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This is Freedom Essay 44
Art: The agony and the ecstasy
of the human condition
As has been described at length in these essays, from an all-loving, all-sensitive and completely happy innocent life, we humans then—for a reason we had absolutely no understanding of—turned into ferociously selfish, competitive and aggressive monsters. No wonder we chose to shamefully hide in Plato’s metaphorical cave of darkness away from any light that would reveal our horrifically corrupted condition (see Video/F. Essay 11).
So denial has been super precious for the human race—but it also meant that there had to be some truth to counter all the denial/darkness/black-out—and that’s precisely what great literature, poetry and songs have provided; they allowed the light of some honesty about our corrupted human condition to escape from the dark cave in which we have been hiding. (See for example F. Essay 10 on William Blake’s poem The Tiger, and F. Essay 31 with its analysis of Wordsworth’s great, all-revealing poem Intimations of Immortality.)
Art and music had their own particular benefit, because their often deep and important message wasn’t as clear and therefore as potentially confronting as language and stories. The great novelist Victor Hugo wrote, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent’ (William Shakespeare, 1864), and similarly in art, we find that from Francis Bacon’s tortured self-portraits and Edvard Munch’s terrifying The Scream, to the radiant beauty of Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s depictions of nature and life, painting has also had the power to express the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition when words failed us.
Consider Bacon’s Study for self-portrait and Munch’s The Scream (above). While in our day to day lives we block out the reality of the human condition, these paintings expose the true nature of human’s corrupted and alienated existence. Indeed, they depict what the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing so honestly described when he wrote:
‘Our alienation goes to the roots…the ordinary person is a shrivelled, desiccated fragment of what a person can be…between us and It [our true selves or soul] there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete’ (The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise, 1967). (See F. Essay 48 for much more on R.D. Laing.)
Jeremy Griffith explains the significance of Bacon’s work in his book FREEDOM:
“While people in their state of denial of what the human condition actually is typically find his [Bacon’s] work ‘enigmatic’ and ‘obscene’ (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Apr. 1992), there is really no mistaking the agony of the human condition in Bacon’s death-mask-like, twisted, smudged, distorted, trodden-on—alienated—faces, and tortured, contorted, stomach-knotted, arms-pinned, psychologically strangled and imprisoned bodies; consider, for instance, his Study for self-portrait (above, top left). It is some recognition of the incredible integrity/honesty of Bacon’s work that in 2013 one of his triptychs sold for $US142.4 million, becoming (at the time) ‘the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction, breaking the previous record, set in May 2012, when a version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream [another exceptionally honest, human-condition-revealing painting shown above on the right] sold for $119.9 million’ (TIME, 25 Nov. 2013).” (See paragraphs 124–125 of FREEDOM.) (You can also read more about Bacon’s work in various F. Essays including 31, 42 & 55.)
At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those artists who have the astonishing ability to break the hold of our tortured, preoccupied existence and remind us of the beauty of the world—who offer some glimpse of the magic we will be able to fully and properly access when we are no longer trapped behind the ‘fifty feet of solid concrete’ the human condition has wedged ‘between us and It [our all-sensitive soul]’.
Jeremy explains this aspect of art in FREEDOM, writing:
“Great art ‘can make the invisible visible’; it can cut a window into our alienated, effectively dead state and bring back into view some of the beauty that our soul has access to. After years of developing his skills, Vincent van Gogh was able to bring out so much beauty that resigned humans looking at his paintings find themselves seeing light and colour as it really exists for possibly the first time in their life: ‘And after Van Gogh? Artists changed their ways of seeing…not for the myths, or the high prices, but for the way he opened their eyes’ (Bulletin mag. 30 Nov. 1993).” (See paragraph 829 of FREEDOM.)
So while Bacon and Munch attract record-breaking prices because their honesty has immense cathartic power, it is through the art of masters such as Van Gogh and Gauguin that we are shown the radiant life that awaits humanity now that the human condition has been solved (see F. Essay 15 on the transformation that is now possible for everyone).
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You can also read more of Jeremy’s insights into how humans have used painting and music and other artistic expressions to depict both our alienated state, and the world’s true beauty, in F. Essay 10, which includes an explanation of William Blake’s great poem The Tiger; F. Essay 31 on Wordsworth’s great, all-revealing poem Intimations of Immortality; F. Essay 42 on cave paintings; F. Essay 43 explaining ceremonial masks; and F. Essay 45 on Prophetic songs. See also .
Discussion or comment on this essay is welcomed—see below.
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These essays were composed in 2017-2018 by Jeremy Griffith, Damon Isherwood,
Fiona Cullen-Ward & Brony FitzGerald at the Sydney WTM Centre.