We are often given the impression that artists of all sorts are operating at a level far above that of mere mortals, being so much more sophisticated than we are. Certainly their creativity and way of putting things together to create a whole, which can communicate a universal truth or experience, is something marvelous to behold when the artist is actually talented, and not a purveyor of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Yet paradoxically, we can go back through history and note that there are great numbers of writers, painters, entertainers, and so on who put more faith in human beings than experience and common sense would warrant.
For example, today happens to be the day when the great Spanish Romantic painter, Francisco de Goya (1746-1828), shuffled off this mortal coil. During a convivial brunch yesterday after mass, my dining companion and I discussed his work, particularly the so-called “Black Paintings” in The Prado – which I love despite, or perhaps because of, their other-worldly creepiness. However there is a different way to look at the art of Romantics of great intellectual capabilities and artistic output like Goya, Beethoven, and others who came to worship man as a substitute for God – if indeed, they worshiped God at all – and that is to think of them as children.
The mistake many artists make, whether Goya and Beethoven in their day, or Hollywood and the contemporary art establishment in ours, is believing that human beings can solve all of the world’s problems, if only they pick the correct leaders, and agree to work together in some sort of secular-humanist cooperative. This idea is rubbish, as history has proven over and over again, from the Tower of Babel to the Kyoto Protocols. Among others things, the notion that human beings are going to act selflessly out of mutual interest and not out of religious conviction ignores man’s inherent tendencies toward selfishness, laziness, and ignorance, when the Eternal is pushed entirely out of the picture – and, let’s face it, sometimes even when people claim He is in the picture.
No matter how gifted, intelligent, or sophisticated they might have been, many of these people never actually became adults. They believed whole-heartedly in the power of man, as an independent and ever-rational actor, and were disappointed to find man lacking. The clay-footed Napoleon in particular disillusioned a great many creative types in this period, not least including Goya and Beethoven, who thought that a secular Jerusalem was about to descend from some Corsican hilltop.
In a way this type of blind faith in created things calls to mind, on a pop culture level, a scene in the popcorn film “Independence Day”. Early on in the movie when the alien ships begin to arrive, a group of what we would recognize today as “truther” types gather on the rooftop of the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Los Angeles. They ignore the very sound advice of authorities that they ought to stay away, and act with prudence, until the intentions of these visitors are known. Instead, like the immature children they are, the members of the self-appointed alien welcoming committee indulge in a kind of Woodstock-like joy as the ships open, asking that they be taken up inside. They discover, too late, that these supposedly enlightened beings are actually more than just a little bit hostile, and they want to wipe out the entire human race.
To be fair, what most of us would consider to be normal, those of an artistic bent often consider boring. When things do not go as planned however, most of us tend to deal with these disasters as adults, picking up the pieces and moving on. When the disasters are more epic in scope, we do our best to care for those whom we need to care for, and put aside philosophical concerns for practical ones. Most of the time, our disasters do not involve wars, plagues, and so on, but the little things that can bring us low.
We send a payment in the mail, and it gets delayed or lost. We are just getting over the flu, when a family member gives us a sore throat. We finally get around to mowing the lawn, and a host of weeds pop up in the garden seemingly from nowhere. It may be conventional, and it may not be interesting, but without recognition that these things happen, and that we simply cannot fall apart every time we hit a roadblock or something goes pear-shaped, then we have no possibility of behaving with maturity.
In fact, one of the benefits of reaching maturity is the realization that nothing is ever going to work out perfectly for us in this life, for just when you have solved one problem, another has popped up somewhere else. Most of us who are functioning adults understand that placing too much faith in the physical world, and what man can achieve by his own efforts, is inevitably going to lead to disappointments. Those with a creative mindset on the other hand, are not always good at understanding this, and particularly when they put their faith in human beings, who have never shown themselves to be entirely trustworthy.
This is not to disparage the childlike curiosity and delight that one can find in a sprightly musical composition or an off-beat film, for we need these things if we are to build a culture. However it bears keeping in mind that creativity alone, even when it is harsh and unflinching, is no guarantee of maturity of thought. We are weak, feeble things; if we do not believe there is a higher authority than some sort of planned utopia coming from an executive committee of human brains, then we are probably not going to behave very well towards one another, at least not voluntarily, and the whole thing collapses.
Goya certainly came to understand this, as he saw his illusions crumble one by one, which is one reason why his art is so captivating, covering death and destruction, sickness, madness, and ultimately his OWN death. However the best thing to take away from the work of Romantic artists like Goya, and indeed from any artistic production that seems rather bleak and hopeless, is that you are not doomed to the same fate. Putting your trust in things beyond yourself, rather than in your fellow, fallible, human beings, is a sounder way of dealing with all of the garbage, great or small, which life is going to throw at you.