Departments

Art vs. life

Sometimes art frightens me. Sometimes I wonder what art is taking to match what it gives. Surely talk was faster and more excursive before recording; surely clothing was more splendid and plumed before photography; surely gesture and pose were quicker and more lifelike before movies. Maybe worship was more devoted, before icons and idols; maybe love was stronger, memory keener, regret fiercer before the portrait; maybe voices were softer, birdsong sweeter, before music. Art universalizes particular experience, delivers it across space, time, and language. But what we receive as if transmitted, might only be lost; what we receive as if preserved, might only be embalmed; what we receive as if translated, might only be parodied. How are we, art-shrouded, art-addled, to know any better? Every sense bends to its particular art; do we more watch than see, more listen than hear, more savor than taste? At best art stands between us and life; at worst it claims our lives. What could Arthur Henry Hallam have done with his life to match In Memoriam?—where the artistic perfection of grief prevents us from sharing it, we who so value the expression. I fear art and I love it; I fear it as I love it, because love is power given, and power means abuse of power. So many minds are slaves to art, full of images and stories they do not even recognize as art, puppets to old ingrown art (they call it common sense). I study art, prize it, and judge it not to pass life but to save life: because to study, prize, and judge art is the only defense against it.