Immortality is a funny thing. I suspect many harbour a secret dream of living forever, but few of us want the incessant, unending infirmity that begins at around one hundred years of age. That said, don’t you find it amazing that art continues to inspire and affect us emotionally, long after its creators are no longer with us? Think about painters, writers, film makers, musicians, song writers and the like. Their works are still listened to, read and watched, for decades, even centuries after their initial creation.
A friend of mine tweeted that she envied musicians. She said: “How amazing to know that long after you’ve gone, people will still listen to you. I envy musicians. The good ones. The ones who write music that still speaks to generation after generation .”
Of course, in her self-effacing and self-deprecating way, she followed that comment with an observation that everything she says ends up sounding like a line from a pompous documentary, but I don’t agree. I think it is a valid observation and a worthy goal. Who wouldn’t want to speak to future generations in a positive way?
I love this quote from Carl Sagan, another brilliant man no longer with us, who continues to profoundly influence even today: “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
I’d definitely include painters and sculptors in this category of magicians. We can look today at the Mona Lisa or the statue of David and still be as moved and impressed as the people who first saw it, when it was new, centuries ago. Impressionists painted all their best pictures over a hundred years ago and yet they still seem as fresh, vibrant and dazzling as they always did. To view them “in the paint” is still a remarkable experience, despite the obvious patina of age that these works are now acquiring.
Who can deny the power and relevance of the closing speech on humanity, from Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator”? It’s as inspiring today as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century and the problems described have not been solved.
If you care about song writing and music production, delving into the great American song book of the twentieth century is a wonderful way to improve your knowledge base. There is so much art, wit, gaiety, humour, skill and refreshment in these old melodies and arrangements. The lyrics are devilishly clever. The musical flourishes delight and surprise. You can get these collections for a few dollars. Each and every song writer, musician and singer is still reaching somebody, and making them smile. What a wonderful legacy.
This kind of artistic immortality is not a bad aspiration, in my view. It would be nice to have something to say, to say it through your art and to have your message perpetuated long after you have lost your ability to say it to people directly. Of course, this only works if your art is a monument to people and to their edifications, rather than a monument to your own ego. The architecture and art of the Soviet realists and the Nazi state looks rather tawdry and menacing, today. In its own way, it has achieved its own immortality, but in a sinister “warning from history” sort of way. It has become rather revolting.
The thing that strikes you vividly, when you are in the presence of a great work by a now dead artist is a touch of sadness. This art is frozen in time. We will never see another work by this brilliant mind, rendered by these skilled hands. There will be no new happy accidents. We won’t see them striving, flirting with the precarious possibility of making terrible mistakes, while attempting to achieve the sublime. We will never see this artist develop further, take on new interests, or produce art that takes us all in a different direction. They’ve ceased to be able to make new inspirational works. Nobody can help regretting that they really are no longer on earth with us. We have their unique contributions but we’ve lost their unique presence.
I often wonder which artefacts of the modern world are destined to look cynical, rotten and putrid, providing a damning indictment of their creators for all of eternity and which, instead, will continue to uplift and inspire. Which creations do you think will achieve a form of immortality?
What kind of art do you want to make?