Existentialism and art essay

By Jason Morrison

This short essay was written for Seminar in Existentialism at Ohio Wesleyan University, December 2000.

"ůmay I ask whether anyone has ever accused an artist who has painted a picture of not having drawn his inspiration from rules set up a priori? Has anyone ever asked, "What painting ought he to make?" It is clearly understood that there is no definite painting to be made, that the artist is engaged in the making of his painting, and that the painting to be made is precisely the painting he will have made. It is clearly understood that there are no a priori aesthetic values, but that there are values which appear subsequently in the coherence of the painting, in the correspondence between what the artist intended and the result. Nobody can tell what the painting of tomorrow will look like. Painting can be judged only after it has once been made. What connection does that have with ethics? We are in the same creative situation. We never say that a work of art is arbitrary. When we speak of a canvass of Picasso, we never say that it is arbitrary; we understand quite well that he was making himself what he is at the very time he was painting, that the ensemble of his work is embodied in his life."

Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, pp. 42-43.

Sartre is not the only one to liken living a life to creating a work of art. But this quote in particular lends itself to discussion from many points of view. This could be used in a critique of both communist use of art commercial use of it-there, the artist is only successful if he meets the a priori requirements set forth by his employers, and worse yet those requirements are social control. This could also be a valid point in criticizing a great deal of art being produced these days-often the artists themselves will open a gallery by saying how each piece is completely arbitrary. I liked this material, I let the brush go wherever it went, and though I suppose I'm responsible for it in that my name's on it, but whatever. In this case, we have a sort of quietism Sartre defends Existentialism against elsewhere in the book.

But none of this is to the point. This passage and similar notions in other works have provided me more than ammunition in critiques of art and politics or an excellent capsule description of Existentialism for people who ask what the class is about. It's no secret I've had difficulty with the fate of some of the characters in the works we've examined. I say "so what" when a character flying toward the bottom of the earth is enlightened or ask if there are existential stories that end in outwardly creative acts other than "The Plague."

But this metaphor has helped me bring some meaning to some of the most seemingly defeated characters we have run across this semester. The young man in "The Tunnel" does not really live until the train has plunged headlong into the abyss-"Now, for the first time, his glasses were gone and his eyes were wide open." But still, what value is this realization seconds before unstoppable doom? Pablo in "The Wall" does not escape by analyzing the situation or violent emotion, but by accepting the absurdity of it. His escape is almost accidental to his actions. And the end of "The Stranger" has been hard for me to reconcile with such an active philosophy, as Sartre maintains. "For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crown of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration."

For all of these characters realization has come at a very dear price-they have realized they have authorship of their own lives (and accepted what they've written) the moment before they can no longer write. Many of the other stories have had stronger themes of confinement than freedom-the quarantined city of "The Plague," the main character's illness in "The Immoralist," the courts of "The Trial." Reading "Existentialism and Human Emotions," I would expect Existential literature to more express themes of overcoming illusory boundaries than being crushed by very real ones. Sartre never says we're free to fly like Superman if we choose to, but he breaks down barriers like custom, religion, and even very thoroughly thought out philosophies like that of Kant.

But here is where the artist metaphor comes in handy, at least for me. These characters often begin the stories not as artists but students fulfilling a distribution requirement with Painting I. They begin to see other students painting simply what they're told to-the Bob Ross technique-and they see other groups doing what they're doing simply for a grade in the course. But then they're given a challenging assignment-paint on a canvass impossibly small, or better yet one impossibly big. The other students flail about, complain, try to duplicate their last piece or do the same brush stroke again and again to no avail. But our artist simply begins painting. He makes mistakes but doesn't spend weeks trying to paint the sheet white and start over. He incorporates them into his work, he uses the incredibly small or ludicrously large boundaries as part of the piece, he makes the work his own. The piece, good or bad, becomes his. At this moment he is an artist.

But in some ways the metaphor does break down. When the artist completes a piece, he is free to start another. There is no guarantee that upon completion of a life, we will have another to create. This is very freeing for the artist-perhaps it would help to say our student's assignment is the final exam, but still, most artists assume there are other classes, or other canvasses, to come. But this is a challenge rather than a snag in the metaphor. The real challenge of living one's life as if it were a work of art is doing so despite there being no guarantees-more directly, because there are no guarantees.

This artist can not teach others how to become artists like him-he cannot be Bob Ross-and most likely won't sell thousands of paintings-he is not Thomas Kinkade. The most he can teach others is how to hold a brush, and there are probably others with better technique. But if someone else sees his work and realizes he can make his own, the piece has been useful-edifying and not restricting.

Copyright 2001 Jason Morrison