology only to see the rainbow smile at us from the same insurmountable distance. We have a concept that if we stop for a moment and say, “stay awhile” to a thought, an idea, a beautiful moment, like Faust we may just be damned. For this reason, we convince ourselves that we don’t have the luxury of time (how often adults repeat that to children) but in reality, we are terrified of letting go of boundaries for a time.

For a modern person, even the imaginary idea of a temporary release of boundaries is unnerving: it’s like peeking under the lid of a Pandora’s box. Whether we want it or not, each day we wake up and begin to mend all the “imagination” gaps in our solid brick structures, lest they interfere with our normal lives. To jump out of that paradigm is an unsettling experience — a bit like the soul jumping out of the body for a time. The painful part isn’t the ‘ launch’ into the unknown— it’s the return to the known with new eyes. It’s the getting out-of-focus with the ‘real’ world after immersing in a world of unbounded possibilities that art gives us. It’s also the child’s vulnerability of dealing with resulting pain and frustrations without the protective barrier we’ve built up and cemented over the years.

But no matter how unsettling the function of art may be, that is the whole point: Art doesn’t comply with ‘normality’. Like a force of nature, Art is disruptive and unsettling in its deepest essence.

Art as a state of being

Art is various degrees of immersion into the being of the very universe.

How then, do we accept the unsettling part of any art form in our lives? Even with the best intentions, where are we to place it into our loaded everyday lives, so full of time-managing devices and so consistently lacking in time?

In Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes, “The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incantatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. […] The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.” If we take the idea further, we will arrive at the original, archaic English meaning of the word art: to be [e.g. Thou art=You are]. That will reveal to us that the question of art arose in our civilization as soon as it went from a state of being to an imitation of being.

Presumably, at some point in our development, this little ‘glitch’ occurred. But wait… doesn’t every child still think of imagination as a state of being? Isn’t it adults who think of child’s play as an “imitation of [imaginary] being” while the child never doubts the reality of his play? Is it also accidental that we call some of the oldest forms of art ‘play’ — such as a theater play and playing an instrument?

While it is an extremely rare gift to create works that will be left in centuries, an important part of human life for each one of us is being present in the state of art. This doesn’t imply that we will go on to write nine symphonies like Beethoven, a volume of In Search of Lost Time like Proust, or share our inner perception of the Night Sky as awesomely as Van Gogh. Neither is that the goal.

Art is not for the chosen few, but it is what connects us to each other and to a state of being most natural to us. Art can be described as various degrees of immersion into the being of the universe. It is footprints scattered in the universe — footprints that we both trace, follow, and leave in our lifetime. It is this eternal artmaking initiated by the Universe itself that makes us alive and incredibly full of curiosity.

The questions it serves up may be disturbing, unnerving, even painful. But if art is just a phenomenon of the imagination not worth unsettling our daily lives for, how about the view of the Pale Blue Dot from 3.7 billion miles away — a view as disruptive of our everyday chores and struggles as all the Mahler symphonies and philosophy treatises put together?

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Angela Yurchenko

Angela Yurchenko

Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Exploring the Human Experience.