When looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us

August 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Sufferingist Theory of Art

Yesterday on a radio show a Herr Professor talked (in connection with K. 466) of his frustration with Mozart as insufficiently deep; and of the Piano Concerto No. 20 as having the saving grace of the minor key, which, he says, at least offers some hope of spiritual depth.

Though his view (that things sad/upsetting are deep — and, conversely, things happy and content are shallow) was not shared by other participants of the program (it generally is not), it is very widespread; it receives much support from the millenia-long association between much beautiful (or just important) art and Christianity and her macabre obsession with putrefying wounds and cold sores; and reinforcement from the romantic notions of the salutary effects of struggle.

And it frustrates me.

It frustrates me in part because it seems to be an invitation to make and contemplate ugly art — the horrible Suffering Mary Magdalene by Donatello, or the mentally disturbed prophets from the campanile del duomo in Firenze, etc. (and everything which has followed in their wake) which are somehow supposed to be deep because they are disagreeable (ugly); whereas to most normal, happy people they are merely disturbing.

But mainly because it slights my own spiritual experience — which I now personally perceive as one of great depth — in response to works of art which are peaceful, calm, and pleasing.  Indeed, raised in a Christian and romantic nation as I was, I had long lived in the throes of the sufferingist theory of art and was, as a result, long blind to the experience of depth of contentment.  I have only been able to discover it after many years in (blessedly un-Christian and un-Romantic) Asia and — another decade by the sea (sea, O sea, with her oceanic-ecstasy-inducing hypnotic powers). The eventual discovery of the notion of upekkha — held up by Buddhism as a state of spiritual advancement — finally clinched it for me, providing at last the intellectual justification for the pleasure I receive from calm and peaceful art.

Or, in other words:  the pleasure I receive from… pleasure.

The subtle connection between sufferingism and meaningism

[Incidentally, Her Professor’s sufferingist view often goes hand in hand with the meaningist theory of art (i.e. that art is only, or principally, good because it means or symbolizes something and “makes us think”).  This theory is often embraced by linguistically gifted people suffering from aesthetic atrophy. (Many of such people are brainy and ugly:  subconsciously, they find the concept of beauty unsettling and prefer theories of art which focus on information processing instead).]

The failures of sufferingism

The sufferingist theory of art neglects what is to me an obvious fact that struggle is not a good in and of itself, but only as a means to a goal which transcends it, and that that goal is — well, not-struggle, i.e. upekkha — i.e. contemplation of contentment.  The sufferingist view brands contentment as shallow and is thereby not only cruel (because it seeks to prevent those capable of experiencing calm from embracing it and tells them instead to go out and suffer), but also self-denying (because it denies the very purpose of any struggle — i.e. victory).

On beauty and sadness

Though Christianity bears much blame for buttressing the sufferingist view of art, the association between beauty and sadness, on the other hand, isn’t Christian. It is universal:  it can be observed in all sorts of settings across the world:  the ueber-un-Christian Japanese say that the cherry blossoms are never more beautiful than when they begin falling — and wipe a tear when they say it; Orhan Pamuk’s un-Christian heroes invariably are overcome with inexpressible sadness as they cross the Galata bridge; and Lisboeta Fado manages to sound sad even when it is in major key.  Perhaps great beauty makes us sad because it is mortal:  when looking at beauty, we know it will end and this knowledge kills us.  Or, perhaps, a glimpse of beauty drives home the misery and pity of our everyday existence and makes us despair at our own condition.

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