Existentialism is a philosophical idea which is centered on the idea of the individual as a disorientated and confused being in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. When experiencing an existential dilemma, one feels alone in the world: misunderstood by all that surrounds and misunderstanding of all that surrounds.
Thinking about existentialism recently, as one does, it occurred to me that perhaps all active artists (and indeed anyone who feels the urge to be creative) are existentialists. They are all searching for a meaning and this search manifests itself in creative output. They are driven by emptiness.
The existentialist discovers the absurd about the world and to try to understand it, they want to show it to the rest of the world, to recreate it or somehow try to pin it down. The artist feels a overwhelming urge to express and understand the absurd.Creativity is central to existentialism. Rollo May defined creativity as ‘the process of bringing something new into being.’ We (that is all people not just artists) are constantly searching for authenticity. We feel off balance and we are looking for balance. Perhaps some of us find it. The creative person is always searching for that balance and never finds it. That is how I feel.
When I think of the stereotypical existentialist artist, I think of Francis Bacon. Gilles Deleuze saw painting as a manifestation of ‘hysteria’ Bacon’s art lies somewhere between straightforward mimicking of life and abstract. There is something of the unreality about his art, and the viewer feels an anxiety upon seeing his painting. Existentialism is all about anxiety. The existentialist is the anxious person.
Paul Tillich asserts that ‘most creative art, literature and philosophy in the twentieth century is in its very essence existentialist.’ I would assert that most art, literature and philosophy throughout history is in its very essence existentialist.
Another very obvious existential artist is Vincent Van Gogh. I’d also place the likes of Lucian Freud, George Shaw and Edward Hopper in the category of ‘obvious existentialists’. There are more.
I am sure that I am one too. I haven’t yet found balance. Some would argue that that balance is God, but that is another blog entry.
Henry, N., 13 December 2010,’Fine art and existentialism’. Available from: http://www.slideshare.net/nancyahenry/fine-art-and-existentialism [last accessed 2 July 2015]
Wikipedia on Existentialism. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism [last accessed 2 July 2015]