Saturday, December 15, 2012

Art, Tragedy and Death

This morning I am reminded of a passage in the biography entitled, Aristide Maillol.  This book was written by Waldemar George and Dina Vierny (his favorite model).  Maillol was a French sculptor who lived between the years of 1861 and 1944.  The passage which leads me to somber pondering reads as follows:

"I [Waldemar] went to see him at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, while his son Lucien was at home.  Just back from Spain he recounted to us the horrors of the campaign.  Maillol was finishing a statue.  He remained silent and then suddenly exclaimed: 'How difficult it is to create a foot and yet men kill one another with machine guns.'  Art was his reason for living.  Although he loved mankind and the natural world he had no other reason..." (p. 17)

As artists we lovingly study nature, we believe in progress, excellence, nobility of the human spirit, beauty.  We build.  We celebrate life.  And like a cruel child stomps an ant hill into non-existance, life and and all that we have worked to build is gone in a tragic instant.

Lives are lost.  Great cathedrals are decimated by bombs.  Things fall apart.  Civilization and artistry are anihilated. Crowds are mowed down by mad gunmen.  Percy Shelley's poem comes to mind which I have reprinted here:


    I MET a Traveler from an antique land, 
    Who said, "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone 
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, 
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, 
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, 
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read, 
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, 
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed: 
    And on the pedestal these words appear: 
    "My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings." 
    Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair! 
    No thing beside remains. Round the decay 
    Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, 
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Many people throughout the ages have sought an explanation for this aspect of the human condition.  I find great solace in William Blake's explanation that there are truly only two spirits that man can serve.  He called these the spirits of the "prolific and the devourer".

There are those who create, who build.  They cherish every waking moment of this activity.  This is the creator spirit.  We build families and relationships, we build society, we create art.  

There are those who, for reasons I cannot fathom except to call it their glaring weakness, destroy and consume.  Everything they touch is reduced to broken bones and rubble.

We have a choice as to which spirit we will serve.  While staring into the gaping abyss of our eventual demise, we can choose to smile defiantly.  We must create a beautiful world for ourselves, we must continue to create attachments and meaning.  We must love in life and in work.  We must dream,  We must create life in celebration of what is best in the heart of man.  

We are at war, my friends.  But the battlefront is truly within the human spirit first and foremost.  People win this battle within themselves every day.  And people lose this battle.  Our greatest weapon against it is the spirit of the prolific, the spirit of creation.  Where ever the light of love must shine, shine it!  There is too much darkness in the world.