Meaning and Purpose: Chapter 19

What is Your Creative Response?


As representational artists, are we addressing the truly important issues of human existence? What is your creative response to the dilemmas with which we all live? What do you have to say about

BEN558 Primavera, c.1478, (tempera on panel) by Botticelli, Sandro (1444/5-1510); 203×314 cm; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy; Italian, out of copyright

–how fleeting life is–

The Penitent Magdalen, c. 1640, Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, Bridgeman Images


–how inevitable death.

Leo Tolstoy wrestled with the question whether life was worth living if death was the only end to life: “What meaning can a person’s life have which would not be annihilated by the awful inevitability of death?” was answered in a long series of writings, from Confession (1882), to What Is Art? (1898). Mohandas Gandhi wrote in his autobiography that one book in Tolstoy’s series, The Kingdom of God is Within You (1894), “overwhelmed” him, and his correspondence with Tolstoy led directly to the policy of passive resistance that led to the British withdrawal from India. Fifty years later, Dr. Martin Luther King visited Gandhi in India, a trip that deepened his understanding of Gandhi’s practice.1 The policy of non-violent resistance that Dr. King adopted became an effective strategy for the civil rights movement. I offer these words from Gandhi as my personal creed for choosing my subjects, for making art: “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”2 My mentor Nelson Shanks described his commitment to his art in similar terms: “Trying always to do better. You may not get there, but there is meaning in the struggle.”

The celebrated artist of expensive toys, Jeff Koons tells that his ultimate aim is to achieve transcendence and enlightenment.3 He may be speaking coyly, pulling our legs. I am not when I conclude by wishing such freedom of thought and success in action for each of you. And I hope that you will begin by considering the meaning and purpose of the choices you make.

References to Books Mentioned in the Text

Bloom, Allen. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, Reissue edition, 2012.

Butler, Judith. Gender Troubles: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eaton, Marcia Muelder. Merit: Aesthetic and Ethical. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Hauser, Arnold. The Social History of Art. London: Routledge, 1951.

Nussbaum, Martha. Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Cambridge: Belknap Press, Reprint edition, 2013.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. 2001.

Siraganian, Lisa. Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life. New York: Oxford University Press, Reprint edition 2015.

Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession and Other Religious Writings. Translated by Jane Kentish. London: Penguin Classics, Reprint edition, 1988.

The Kingdom of God is Within You. Translated by Constance Garrett, 1894. A public domain book, Kindle edition.

What Is Art? Translated by Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics, New edition, 1996.

  1. Ernst August Spangenburg, “The Kingdom of God is Within You: Luke, Tolstoy, Gandhi & MLK,” January 20, 2015 accessed December 4, 2015,
  2. I saved this quote from a newspaper twenty years ago, and looking for its source online I learned that thousands of other people liked it too, after the character played by Rob Pattinson quoted the lines in the opening and ending scenes of the recent film Remember Me (2010).
  3. Henry Neuendorf, “Jeff Koons Explains Why His Art Is Actually Anti-Consumerist,” artnetnews, October 1, 2015, accessed October 27, 2015,