Openness that connects art with the meaning of life

Art and the meaning of life
Onno Zijlstra
ArtEZ Press; 208 pages; €34.95
★★★

Sophie Messeman

The author

Philosopher Onno Zijlstra (1949) has published on the philosophers Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein and Ortega y Gasset. From him appeared What is the red spot in the upper left doing? Introduction to aesthetics (2007) and Authentic – In times of mass media, ego culture and consumerism (2021).

The proposal

Zijlstra investigates the question of the meaning of life in connection with thinking about art. To this end, he discusses six thinkers: Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. In antiquity, it was clear: the world was purposeful, and art imitated it.

But the world is fragmented, while the experience of meaning, according to Zijlstra, is strongly linked to the experience of ‘unity’ – which can be found in art. At the same time, unity reminds us of completion, while a human life is never completed, except in death. Until then, life is open: an openness that can also give meaning to existence. Zijlstra associates meaning with ‘unity’ and ‘openness’, two aspects that he also finds in art.

The effect

Above all, Kant linked art and the question of meaning. In it Criticism of the judgment he tries to unite the worlds of science and morality through art. After all, this is where nature, freedom and purpose come together, organized and effective. In addition, the artwork also radiates openness: it allows you to think without forcing a certain thought.

Hegel claims in his lectures on aesthetics (1818-1829) that a person wants to become himself by expressing himself in reality. Compare it to a boy throwing stones into the water. As a result, he changes the world around him, but at the same time he changes himself. The artist expresses what lives in him, thus stripping the world of its ‘closed foreignness’. Art shows a unity, but also breaks up that unity so that progress becomes possible.

The sequel

After Kant and Hegel, confidence in efficiency or progress is completely gone. Schopenhauer sees only horror in history. The work of art is therefore not an imitation of harmony, but an escape from misery, seeking meaning is meaningless restlessness. Still, peace can be experienced: in the experience of the timeless microcosm of the work of art.

Life is also bleak for Wittgenstein. His diaries bear witness to his struggle to see life as meaningful. There is nothing for it but to accept the world as it is. Beauty is a matter of how you see the world, and the work of art can put us in the right perspective: Accept fate and distance ourselves from one’s own interests.

Kierkegaard, on the other hand, criticizes approaches that mix life and art. The aesthetic lifestyle is insufficient. A meaningful life is only possible to the extent that we ‘do not deny our own existence’, but take it seriously.

Nietzsche’s attitude to art takes many forms. He often criticizes art as a form of renunciation. Art, on the other hand, must serve life, even if it has a dark side. “Remain true to the earth,” says Zarathustra, in contrast to the idealistic representations of traditional art.

Reason not to read this book

The book is beautifully illustrated with classic and contemporary works of art. Unfortunately, the author does not refer to this, so there is a great distance between theory and realization. For example, which work of art shows some of the unity and openness that Zijlstra finds so typical of art (and the sentence question)?

Reason to read this book

The book provides a broad panorama of what philosophers think about the sentence question and the importance of art in that context. In doing so, Zijlstra not only paints their view of art, but also places them in their thinking as a whole.


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