It seems awfully naïve, and perhaps a bit idealistic to ponder such a question – but in this article I want to explore if art and beauty save the world. What did the existentialist writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky mean by such an ambiguous statement, and how can art make a difference in a world divided by conflict, strife and division?
It was when I was travelling in Europe, and sitting in one of the many breathtaking cathedrals, that I was filled with inner calm – a sense of peace and solitude swept over me. External events and the frivolous pursuits of the everyday world felt insignificant, so trivial. Existential worry and anxiety became drowned out by the beauty and wonder that was revealed to me in that moment. Nothing else mattered.
Great art, that which has been able to stand the test of time, points to the transcendent, the infinite, and the absolute.
Art inflames even a frozen, darkened soul to a high spiritual experience. Through art we are sometimes visited – dimly, briefly – by revelations such as cannot be produced by rational thinking.
Like that little looking-glass from the fairy-tales: look into it and you will see – not yourself – but for one second, the Inaccessible, whither no man can ride, no man fly. And only the soul gives a groanAlexandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture
Throughout history, religions understood that the communal experience of the arts in practices of worship provided us with a glimpse of the sacred. Rituals of worship including art, music, and dance lured people to cherish the spiritual side of human existence. It drew us towards altered states of consciousness and higher truths, unveiling the illusive nature of material things and earthly pursuits. Connecting to something greater than ourselves, awe and beauty signal to us that there was something beyond the limited constructs of the human mind – a reality which words and language cannot fully describe.
Beauty presents us with an ideal to strive towards. Further, it provides us with meaning, our ‘why’ and purpose to help us conquer the many uncertainties in life. Coming to us through flashes of insight or intuition, beauty acts as a signpost which reveals the path towards the good life.
In the final analysis, it is the gift of aspiration as well as of hope.
It is said that Dostoyevsky’s idea of beauty is characterized by the love of God. Jesus’ death and resurrection is one of the many reminders for humanity that redemption, joy and bliss can be found on the other side of suffering. The cross presents us with a symbol of hope, representing the idea that good will always transcend over evil. Our suffering is not in vain, but is a guide towards a higher purpose.
This experience of awe, reverence and beauty in art and in life is of course is not exclusively limited to the domain of religion. Nietzsche, an atheist, was particularly fond of the idea that life itself can be treated as a work of art. Nietzsche thought of humans as inherently creative beings, who wish to assert their individuality by bringing something original and authentic into existence.
Art presents us with the opportunity us to rise above hardship by using difficult experiences as inspiration and raw materials in working towards a more wholesome meaningful life. We turn chaos into order and the apparent randomness of our existence into wonderful harmony. Think of the many great songs that reflect on the common experiences of sorrow, heartbreak or grief.
Through this catharsis we realize we are connected through a common bond with the rest of humanity as we share those same feelings and emotions with others. We hear the same story over and over again just with different words.
Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows.Roger Scruton
Within this enduring beauty and truth that is illuminated in great art, we can arrive at a better understanding of citizens from different cultures and traditions. Art offers us portals into the worlds of those who are seemingly different from us. Rather than acting in hesitancy or suspicion, we can come towards greater empathy and compassion.
For we all have the same drives to experience beauty, moments of awe and wonder in which our consciousness transforms from ‘me’ to ‘we’ or from ‘I’ to ‘us’. For a brief period, selfish egotism all but vanishes, and new possibilities arrive. A new door opens for us all.
In beauty, and through beauty we are united as one.