Holding a Mirror to a Mirror: Art and the Human Experience

Aug 19, 2012 by

“Art exists to show us the world. So do windows.”

–Jarod Kintz

Thousands of years ago, before the development of human culture, our cave dwelling ancestors were probably just as inspired by nature’s artwork—the starry night, the glimmering ocean, the fiery brushstrokes painted by the setting sun—as any of us who are lucky to witness them today. There are some things in nature that seem so intrinsically inspiring that nearly all of the human race must agree that they are beautiful. Nature’s construction of a picturesque vista is as much “art” to an inexperienced newborn as it is to an ivy league sophisticate.

Just as I was having these ‘lofty’ sort of thoughts, I opened The Beautiful and the Damned to feed my hopeless romantic soul its daily dose of Fitzgerald. The novel’s particularly introspective Maury Noble said something just then that was worthy of a star in the margin: he tells his friend that art is meaningless “in itself. It isn’t in that it tries to make life less so.” (Fitzgerald 24).

Hold on—how could anyone think that all art was totally meaningless? This was unnecessarily harsh!

But Maury’s comment sat persistently in the back of my mind. I couldn’t help but consider his perspective—perhaps he was right! Are those vistas really intrinsically inspiring, or does our enjoyment on them rely  entirely on our ability to dig up some part of the collective human consciousness? If we didn’t have the ability to consider the meaning of these sights or the feelings that they give us, they would not inspire us at all. Why would anyone paint a landscape if there was nothing there that they saw fit to preserve? They must have undergone a certain “experience” when they saw the scene and have then been inspired to pass this on. But the “experience” would be something that they had mentally created—it would not be there already. The vista, in itself, is meaningless. We, as humans, assign significance.

Artists attempt to capture part of the human experience that audiences will be able to relate to. After all, the piece itself cannot create the feeling out of nothing, only reflect it. This is why a Petrarchan love sonnet doesn’t have the same affect on a toddler as it has on a hopeless romantic teenager. The poem can’t make you feel love unless you have felt it already—without your own experience, it is just a nice-sounding group of meaningless words.

We all undergo life events that are worthy of art. What distinguishes an artist from the rest of us is his or her ability to pass on that experience. The artist, “not only lives in and observes the world but … is inspired to go a step further: to make another world, the form or structure of which is the symbol,” thereby creating something more “durable” than his own experience—something capable of taping into the human collective and bringing a personal experience to others, assuming they have had a similar one.

Without life, and its array of experiences, art is meaningless. Without art and its way of capturing and embellishing these experiences, life is meaningless.

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