The Power of Art: How Beauty Can Save the World

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Beauty will save the world

Fydor Dostoevsky

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 groan

Alexandr 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.  

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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.

A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness

John Keats, Endymion
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The Modern Cave and the Question of Technology

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Plato’s Cave

Written over 2,000 years ago, Plato’s allegory of the cave in his book The Republic has become increasingly relevant in our hyper-connected digital age. As more and more aspects of our lives become mediated by our digital devices we become further separated from the direct experience. That is, what we can physically see, touch, smell and hear.   

Plato’s Cave – Source

Plato provides us with a metaphor in which a group of prisoners do not have contact with the outside world. What they take for ‘reality’ is shadows and images that are projected on the wall. Further, these prisoners are not aware of their situation. The illusions are the only thing they have ever known.

The story continues with one of the prisoners escaping from their chains and ascending into the daylight. At first, they are shocked into a daze from the power of the sun, but with time they gradually adjust their sight to the real objects in front of them.  Aware of the illusions they previously experienced, the story concludes with the freed prisoner descending back into cave to persuade the others to break free from their chains and climb into the ‘real world’.

What Plato is suggesting through metaphor is how we can easily we can be persuaded by illusions and superficial reality. We often accept things at face value without critical reflection and rational thought.  Trapped in our information ecosystems we become cynical and suspicious of the motives of others when we hear different points of view that differ from our own.

We are all living in seperate realities

Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising

For Plato, the philosopher is the one who is able to transcend their limited perceptions and beliefs to experience a greater more fundamental truth.  

The Machine Stops

The allegory of the cave has been portrayed in literature and in films such as The Matrix, The Truman Show and C.S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles.

However, one short-story inspired by this idea that I want to focus on is E.M Forster’s The Machine Stops.

Written in 1909, it eerily foreshadows the rise of the internet as it ponders some of the technological concerns we face in the modern era.

The story depicts a world in which humans live underground isolated in small rooms, separated from the surface of the earth. The Machine provides for all human needs, and one has no reason or desire to leave their rooms.  As described in the story,

There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

The story contrasts the viewpoints of a mother (Vashti) who is infatuated and indoctrinated by The Machine, and her son (Kuno) who has a desire to escape the confines of the system and experience the real world.

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A Look at Technology in the Modern World

Let’s look at some key quotes and themes in the story, and compare them to modern society.

Direct Experience and Original Thought

Beware of first-hand ideas!

Think of how many hours a day you spend looking at screens. Whether its on a computer for work, a phone for social media or a television screen watching our favourite shows. We are constantly looking at the world of projections through our devices.

Further, as I wrote in a previous article, The Age of the Spectacle, the world of appearances that we carefully craft through our online profiles become more important that our experience in the real world.

While we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our finger tips, complex algorithms now personalize what information we see and have access to.

We are drawn towards conformity. If one wants to ignore another perspective or set of ideas all they have to do is stay within own media filter bubble. In a polarized environment, news outlets prioritize views and clicks over truth.

We lose any sense of objectivity.

What is true?

Opinion and fact become indistinguishable.

Progress and the Loss of Human Values

But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.

In his book Technology and Nihilism, Nolen Gertz looks at how technology in the modern world makes us passive consumers. How often do we question or critically think about the impact that technology plays in our lives?

 Building off Nietzsche’s work on nihilism, Getz distinguishes between the individual who actively creates their own values and meaning (active nihilism) versus one who mindlessly accepts the expectations and cultural norms of society (passive nihilism).

For Getz, technology poses a risk to freedom and enables us to evade responsibility. We put too must trust and faith in these machines, and run the risk of not thinking for ourselves.

He draws a parallel to Nietzsche’s critique of religion observing how technology can also be ‘life-denying’. Just like one may reject and neglect their life in this world in the hopes of the afterlife, technology too promises a way out of confronting the issues of our existence and numbing us to suffering.  

Running away from the hard realities of life we turn to the endless distractions on our screens in an attempt to escape.  

Consequently, we mistakenly think technological progress is equivalent to improvements in human progress, character or well-being.  This however is not always the case.

The tech revolution promised us our heart’s desires: everything you want to know at the click of a mouse; the ability to become famous to strangers; anything you want to buy, delivered to your door in days without you having to leave home.

But our happiness has not increased as a result—on the contrary. Mounting evidence shows that media and technology use predict deleterious psychological and physiological outcomes, especially among young people. 

Arthur Brooks – Are we Trading our Happiness for Modern Comforts?

A Way Out?

The purpose of this article is not to convince one to discard one’s beliefs or abandon technology altogether. It is a call to analyze and seriously consider the things we so easily take for granted in our culture – the things we passively accept.

What illusions do we cling onto? What unfounded assumptions do we refuse to let go? Is it possible for us to look honestly at objections to our beliefs and engage in good faith dialogue with others who may disagree with us?

Perhaps we can aspire to one of the forgotten virtues of our culture – the virtue of humility.

With the advent of ‘smart homes’, ‘smart phones’ and ‘smart cities’, artificial intelligence and virtual reality we need to be cautious. Technology can either be a liberating force or plunge us further into our own deceptions. It can either trap us further into the cave or offer a way out.

We are not machines with machine minds and machine hearts. Therefore, human values and morals must be at the forefront of these new developments. Rather than being consumed by technology, we can use these devices to align with our values and goals.

The way out is not easy, but nothing can be more courageous than breaking from your chains and pursuing Truth.

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Walking the Tightrope

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Before moving onto solutions to address the issues of modernity posed in my previous post, I want to further reflect on the impact that the decline of traditional frameworks for meaning and morality has had in our society. The secularization of the West has freed us from the necessity to conform to dominant belief systems. It has liberated us from dogmatic thinking.

We are now free to pursue our own interests, create our own meaning and purpose in our lives. This emancipation, the opportunity to openly pursue self-expression and strive towards authenticity is one of the greatest achievements of modernity. To quote existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Unlike previous eras, such as the medieval period, your lot in life is no longer predetermined. That is, you are not born in a rigid class system destined to be a king, aristocrat or peasant. You can strive to be true to your authentic self.

Yet this newfound freedom can be deeply unsettling for some. It is far easier to live a life of mindless conformity or follow a road map that has been already set out for you. Few of us concern our selves with exercising this new found liberty. We quickly resort to our old ways of conforming to the masses. In the mid 20th century, before the advent of computers or social media, writer Aldous Huxley concisely summarized this modern sentiment “Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty.”  

Why have we so easily dismissed this great opportunity to exercise our freedom, to search for truth and to be connected to something transcendent – something greater than ourselves. The answer is simple. Our society excels in providing us with two things, distraction and pleasure. We can indulge on almost anything through the tap of a button on our smart phones. Likewise, we spend many hours each week scrolling though our social media pages comparing ourselves to others rather than focusing on improving ourselves. In essence, all these technologies and platforms are like a springboard for our egos.

For those who are up for the task of living authentically, and living with purpose, the path forward is one that requires walking the tight rope between self-expression and narcissism. It requires finding the middle way between community and individual values.

In the Malaise of Modernity Charles Taylor reflects upon this idea further. He claims that the “the worry has been repeatedly expressed that the individual lost something important along with the larger social and cosmic horizons of action. Some have written of this as the loss of a heroic dimension to life.  People no longer have a sense of a higher purpose, of something worth dying for.” Meaning and purpose is found at the middle of these extremes.

The implications of these ideas and way forward I think is two-fold:

  1.  We can pursue self-expression and self-interest, but we must not allow this to turn into a selfish egotism. Furthermore, we can pursue our goals only insofar that these are true to ourselves. We must resist the temptation to boast and brag.
  2. We have to find the right balance between the needs of the individual and community. We can not abandon our efforts to better the lives of others or our communities. In fact, most of our problems we face now from climate change, terrorism and large-scale migrations all require us to cooperate with the global community to find viable solutions.

The solution is a balancing act between two extremes. Going forward – walk the tightrope.

Hope you enjoyed this week’s article, feel free to comment, provide feedback or discuss these issues.

AA