Godlessness, Art, and Meaning

In studying the group paintings of seventeenth-century Holland, such as Frans Hals’s A Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Militia Company and Dirck Jacobsz’s Civic Guards, [Alois] Riegl discovered a new psychological aspect of art: namely, that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement.

The above comes from Eric Kandel’s Nobel Prize-winning The Age of Insight. The discovery Kandel describes here is one concerned with the meaning of art. Riegl finds that a work of art has no inherent meaning, that it does not exist in a vacuum. Since a work of art is only as relevant as its meaning, the viewer is not only important, but essential (unless one argues that art can exist solely for aesthetic pleasure).

When I came across this passage, it immediately struck a chord. In fact, it may be the most powerful- and appropriate- analogy for life itself.

I’m often asked by God-fearing friends and colleagues where I find my meaning. The subject has always been one that’s fascinated me; the argument has a long and rich history. Where a belief in a deity does not exist, it is supposed, there can be no meaning. Is godlessness not a very dire prospect?

The argument was brought to the forefront by the advent of existentialism, usually identified by its adherence to meaninglessness. Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, and the like all battled these demons, and few came up with a sufficient answer. Some would argue that they failed to find meaning (I am not arguing that, mind you). If that were the case, though, it is only because the question they asked is two-fold, and they broached only the first part: is our existence in the universe meaningless? Without a divine text to turn to, the answer must be a resounding ‘yes,’ since the only other credible explanation for the universe is randomness. Here is where most stop: there is no meaning, and that is cause for despair.

Here’s the second part of the question: if the universe does not provide meaning, can there be another source of meaning?

In fact, there is. It is you. You are the source of meaning. As a work of art is incomplete without the viewer, so is life incomplete without you. The Mona Lisa is meaningless until someone rests his gaze upon it, giving the enigmatic smile purpose. The viewer wonders at the smile, perhaps smiles back, and that wonder creates- in fact, is a large portion of the painting’s meaning.

If you live your life on the couch, meaning will be difficult to come by. If you find your passion, are generous with your love and time, and contribute to the world, the search for meaning is no longer an elusive one.

Life needs you and me to complete it. It is, then, not meaningless. It is simply the beginning of a circle: a circle which only you or I can complete, simply by making the decision to do so. Life itself is the Sistine Chapel, and is nothing. Only when we come along to gaze on it does it become Everything.