Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 November 2022
Art is certainly no longer about glorifying or praising or teaching. It is no longer a means of cultivating people or explaining moral, religious or civic truths and values. Everything that art can communicate by way of an image, a poem, a song or a theatre play, and that can be put into ordinary words, we already know. It is not the artist's ‘research’ into abstracta such as space, movement, colour and so on that will bring scientific progress. And all the wisdom art can convey about life has long been established. All told, it does not amount to much. Albert Camus writes how the pharaoh who had studied little during his life and on his deathbed asked the sages what they knew was told that ‘people live and die, and they are not happy’ (‘Les hommes naissent et meurent, et ils ne sont pas heureux’). The rest simply follows: bodies are sad and hopelessly alone, life is never easy, we can never say exactly what we mean and never really know what we want, everyone is capable of just about anything, words do not allow us to grasp things, every life story is an invention, no one knows exactly what men and women want from each other, everyone is caught up in old debts and blood ties, we are lost in a cold echoless universe, people want children, and power, and fame, and money. And in a few billion years the sun will explode and leave nothing of what we care about and live for now. We can reformulate this list and update it; we can make art about what is going on today; but that will not bring much that is new. We are already in the books and know everything. What can art possibly add to that?
But there is knowing, and then there is ‘knowing’. The textbook example of a syllogism goes: all humans are mortal, Socrates is human, therefore Socrates is mortal. I am human; therefore, I know that I am going to die one day. But this awareness is quite different from the way I feel when my doctor tells me I have a maximum of six months to live.
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