Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 15

Power and Choice, Nihilism and Freedom


Have We Become Blind to the Possibility of Spiritual Potentiality?

Stare, 2010, Alyssa Monks (b. 1977), courtesy of the artist

The enigmatic, the tragic, the open ended, the mysterious nature of human existence remains. Can artists create new visual allegories to explore what the meaning of life is in the face of our inevitable death, the profound existential dilemma? What can we show about being human today?

To me the answer in large part depends on cultivating strength of individual conscience through freedom of thought. We have on the one hand the argument of philosopher Judith Butler that the human being is subordinate to and formed by external power. Indeed, a main argument of her title, Gender Trouble (1990), seems to be that language itself functions to oppress. Alyssa Monks’ distinctive paintings combining abstraction and realism with the ever potent image of water might serve as a visual metaphor for this point of view. We are submerged, obscured, inundated, and overwhelmed. Closed systems of belief such as postmodernism reach their logical end in Butler’s theorizing, itself a form of nihilism. Such concepts of subordination undermine the expansive possibilities offered by freedom of thought.

Untitled (Diver), 1969-70, Paul Thek (1933-1988), synthetic polymer and gesso on newspaper, 22 ¼ x 33 3/16/56.5 x 84.1 cm, © Estate of George Paul Thek, courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York

We have on the other hand the argument of Martha Nussbaum, who argues for a plurality of human opportunities, capabilities–opportunities to choose. She and Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen have described a “capabilities approach” to address human development and the existence of inequality, outlined in her book, Creating Capabilities (2011). I prefer her emphasis: we can act with intent toward destinations of our own choosing. Both Butler’s and Nussbaum’s points of view may be valid in the paradox of human existence, yet how much more hopeful is Nussbaum’s idea that every individual has power to choose.

On a bittersweet note, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl confessed to having ignored Paul Thek’s work when he first saw it in 1969: “I wouldn’t have to think about it, because it didn’t mesh with the prevailing narratives of art….It was too figurative and too lyrical.” Forty-one years later, The Museum of Modern Art gave the painter his first American retrospective, and Schjeldahl lamented, “He is too little known, and his rediscovery promises to have a galvanizing effect on young artists.”1 Sooner or later, we may reach our desired destination.

  1. Peter Schjeldahl, “Out-There Man: Paul Thek rediscovered,” The New Yorker,