- Ihor Biloushchenko
Can art ease the human condition?
Have you ever found yourself questioning what is happening to humanity? You’re probably not alone.The human condition is a complex concept about the fundamental nature of being human with the challenges and experiences that we face in our lives, such as emotions, relationships, mortality and other experiences.
In this article I discuss different ideas of philosophers and psychologists who accept the inevitability of the human condition and the impossibility to escape it. Additionally, I explore whether art can help us to deal with the human condition.
The search for explanation
Throughout history, different thinkers tried to help with the understanding of the human condition. Stoics, for example, just suggested cultivating inner tranquility and accepting the limitations of the human existence. Existentialists focused more on how humans are born without a pre-determined nature and must make their own choices, take responsibilities, and cope with existential angst.
Contemporary philosophers have shifted their focus to the nature of consciousness, the limits of human knowledge and understanding, and the rapidly changing and interconnected world. Martin Heidegger, for example, believed that alienation and disconnection from each other grow even more with the excessive use of technology. Thomas Nagel argues that the human condition is characterized by "the absurd.” We are both rational and emotional, and this tension creates a fundamental sense of dissonance and alienation from the world around us. He states that this cannot be resolved through reason or science. However, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains the duality of the human cognitive system and believes that developed reasoning can lead us to a better situation. In his book "Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he stresses that our thinking is mostly shaped by automatic, unconscious processes that operate outside of our awareness and can lead to errors and irrationality and inevitability of the human condition. But evolving our rational level by considering all available information and alternative perspectives, seeking out diverse opinions, and reducing biases can help to act more reasonably.
Can beauty save the world?
With these ideas in the background, let’s focus more on art. Needless to say, art has always been a part of human life. Already ancient cave paintings explored and expressed their understanding of the around world. With time different social issues and the human condition became part of the art, but each artist focussed on different aspects of it making sense of our lives and the world we live in.
I believe that some art simply covers current issues of the humanity. In a certain way, I can agree that beauty and Renaissance aesthetics can ease the pain of the life in this world. Beauty can awaken positive emotions and reduce negative ones. But unfortunately I don’t believe in the beauty saving the world like Dostoevsky stated. The development of critical thinking instead is more important in reaching rational society.
Analysing contemporary art, I can extract three key topics that make us pause and think about the human condition.
One on them is the exploration of identity and the self. Kerry James Marshall is one of the artists who looks at the identity shaped by social, cultural, and political factors. He confronts the viewer with the challenging representation of the fixed expectations.
Another topic is the relationship between humans and the nature. Olafur Eliasson and Ana Mendieta are exploring the ways humans have impact on the environment. Their works invite the viewer to consider their relationship with the nature and to question the impact that humans have on the environment. They encourage the viewer in their own way to engage with the human issues.
A third topic is the research of trauma and healing. Kiki Smith, Stanley Kubrick, and Berlinde De Bruyckere are the best examples, in my opinion, of exploring the physicality, vulnerability, impact of trauma on individuals and communities. These artists confront us with the difficult topics using their medium and help us to better understand the complexity of the human condition and the challenges we get with it.
Like we see now, contemporary art can challenge us with a range of perspectives on the human condition, reflecting the complexities of the modern world. Each artist adds their unique perspective to the cognitive development of humanity. By providing a mirror, we hope humanity will awaken. At the same time, I always think that this approach has been with us for more than a hundred years, and humanity still has a long way to go.
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References and further reading:
Dostoevsky, F. (1994). The Idiot. Wordsworth Editions.
Eliasson, O., & Mendieta, A. (2017). Olafur Eliasson & Ana Mendieta: Gravity and grace. Moderna Museet.
Gombrich, E. H. (1972). The story of art. Phaidon Press.
Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology and other essays. Harper & Row.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kierkegaard, S. (1944). The concept of anxiety. Princeton University Press.
Marshall, K. J. (1998). Kerry James Marshall: Mastry. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Morrison, R. (2017). Contemporary art and the human condition. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 75(1), 9-18.
Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal questions. Cambridge University Press.
Smith, K., Kubrick, S., & De Bruyckere, B. (2016). Trauma and the contemporary. MIT Press.
Solomon, R. (1974). Existentialism. The modern renaissance of interest in humanistic psychology. Harper & Row.