Thursday, March 22, 2012

Art, Doubt, Dread, Life

Those personal catastrophes that we can’t reconcile with ourselves despite the anguish they cause are the subject of much of serious modern art. Art returns over and over to the personal tragedies that remain with you, to the lacerations of the past that never heal, but with a resignation that no matter how much those events affect our lives they nonetheless seem to provide little meaning to them. People with metaphysical certainty, like those of integrated pre-modern and modern societies, understand the pain in their lives as part of a great chain of being. Tragedies are no less painful to them but that hurt is articulated into a higher order of existence that gives it significance. In such a condition, one is not alone with trauma. The traumatic, like all things seen and unseen, is part of a greater plan that while beyond the ken of human understanding is no less comforting for it. Most moderns live in a world whose paths are darkened by the doubt of metaphysical dread. Things happen, lives are lived and lost, happiness comes and goes, and all of it seems unmoored from any kind of providential scheme or transcendental structure. We feel things should happen for a reason, that there should be a meaning for why things happened in this order and not in a different one, but despite the belief that there should be meaning and the need for it, we recognize the possibility that it all might be indeed meaningless.

Serious art does not turn from that wretched truth. It faces the possibility of meaninglessness and explores it ruthlessly. It wanders through the empty rooms of life and describes their barrenness. It says: “Here there should be a bed, there a chair, and further a table, but instead there is nothing.” It describes the triviality of life as trivial, the aimless sorrow of living as aimless. But, as Lukács writes, art says “And yet!” to life. It renders the doubt and insecurity but it poses some kind of transitory synthesis. It says: “Perhaps life is meaningless, but if there were meaning, this is what it would look like.” This is the ethical imperative of art, for serious art is always first and foremost ethical (the ethical nature of art does not depend on whether we agree with the ethics of a specific work). Art affects us because it shows us how life and the world could be otherwise, what the immanence of meaning would look like if it were a part of our lives. It describes the fragments of our lives and shows us, however provisionally and imperfectly, how those fragments could be something else.

Not all art is serious, however, and sometimes we don’t want the truth. Sometimes we want lies so that we can paper over the doubts and just keep living. At times we need an escape more than we need to be confronted with insecurities that we already know are there. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger/Stand a little taller,” sings Kelly Clarkson. Is this true? Who cares, really? Katy Perry sings: “Throw your sticks and your stones/Throw your bombs and your blows/But you’re not gonna break my soul.” That question is equally insignificant here. If you think about it long enough, you understand that these are triumphant slogans that only indirectly relate to life as it’s actually lived. But on occasion (and for some dummies, all the time) we don’t want to think about it too much; we just want to feel better.


  1. Although the chorus of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger is generally a meaningless cliche, I think you're ignoring the fact that Clarkson confronts us with some intriguing paradoxes ("the bed feels warmer sleeping here alone" and "doesn't mean I'm lonely when I'm alone" despite her assurance that she's "starting over with someone new"). It seems Clarkson embraces the meaninglessness of modernity by showcasing the emptiness of her own lyrics through these contradictions.