The viewer’s contribution to Art is as anonymous and humble as the contribution of Egyptian slaves and stonemasons to the creation of Pyramids, but it is equally essential.
Pyramid of Khufu at Giza is the only one Seven Wonders of the World still in existence. For all we know, it’s the most grandiose and enduring thing ever built by humankind.
Last week, its image floated to the surface of my mind as the answer to an existential question I’d been contemplating.
Since the dawn of its history, the humankind has been trying to increase its capacity to do more — more than required to meet the basic necessities of life.
It would seem obvious that Ancient Egypt had much less of this extra potential than the modern world, but it turned out enough to build these magnificent structures. So huge that they seem barely possible — and utterly useless as far as the necessities of life are concerned. A wise and benevolent ruler would certainly have channelled whatever extra potential they had into improving what we now call “the quality of life” of his people, not into building a tomb for himself. At least that is what we generally expect from our governments today.
So one way to tell the story of Pyramids is this: the story of a tyrant who, inspired by an ambitious architect, forced his people to sacrifice their lives for a frivolous and ridiculously superstitious whim.
Here is the rub, though. For all we know, the whole project had a deep spiritual meaning for all its participants. That was what their gods wanted (and needed) them to do.
So there is another version of the story: imagine a magnificent public project which would be deeply meaningful to you, and your own life work contributing to its fruition — and this vision may be the closest we can get to the Egyptian experience of Pyramid-building.
And there is more to it, because the Pyramids are still one of the greatest wonders of the world. Even if their original purpose is now obscure or absurd, they are still magnificent. Any Pyramid-related exhibition tends to be a blockbuster any artist of our age can hardly dream of. In other words, Egyptians’ extra potential was channeled into creating the most wonderful and enduring thing in the world, much more enduring than their civilisation with its beliefs and perceptions.
What about us, who appear to have infinitely more of this extra potential? What do we do with it? More to the point, what do I do with it?
There are some ideas in my head about what would make my life meaningful. These ideas are rather close to the scenario I described above, trying to imagine the Egyptian experience: a contribution to something magnificent and enduring, something larger than life.
And there is also a kind of “meaning meter” within my heart, which responds to all ups and downs of meaningfulness from moment to moment, from day to day. The problem is that its readings often seem completely unrelated to my head’s grand ideas. For example, it’s feels like about “fifteen out of ten” when I look at a painting by Rembrandt — but I am not making any contribution to anything at all at these moments, am I?
This discrepancy was the source of my existential question: why seeing a painting (or reading, or listening to music) often feels more meaningful than doing anything productive at all?
Of course, it is not an unusual thing for the head and the heart to disagree on something. So one way out of the paradox would be to decide that one of them is wrong, but this just doesn’t seem to be the case here — on this, my head and my heart are in total agreement.
There is also this idea that art is “food for soul” (or, alternatively, for “thought”). So maybe I just need to “consume” some art to keep living (and being productive), just like I need to eat and sleep. That would be about what art does for me, to me — this rang closer to truth, but not quite right either.
It was at this point that the image of Pyramid floated to the surface of my mind as a solution, but it took some time still to understand what the two have in common.
My existential paradox is only a paradox if I think about art as a collection of “things”. Things are made, and then used (or consumed). When I am painting, I am on the “maker” side of it, so this naturally falls under “contribution” to art (assuming for a moment my paintings are good enough). But when I am looking, I am on the “consumer” side of it. It is taking, rather than giving — so, in this model of art as a collection of things, it cannot be a meaningful contribution.
But this is just a misleading way to think about art (the error is quite self-evident for literature and music, but less so for painting). Art is really more like “language” or “culture”: it is a huge “emerging” phenomenon which takes place mostly inside human beings. Thinking of art as a collection of things is almost as absurd as thinking about language as a collection of dictionaries and grammar books. It is taking the visible tip of an iceberg for the whole iceberg and disregarding the invisible foundation which somehow lives in our minds, and has no other space to exist.
And just as language is inconceivable without listening, so art cannot live without viewers — without those who see and thereby give themselves as a space for Art to live and flourish in.
The viewer’s contribution to Art is as anonymous and humble as the contribution of Egyptian slaves and stonemasons to the creation of Pyramids, but it is equally essential. If there are no viewers to lend their eyes and minds and hearts, this whole magnificent creation of humankind will wither away and die.
And nowadays, it sometimes seems there are more writers than readers, and more painters than viewers. The overwhelming motive of our age is for everyone to be creative, and creation is supposed to be in making something. But the question is, what happens next? What makes the thing you’ve made meaningful?
So I guess my inner “meaningfulness meter” is right after all: seeing is an intrinsic part of creation, because it gives it its meaning.