REFLECTIONS ON IMMORTALITY IN ART

/REFLECTIONS ON IMMORTALITY IN ART
REFLECTIONS ON IMMORTALITY IN ART2018-02-22T13:19:30-07:00

Life is short, art is long” —Quintius Flaccus Horatius

“The main function of the artist . . . is to preserve the history of mankind as it were in a time capsule.” —Leonard Bernstein

To the best of our scientific knowledge, the earth is some four-and-a-half billion years old. Four-and-a-half billion! We find it difficult enough to conceptualize one hundred thousand years, or even ten thousand. But four billion is four thousand million years, a figure quite beyond our grasp.

It is likely that even the man-like stages before homo-sapiens made tools and vessels that were not only useful but attractive. It is probable that with the growth of the brain there arose an instinctive need to make images of what we observed or imagined. That some of the higher apes paint and draw when given the materials is well known; but that may be a motor function of no particular artistic intent. The first actual art we possess is from the caves Lascaux and Altamira, some twenty thousand years ago. Scientists believe that those astonishing representations of hunters and their prey had ritual and educational functions in preparing young men to face the “real thing” in the wild. Nevertheless, they are art, and admirable in their power of communicating images, actions and ideas. Whether they were meant also to be “beautiful,” to satisfy an aesthetic sense, we have no way of telling. Perhaps “form followed function” in that a practical purpose found shapes that pleased for their own sake. Closed and hidden, those cave paintings acquired a sense of permanency as well.

Permanency! Twenty thousand years in the context of four billion is a vanishingly small fraction. When we now consider the next oldest purposeful art we possess, from the long-lost civilizations of Egypt, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, China and Greece, we come yet closer to our own time, perhaps five to ten thousand years ago, and the fractional proportion diminishes further.

We are told that within four or five billion years, the sun will expand and heat up beyond imaginable degrees, and the planetary system will be incinerated. Nothing we know, see or feel will be able to withstand that ultimate catastrophe. One moment please: It is not the ultimate, for the universe itself, whether closed, open, oscillating or whatever, is bound either to grow cold or re-form for another “big bang.” In any event, there is an end, and what the new beginning is to be can at best be a vague hypothesis.

What is certain, however, is that sooner or later, “all must pass.” The works of man, like the works of nature itself, will either die or be altered in ways we cannot really conceive. As galaxies collide, taking with them uncounted possible civilizations, so will our tiny part of the universe be transformed—and perhaps “in the twinkling of an eye.”

But when we consider that twenty thousand years is to us an amazingly long time, we can see that a survival “grace period” of several billion more is an enormous time span, and so-to-speak “nothing to worry about.” Humankind simply cannot afford to fret about such eventualities, however certain; it ought to be more concerned with the short-time prospect of incinerating or poisoning itself. Stupidity, arrogance and greed will then have vanquished this creature’s constructive and creative qualities; a Pyrrhic victory indeed. Having discovered the means of duplicating some of the nuclear processes of nature itself, humanity utilizes that Faustian knowledge at its own peril. We may not need to wait a billion or even a million years to see all we know and cherish destroyed or irreversibly damaged. We can imagine nature saying to us, at the time, “what’s your hurry? If you wish to die of heat or radiation, be patient awhile. It is your fate, in any case.”

Let us assume that humankind will somehow muster the wisdom not to commit nuclear suicide, and to “let nature take its course.” Perhaps the earth as we know it will survive another twenty thousand years before man’s conceit brings it down, or perhaps millions or billions of years will pass before life will change beyond our contemporary recognition. What then of art? We have no choice but to see history in the light of these extremely brief fractions of the total life of the universe. To us, twenty thousand years is very old, and so is two hundred and fifty. When we stand before a thirteenth century cathedral, those seven hundred years since its construction seem like a very long time, and we cannot be blamed for forgetting how relatively brief it really is. But our entire knowledge of history is conditioned by those remnants of civilizations and eras of the past. It is not the battles that are vivid to us today, not the inconceivable suffering undergone by those who were in the path of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, or the Crusaders. All we have today are the written or transmitted stories of those days, that is to say their literature, and the images they left us, in pictures, stones, metals, costumes and buildings. The music is younger still, hardly more than fifteen hundred years; we know almost nothing of the music of the ancients beyond some inconclusive fragments. Not until the early middle ages did anything like decipherable notation evolve. But from then on, and especially from the year 1000 A.D., examples multiply, and a “literature” of music becomes part of our cultural property and heritage.

“Great periods of history,” said the architect Edward Durell Stone, “are great only because of the art they produce.” Can one go that far? The Phoenicians, after all, developed navigation; the Babylonians, law; the Arabs, mathematics; the Romans, law as well as warfare, aqueducts and governments. But what now belongs to us most vitally is that part of a nation’s works which is expressed in figures, letters, sounds. So-called barbarian races—long extinct—such as the Scythians and the Etrurians or Etruscans—are alive for us today because of the extraordinary works of art they left. And ancient Greece! The very name means art: literature, temples, statues, pottery, designs. And also, mores, customs, philosophy. But most important, the concept of the “classic.” Greece changed the world.

Corroboration for Mr. Stone’s dictum comes from a surprising source. “In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those who created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalogue.” The author (at least the man who spoke the words) was President Lyndon B. Johnson, dedicating The National Endowment for the Arts some fifteen years ago [1965]. “Art,” President Johnson noted, “is the nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves, and to others, the inner vision that guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The technology, production and material possessions of any era are of course essential to its survival. Even Michelangelo required the services of the butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker; but we cannot imagine our existence, without his. The Napoleonic era was a “great” one in the changing fortunes of history, and the Napoleonic code of laws is valuable still, long after the devastation wrought by his military career had been replaced by later examples of that “ambition that o’erleaps itself.” But to us, is not Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony a more lasting part of that heritage? Virgil said, “Let others mold the breathing stone, plead causes and tell the motions of the stars. Your task, O Romans, shall be to govern nations, to spare the conquered, and defeat the proud.” Yet, as a recent writer put it, “Rome fell, the Pantheon stands.” It is exactly the stone and the bronze that still breathe, and Virgil’s poetry, and Ovid’s. The late Loren Eiseley has spoken of “the weary disillusionment of the archaeologist as he stands amidst the toppled columns that housed the gods of other years.” Toppled or standing, the columns are there. It is the columns, in stone, in letters, and in sounds, that bear witness to man’s creative urge.

 

Tout passe, L’art robuste
Seul a l’eternite
Le buste
Survit a la cite.

—Theophile Gautier (1811-1872)

 

All passes. Art alone
Enduring stays to us;
The bust outlasts the throne,
The coin, Tiberius.

Version by Henry Austin Dobson (1840-1921)

 

We set much store by the concept of lastingness. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan is fading, perhaps irreparably. No matter; it has been reproduced so well it is “owned” by millions, even if the original were to disappear. The autograph scores of many Mozart and Haydn symphonies are lost; but if we have contemporary copies, we know the music; it is ours. A hundred years is long in the light of the biblical three-score and ten; but that most of J.S. Bach’s music was forgotten for nearly a hundred years after his death is but a moment in history itself. One may hope, with some justification, that almost everything of artistic value created in the last thousand years has been found and documented, or will be. We rediscover as much as we discover, and our image of cultural history is fluid, changing, and constantly renewed. In music, the invention of the phonograph has been epochal; the idea that it is possible to put on turntable or tape machine a composition—let us say—from the mid-fifteenth century, and to have it speak to us directly, is staggering. No age before ours has enjoyed so panoramic—and instantly accessible—an overview of the existing art of sound.

The artist does not know whether his work is destined for what we so blithely call “immortality.” He cannot delude himself that what he creates will endure for that space and time we call “forever.” In fact, he knows that only about five percent of any art that had been made stands a chance of entering the living repertoire, be it in museums, the stage or the concert hall. No matter; he must create; must contribute his share to the enormous treasury. He knows that there are few mountains and many foothills. To reach the heights, the ground must gradually rise. The lesser artist takes part in building that landscape, tills that kind of fertile soil from which the great trees and miraculous flowers may spring. That must be enough reward for him. “Talent does what it can; genius does what it must.”

History has found the artist not a frill, not an ornament, not a luxury; he is an absolute necessity to meaningful life and human survival itself. Without the artist and the art he makes, a people dies of a disease we might call attrition. The German poet Friedrich Schiller wrote, in an ode to the Muse: “What I would be without you, I know not; but I shudder when I see what without you hundreds and thousands are.” Today, we could speak of billions affected.

A “folk-rock” song by Bob Dylan had this text: “I would not want to be Bach, Mozart, Tolstoy, Joe Hill, Gertrude Stein or James Dean. They’re all dead.” We may not be sure about Joe Hill and James Dean (as we are not about Elvis Presley), and there may be argument about Gertrude Stein. But Bach, Mozart and Tolstoy are tangibly alive today; the light they throw is bright. Like certain stars that are so far away we cannot be sure they still exist physically, they still provide a light on the way to Earth; to us, they are not dead. And is not the current Saturn exploration the most astonishing illumination and extension of our vision, “science as art”? Our space scientists, moreover, are surely among the most brilliant of “interpretive artists.”

Finding a reason for public support of the arts, Roger L. Stevens said, in the 1960s, “In two hundred years nobody will care about our television sets. Arts is the only permanent thing that comes out of a civilization, and we must stop shortchanging it in this country.” Permanent? Yes, however relevant the term in light of the earth’s existence, past and future. We see and experience the sense of history only in a context relative to the length of our own lives, and a few hundred years are indeed an example of permanency. Antal Dorati recently quoted the Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi: “Anyone who has succeeded in composing one lovely bar has not lived in vain.” That sense of sharing, however modestly, in the vast pageant of art over the millennia, must be a sufficient reassurance of immortality. And sharing, also, in the miracle of continuous creation. Something is made where there was nothing before. The images thus made by human beings reflect not so much objects and subjects but the mysterious and awesome processes of life itself.

© 1993 Musical Arts Association