Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 1

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633 (oil on canvas)

ISG113855 The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633 (oil on canvas) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-69); 161.7×129.8 cm; © Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., earned his doctorate from Boston University with a dissertation comparing two theologians with whom he profoundly disagreed, one an American, and the other, the German refugee Paul Tillich. At issue were their conceptions of God, and Dr. King found that he could not quite consider Dr. Tillich’s views to be Christian. Yet, ten years later, Dr. King commented upon Dr. Tillich’s death that “in an age when war and doubt seriously threaten all we hold dear, theologian Paul Tillich “gave us a system of meaning and purpose for our lives.”1

Today it is not only wars and doubt, but fear and anger and cynicism of the most pervasive kind that trouble us. With polarized views expressed vehemently on either side of virtually every topic, it is almost impossible today to consider the grace with which Dr. King eulogized one whose views he virtually condemned. It is not just belief today that is embattled, but sincerity itself. Does representational art offer the potential to provide meaning and purpose for our lives? I have been examining morality and politics in 21st century representational art for answers.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying this is more important than that.”2 –Susan Sontag

I am referring to morality in the broadest possible sense, arguing that in the act of choosing what to paint, the artist makes a moral decision as well as an aesthetic one, in the words of Susan Sontag, deciding “this is more important than that.”

While morality concerns interpersonal relations and interrelations between the person and the group, politics regulates relations between the group and the state. Both involve the question of power and where it is situated. Politics has become the staple of daily news and hence, perhaps, of daily life in the 21st century. We seem helpless to escape from anger-fueled debate and conflict among individuals and parties having or hoping to achieve power. As the novelist Saul Bellow observed, “For the first time in history, the human species as a whole has gone into politics. Everyone is in on the act, and there is no telling what may come of it.”3 Indeed, even artworks are in on the act, as evidenced by the title of Lisa Siraganian’s Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (2012).

The dualistic mentality of “us versus them” reflects a Manichean view of the moral universe and is a symptom of the demise of systems of belief shared by a people, a culture, a country, a civilization. Some such systems developed to serve the function of (state) power, and I do not mourn their failure. I would welcome a revival of systems of belief that empower the individual to make the most of freedom of thought. To me a healthy society depends on the strength of individual conscience. In the 4th century BCE, the Confucian scholar Mencius enumerated a code of conduct calling for “benevolence, righteousness, respect, wisdom.” He counted benevolence the greatest virtue, explaining that “a fully benevolent person will be disposed to recognize the suffering of others and to act appropriately. Thus, a genuinely benevolent ruler will notice how his policies affect his subjects, and will only pursue policies consistent with their well being.”4

In the 21st century, is there any agreed-upon code of conduct? Do we see any signs of the behaviors Mencius recommended some 24 centuries ago? What does our art reflect?

The independent scholar Ellen Dissanayake makes a convincing case that art has been crucial to human evolutionary survival in her book, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Based on her anthropological and sociological research, she demonstrates that people from primitive times used art as a way of “making special,” helping inculcate necessary habits of thought and practice to safeguard the tribe and bind it together in the face of external threats.5

  1., Martin Luther King, Statement on death of Tillich, October 1965, MLK-GAMP,
  2. Susan Sontag, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning—The Nadine Gordimer Lecture, At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches,(New York: Picador), 2007, Kindle edition.
  3. Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account (New York: Viking Penguin), 1976.
  4. Http://
  5. Ellen Dissayanake, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why, Seattle: University of Washington Press), 1995.