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Freedom Essay 44
Art makes the invisible visible
Written by Jeremy Griffith, 2019 (amended in 2022)
As I have explained in my book FREEDOM, from an all-loving, all-sensitive and completely happy original innocent instinctive life, we humans then—for a reason we have had absolutely no real understanding of until now—turned into ferociously selfish, competitive and aggressive monsters. No wonder then that virtually everyone when they were adolescents resigned themselves to shamefully hiding in what the great philosopher Plato described as a metaphorical cave of darkness away from any light that would reveal the truth of their horrifically corrupted condition and the truth of our species’ once cooperative, selfless and loving innocent state. Until we could understand our corrupted human condition, denial of it, and of the truth of our species’ innocent past, was absolutely necessary to protect ourselves from unbearable self-confrontation.
So denial has been extremely precious for the human race, but having to live in complete darkness, complete denial, meant living in a world that was so devoid of truth and meaning and beauty that that could also be unbearable. Clearly, some truth and beauty was needed to counter all the denial/darkness/black-out the human race was living in—and that is precisely what great art has provided. It allowed the light of some honesty about our corrupted human condition and some access to our species’ lost state of all-sensitive and all-loving innocence to escape from the dark cave in which we have been hiding. The literature Nobel Laureate Albert Camus recognised how art provides a counter to all the darkness and confusion of the world when he wrote, ‘If the world were clear, art would not exist’ (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).
Great artists, be they painters, sculptors, singers, musicians, actors, dancers, poets, writers, architects or designers, are basically people who either didn’t properly or fully resign to living in denial of the truth of our immensely corrupted human condition and to blocking out all the exposing and confronting sensitivities that our original innocent instinctive self or soul has access to; and/or, people who cultivated access back to the truth of our corrupted human condition and to the sensitivities of our original instinctive self after they became resigned to living in denial of the human condition. Occasionally a person’s protective block-out develops, as it were, a crack or tear in it, either because they didn’t fully adopt denial or block-out when they were adolescents, or because they cultivated that crack or tear in their resigned state of block-out. Through this small rent these people can touch upon and reveal the truth about the human condition—whether it is the true horror of our corruption, or some of the true beauty that exists on Earth—but often, as will be explained, at great cost to themselves.
One benefit of arts like painting and music over the written or spoken arts was that truth about our corrupted condition and lost sensitivities that are denied or blocked-out when we resigned could be more openly acknowledged because such truths weren’t being presented in too direct and thus too confronting a way. More truth has been able to be revealed through artistic mediums that weren’t too explicit. In the case of music, the great novelist Victor Hugo made this point when he wrote, ‘Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to remain silent’ (William Shakespeare, 1864). In the case of painting, we find that from Francis Bacon’s tortured self-portraits and Edvard Munch’s terrifying, human-condition-revealing The Scream, to the true-beauty-in-the-world-revealing paintings of Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, this artform has allowed the agony and the ecstasy of the human condition to be expressed in a way that the written or spoken word would not be able to reveal without being too confrontingly direct and explicit. In arts like painting and music, everyone is free to recognise the truth that’s being revealed to the extent that they can cope with that truth.
Firstly, to look at 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 do expose the true nature of humans’ corrupted and alienated existence. Indeed, they depict what the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing explicitly 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 for much more on R.D. Laing). But, it’s up to the individual viewer as to how much they’re able to acknowledge that what these pictures portray is the human condition—as I describe in 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 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 — you can also read more about Bacon’s work in various F. Essays including , & .)
In terms of art being able to reveal the underlying tortured, agonised state of our condition, the drawings of the renowned British cartoonist and caricaturist Ralph Steadman and the work of the great Spanish artist Francisco Goya should also be mentioned. (The following description of Steadman’s and Goya’s work is from Freedom Expanded in the Part about ‘’, and I should mention that I provide more examples of truthful, human-condition-revealing art there.)
“Steadman’s The Lizard Lounge drawing reveals just how alienated we 2-million-years upset humans actually are. The empty, hollow eyes of the main dragon in the very middle of the picture especially reveal how lost and deranged we humans have become.
Like Bacon, Munch and Steadman, Goya was an artist who throughout his career bravely tried to penetrate the facade of denial and its fabrication of an artificially happy state and reach the underlying truth of our tortured, human-condition-afflicted, 2-million-year-soul-destroyed reality. I have included here two paintings that encapsulate Goya’s heroic journey and which are best introduced through the words of someone who has been described as ‘the best known art critic in the world’ (The Bulletin mag. 11 Nov. 2003), the Australian Robert Hughes, who for many years was TIME magazine’s art critic. Once again we can see in the following comment how much it escapes people what it is that is being portrayed by the likes of Bacon, Munch, Steadman and Goya, namely the agony of the human condition. In a documentary Hughes made in 2002, titled Goya: Crazy Like A Genius, he commented that ‘ever since I started writing art criticism more than 40 years ago…I have always been fascinated by one artist…Goya. For years I have been trying and failing to write a book about him…For a long time now he has haunted my dreams…I have wanted to understand him…There are two paintings of the same subject that sum up the huge changes that took place in Goya across his long career. [The paintings are of] a big religious festival, that of St. Isidro. On that day thousands of citizens, in their Sunday best, converged on a pilgrimage chapel outside Madrid and had a picnic. [In this first representation titled] St. Isidro’s Meadow…the girls are in their white parasols, the men in their finery, the scene is of social pleasure and jollity.’
‘Thirty years later Goya returned to the same theme. In this picture [above, titled]…The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, instead of these happy fashionable well-dressed young people, you have this horrible snake of…dark figures…like demons crawling across an ash heap. The faces are…of madmen and hysterics…The whole picture is deeply threatening, deeply irrational, profoundly weird…[This is what] Goya saw through the filter of his old age and his intense pessimism.’
In his 2003 best-selling book Goya, which accompanied the documentary, Hughes again began by focusing on these two paintings and the profound mystery they presented to him. In the book, Hughes referred to Goya’s so-called ‘Black Paintings’, a series that includes The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, as ‘deeply enigmatic’ (p.11 of 429). He also mentioned that ‘it is not so long ago…that most people who thought about Goya considered him mad’ (p.25). It is only a measure of how in denial we are of our actual practice of denial that The Pilgrimage of St. Isidro, and so much of Goya’s work, could be viewed as ‘deeply irrational’, ‘profoundly weird’ and ‘deeply enigmatic’ because in truth what Goya sought to depict was very rational, un-weird and clear. It wasn’t Goya who was ‘mad’; it is our extreme estrangement or alienation from the truth of our condition that is the real madness on Earth. As R.D. Laing also so honestly wrote about our condition, ‘We are dead, but think we are alive. We are asleep, but think we are awake. We are dreaming, but take our dreams to be reality. We are the halt, lame, blind, deaf, the sick. But we are doubly unconscious. We are so ill that we no longer feel ill, as in many terminal illnesses. We are mad, but have no insight [into the fact of our madness].’ Goya knew humanity was living a completely fraudulent, escapist, deluded existence. In an accompanying text to his Capricho 6 etching he even wrote that ‘The world is a masquerade. Looks, dress and voice, everything is only pretension. Everyone wants to appear to be what he is not. Everyone is deceiving, and no one ever knows himself.’ ‘No one ever knows himself’ echoes Laing’s observation that ‘we are mad, but have no insight’ into the fact of our madness. Goya knew that ‘The world is a masquerade’ and he sought to unmask it. As part of this courageous journey to bring out the underlying truth of our alienation, Goya did utilise horrific pictures of humans being tortured, inmates in mad houses, strange apparitions and weird creatures, but these were only situations and forms that he could draw upon as being emblematic of our inner, underlying condition—as this comment accurately recognises: ‘In [Goya’s] later plates, however, phantoms, witches, goblins and a variety of metamorphosed animals begin to vie for centre stage. Brilliantly utilizing these creatures as symbolic forces, Goya’s examination of the human condition leaves the particular and enters the universal’ (). The fact is, it wasn’t, as Hughes asserted, an ‘intense pessimism’ from his ‘old age’ that Goya was revealing in his series of ‘Black Paintings’, which were painted in his final years, but hard-won insight into the truth of our condition. Indeed, towards the end of the documentary, Hughes reported that a friend of Goya’s observed that in his old age the artist was ‘so happy and so anxious to try everything’. Having finally succeeded in reaching the truth about humans in his art it is reasonable to surmise that Goya would have been content and expansive.
In Goya, Hughes wrote that ‘The book I meant to write on him [Goya] had hit the wall; I had been blocked for years before the [car] accident [that led to Hughes writing Goya]’ (p.9). ‘The wall’ that Hughes hit and couldn’t get through (and still didn’t get through in Goya) was the ‘fifty feet of solid concrete’ wall of denial that Laing referred to. As mentioned, the incredible thing about Goya is he did finally get back through that all-but-impenetrable wall of denial and reach the truth of the horrific pain that we humans have been experiencing from the insecurity of our tortured condition. So it is a measure of how almost totally lacking in ‘insight’ (as Laing pointed out) we are that such an acclaimed art critic as Hughes could have failed to recognise, despite lifelong efforts, what such a central figure in art as Goya was seeking to depict. But although Hughes couldn’t decipher his meaning, he did at least recognise that Goya held the secret to what is going on in human life, namely an utterly escapist preoccupation with evasion and denial of the unbearably depressing issue of our human condition.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum of the forms of truth that art could reveal are artists who have the astonishing ability to break the hold of our tortured existence where we are preoccupied with denying and escaping the horror of our corrupted condition, and repressing the confronting and exposing sensitivities of our soul, and reveal some of the true beauty of our world that our soul has access to—artists 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]’. These paintings below by Van Gogh and Gauguin are good examples of great paintings that reveal the true beauty of our world.
I also explain this aspect of art in FREEDOM:
“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 .)
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 exists outside the human condition—and awaits humanity now that the human condition has been solved! (See on the transformation that is now possible for everyone.)
Of course, like great art, great written work—such as William Blake’s immensely honest poem The Tiger (see ), William Wordsworth’s great poem Intimations of Immortality (see ), and R.D. Laing’s writings mentioned above—also helped to reveal the truth about the human condition. In fact great literature has been considered ‘great’ precisely because it did reveal some truth about the human condition—but not too much truth because while the human condition still had to be truthfully explained you could take people close to the exposing and confronting ‘fire’ of truth, but not right up to it. (I explain this fire metaphor at some length in .)
Yes, until now, for virtually everyone, it has required great bravery, even foolhardiness, to go near the issue of the human condition. In U2’s 1992 song Staring At The Sun, Bono wrote and sang about how scorching the issue of the human condition has been, and, as a result, how living in a state of denial of the human condition has been so necessary: ‘It’s been a long hot summer, let’s get under cover, don’t try too hard to think, don’t think at all. I’m not the only one staring at the sun, afraid of what you’d find if you take a look inside. Not just deaf and dumb, I’m staring at the sun, not the only one who’s happy to go blind.’ (See for more prophetic songs.) It follows that to confront and look into the human condition has been virtually impossible for virtually everyone, as the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev acknowledged when he wrote that ‘Knowledge requires great daring. It means victory over ancient, primeval terror…it must also be said of knowledge that it is bitter, and there is no escaping that bitterness…Particularly bitter is moral knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil [which is the issue of the human condition]. But the bitterness is due to the fallen [soul-corrupted] state of the world…There is a deadly pain in the very distinction of good and evil, of the [seemingly] valuable and the worthless’ (The Destiny of Man, 1931; tr. N. Duddington, 1960, pp.14–15 of 310).
The following then are three more powerful examples of great writers going near to the searing ‘fire’ and by so doing managing to reveal some penetrating truth about our soul-destroyed, seemingly evil human condition.
Firstly, the 1955 play Waiting for Godot, by the very great Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (he won a Nobel Prize in Literature), has been voted the ‘most significant English language play of the 20th century’ (Shifting Focus, ed. Peter Roberts, 2015, ch.9), and with the understanding of the human condition that we now have we can easily understand why. The play is about two men waiting by a tree for a third person ‘Godot’ to appear. He never does. Why are they waiting? Who is he? What will he bring? They don’t know, all they know is that they are waiting! Well, with understanding of the human condition we can now understand that the human race has been stalled, treading water, just waiting for 2 million years to find the explanation of our soul-destroyed, corrupted condition that will finally relieve us of the horrible recrimination and alienation we have been enduring for destroying that all-loving world of our soul. The fact is we humans have been so in denial of our soul-destroyed human condition that we haven’t been able to allow ourselves to recognise this truth that what we have been waiting for is the reconciling explanation for why we corrupted our soul. How clever was Beckett to find a way to describe that paralysis of our waiting state! And, as I explain when I present this explanation of Waiting for Godot in my 2003 book A Species In Denial, how absolutely wonderful it is that the waiting is over!
By the way, it is in Waiting for Godot that Beckett truthfully admitted how brief innocence has been for us humans having to be born into our soul-destroyed world when he wrote those words that I so often quote, ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’
Another very famous, insightful depiction of our condition is provided in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, the world’s longest running play (running continuously from 1952 until COVID hit in 2020). The great twist revealed right at the end of the play—and obviously it is this twist that has resonated so deeply and made the play so enduring—is that a policeman, who is the supposed maintainer of goodness and order in society and who has been investigating a murder, is revealed to be the killer. This is the same twist that the explanation of the human condition finally reveals about the human race, which is that what appeared to be good (our loving moral instincts) turns out to be bad (in that they unjustly condemned our conscious intellect), and what appeared to be bad (our corrupting conscious intellect) turns out to be good (it had to heroically defy our loving instincts and search for the redeeming understanding of our human condition). And yes, overall, the seemingly bad, destructive human race turns out to be the ‘goody’ not the ‘baddy’. (I explain this about The Mousetrap in .)
The 1908 novel, The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, is another great literary work that lets the truth out about the extraordinary paradox of our condition, this time using the story of a policemen who infiltrates a gang of anarchists to show that what appeared to be evil is actually good. Described by the famous writer C.S. Lewis as ‘A powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each of us encounters in his single-handed struggle with the universe’, the book’s protagonist, a policemen, finds out that all the apparently evil anarchists are on missions to defeat evil as well. Yes, it is a powerful allegory of the truth that understanding of the human condition now finally reveals, which is that all the upset humans in the world are not the bad people they seem to be, rather they turn out to all be participating in humanity’s heroic but upsetting search for knowledge. We soul-destroyed humans aren’t the bad, anarchist, goodness-defying people we appeared to be! (I explain more about The Man Who Was Thursday in .)
The often-referred-to ‘pain’—‘the torture’—of being an artist was that while most humans coped with life’s deeper questions by evading them, artists continually raised them. Through that crack or tear in their protective block-out, great artists could reveal the truth of our species’ corrupted condition and of the true beauty in our world that our corrupted, alienated, denial-practising condition blocks access to. BUT without the redeeming understanding of our corrupted, soul-repressed condition, what they were doing could be extremely confronting and hurtful for them.
It can be understood then why artists who were too honest for their degree of soundness, artists who confronted the dark extent of the human condition and the sensitivities of our soul when it was more than they were capable of enduring, could take themselves to the brink of madness and/or suicidal depression. For example, of the six artists featured above, Van Gogh went over this brink and did suicide; Gauguin attempted suicide; Munch wrote that at one period of his life, ‘My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go’ (Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies, ed. Arne Eggum, 1984, p.236 of 305); Bacon led a tragically dissolute life, addicted to alcohol, sex and gambling; and in his later years Goya became so disillusioned by the world, he lived in near isolation doing his ‘Black Paintings’. Truly, while great artists let some relieving truth out, they could pay a huge personal price of having to live a torturous existence.
The very great South African philosopher, Sir Laurens van der Post, described the situation that faced writers and artists like Van Gogh in the following remarkably insightful quote: ‘The history of art and literature indeed contains as many examples of persons who have succumbed before the perils encountered in the world within as those who have been overcome by their difficulties in the world without. The asylums of the world are full of people who have been overwhelmed by what has welled up within them: instincts and intuitions shaped over aeons in which they had played no part, and imposed on them by life without their leave or knowledge. The person who enlists in the service of the imagination, as do the artist and writer, has continually to come to terms and make fresh peace with this inner aspect of reality before he can express his full self in the world without. Many are so appalled by the difficulties and terrifying implications of what they see within themselves that, after a few bursts of lyrical fire, they either retreat into the previously prepared positions conventionally provided for these occasions by their social establishments: or else they close up altogether or take to drink or commit suicide. Nor is there any comfort to be found in thinking that this kind of defeat is suffered only by the lesser breeds among artists and writers: there are too many distinguished casualties. There is, for instance, the uncomfortable example of Rimbaud who, though a poet of genius, found the implications of genius more than he could bear and took on the perils of gun-running in one of the most dangerous parts of Africa as a more attractive alternative. Yet before he turned a deaf ear to the profound voice of his natural calling, he had shaped a vision of reality which increased the range of poetry for good. One may regret his desertion, but surely no one who cares for poetry can read “Bateau Ivre” and “Les Illuminations”, for example, without some understanding of the power of the temptation, and an inkling of how exposed and vulnerable the ordered personality is to the forces of this world that the artist carries within him. The suicide of Van Gogh is another instance. We owe it to him that our senses are aware of the physical world in a way not previously possible (except perhaps by the long-forgotten child in all of us when the urgent vision is not yet tamed and imprisoned in the clichés of the adult world). But because of Van Gogh, cypresses, almond blossom, corn-fields, sunflowers, bridges, wicker chairs and even trains are seen through eyes made young and timeless again and our senses are recharged with the aboriginal wonder of things. Here was not only genius but also high courage. Yet nothing so well gives one the measure of these inner forces as the fact that they were able to destroy both courage and genius’ (from Sir Laurens van der Post’s Introduction to the 1965 edn of Turbott Wolfe by William Plomer, first pub. 1925, pp.34–36 of 215).
So while beauty could be the greatest inspiration, blindingly so at times, it could also be condemning and hurtful to humans because it confronted them with their apparent lack of beauty or perfection. The truth is, mere glimpses of beauty were all corrupted humans could cope with. The very great English poet William Wordsworth was making this point when he wrote, ‘To me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’, for it is true that even the plainest flower can remind us of the unbearably depressing issue of our seemingly horrifically imperfect, ‘fallen’, apparently worthless condition.
Yes, great artists provided some truth to counter all the denial/darkness/black-out—they allowed the light of some honesty about our corrupted human condition and the true beauty of our world to escape from that dark ‘tomb’ in which we have been hiding, but without the defence for our corrupted condition, it could come at great personal cost to the artist. Thank goodness we now have the explanation of the human condition that at last frees humanity from the soul-destroying torture of the human condition, and transforms all our lives into a state of unimaginable happiness, beauty and excitement!
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You can 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 , which includes an analysis of William Blake’s great poem The Tiger; on William Wordsworth’s great, all-revealing poem Intimations of Immortality; on cave paintings; on the power of ceremonial masks; and on prophetic songs. And for more elaboration on the development of art and culture, see .
Discussion or comment on this essay is welcomed—see below.
These essays were created in 2017-2021 by Jeremy Griffith, Damon Isherwood, Fiona
Cullen-Ward, Brony FitzGerald & Lee Jones of the Sydney WTM Centre. All filming and
editing of the videos was carried out by Sydney WTM members James Press & Tess Watson
during 2017-2021. Other members of the Sydney WTM Centre are responsible for the
distribution and marketing of the videos/essays, and for providing subscriber support.