What’s it all about
by Dominic Blackwell
What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of art?
It might seem like the second question is much smaller than the first. But I believe that showing the problems with it illuminate the problems with the first, and point the way towards greater joy and a better existence.
If you assume art is for something, it must be subservient to something else. An economist may say it allows for the creation of something of value which may be exchanged in the marketplace. An evolutionary psychologist may say it has a function in ensuring reproduction and the propagation of the human species.
But I would say that this is backwards. Beauty, and its other faces goodness and truth come first. Something beautiful has economic value because it is beautiful. Something beautiful is appealing to other humans because it is beautiful. Beauty does not have a purpose. Things have a purpose if they are beautiful, good and true.
Now establishing the meaning of the word ‘meaning’ could lead to very deep semantic waters. But in normal usage, ‘meaning’ implies something external, something separate. Something which means something signifies something, represents something, stands for something outside itself.
But a human life is a doing of what the person living feels is good, beautiful and true. People may get into word games saying things like ‘I know it’s wrong but I do it anyway’. But this is just self-deception. If you really thought something was wrong you wouldn’t do it. Saying something you are doing is wrong is just paying lip-service to someone else’s values. In the future you may thing what you did was wrong. You may vow never to do it again and keep your vow. But then your actions are what you then believe is right.
Someone making an argument may use someone else’s life to represent something. A true or mythologised biography may be depicted as a model, or a tragedy, or a cautionary tale. But the reality of that persons life was a following of what they believed to be good while they were doing it, within the limits of their imagination, knowledge and powers.
All of this is to say that life doesn’t have a meaning outside of itself. A person does what they believe is good, beautiful and true. An artist produces what they believe is good, beautiful and true. Life is the pursuit of beauty, whether the creation of grand projects, joyful play or simply the feeling of one more breath in our lungs and one more pulse of our heartbeat.
The pursuit of beauty is not an indulgence. It is not the waste of a life. It is life. And while other lives, contemporary with ours, before it or after it may find beauty in other places, their search is the same as ours. And through our common following of goodness, truth and beauty, we are infinite and eternal even while our physical bodies and measure lifespans are not.