Artists Strive to Give Life Meaning

Powerful artists infuse their work with a blend of deliberately chosen emotional themes, their own emotionally important ideas, and subtly distinguished shades of meaning. The great work always starts with the individual, yet manages to present universal aspects of life. Artists do this by looking for the universal elements of their own experience. They never lose sight of the simple fact that we are all human beings. What happens to one of us, in some specific way, has undoubtedly happened to others, in somewhat different ways. Artists suggest the underlying commonality and reveal the universal. In this way, they make the specific general, the individual universal.

Lighthouses and stars are examples of those images with a rich array of symbolic meanings favoured by writers, poets, and painters. (Image: public domain.)

Arthur Koestler put it somewhat differently when he said the artist’s task is to equate the individual with the universal, to find the intersection between what he called the “trivial” and the “absolute” planes. The individual is the microcosm and the universal is the macrocosm. Joining them is essential for the artist’s work to be of any value.

Linking the individual with the universal is what artists do. The question is why do they do it? The answer lies within the artist himself. An unusually powerful need to make sense of life characterizes the artistic temperament. This urgent need drives artists to find ways of organizing their insights, ideas, and perceptions. Art is a powerful tool for doing this and has the added advantage of providing a way to share with others. However, merely to record personal experiences does not explain them. For that, the artist must uncover the universal aspects of what has happened. By finding and revealing the universal, the artist provides himself – and others – with all-important context and meaning.

Since we have touched on the topic of artistic temperament, let me mention one other characteristic of powerful artists: they have commitment. Ivan Turgenev put it this way: “A man wishing to create something integral must devote to it his whole integral self.”

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

2 thoughts on “Artists Strive to Give Life Meaning”

  1. Great post, Thomas. I agree that – in my experience, at least – artists perhaps begin with the personal and make it universal via their art. This is why works of art that are intensely personal in terms of their origins can nevertheless carry great meaning for large numbers of people.

    I also agree that the drive to create works of art springs, at least in part, from a desire to make sense of life in general, and personal experience in particular.

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