“We have art so as not to die of the truth.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Art takes life, invests it with meaning, and makes it more beautiful. On the good days, art adds joy to life. On the bad days, art soothes the suffering inherent in the human condition.

“It is the function of poetry to harmonize the sadness of the world,” the poet A.E. Houseman said.

How is it that a tiny poem written in Japanese two hundred years ago, in another culture, on the other side of the globe, can speak to us here and now in the most profound, yet simple, yet convincing, yet baffling way?

This dewdrop world—
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet . . .

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)
Translated by Lewis Mackenzie

– From: The Autumn Wind

Godfried Schalcken, An Old Man Writing a Book by Candlelight, c. 1690, National Trust, Calke Abbey

How is it an oil painting of an old man writing a book made in 1690 can still make us quiet and stir in us a melancholy strain of wandering thoughts? How is it a Chinese ink painting made in 1633 can fill us with as much joyful astonishment as any sudden moment of fuller living we can recall?

Hu Zhengyan, Bamboo in Snow, 1633

Great art and literature give the vagabond human spirit a home. Beautiful works speak across the vast silences surrounding everything, beyond and through time, from one innerness to another. They remake the world – so it can shine.

By their nature, beautiful works of art represent moments of hope, belief, and an acceptance of creation on its own terms. They rescue the lost and welcome the outsider in each of us and fold us back into the troubled heart of the human family.

It’s a quality of the most beautiful things that experiencing them reminds us why we need them.

A life spent in the magic trance of art can be like a marriage. It may begin in love, drunken, sickening love, the kind that fills you with as much longing as terror  – and over time it becomes a relationship, a site of comfort and partnership, an indispensable companion and mirror of self and world. 

Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951. Photo by Andrew Dunn, CC.

Art defiantly celebrates life and, despite everything, helps us to live. As sculptor Henry Moore put it, “To be an artist is to believe in life.”

Then again, considering we ought to be smearing, scribbling, or spilling color onto a piece of paper or canvas right about now, all of this may be just nothing but fancy chatter.

“I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones,” said abstractionist Robert Rauschenberg. “Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me, because they put me in touch with the unknown.”

Wild Geese

Frank W. Benson, Canada Geese, watercolor, 1895

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”

– Mary Oliver