On muses, remembering, and beauty

Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

I have two premises I am trying to untangle. One goes like this (and it is more attractive to me from an idealistic sense): The job of the artist is to create new experiences by reminding people of an original beauty.

The other goes like this: The job of the artist is to create beauty in order to bring about new experiences.

In my personal experience, I have found the former to be more true than the latter.

I​​n Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes of his own poetry: 

“These are really the thoughts of all people in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,

If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,

If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,

This is the common air that bathes the globe.” 

I only understood what he was saying, because I was reading some poems by Mary Oliver and came across one where I thought – Hey, that’s my poem! I’ve thought that before! I’ve had the seeds of that poem prepared and ready to grow. Except of course, Oliver wrote that poem well before I did. I love Oliver’s poems because they often reveal something that was already there, but in a new and delightful way. She reminds me of those beautiful things and experiences that already exist “in me” but which I can easily forget.

So what exactly is Whitman saying? And why do Oliver’s poems mean so much to me? Perhaps both are communicating the same idea. I think it’s something along the lines that good poetry (and good art) is only good insofar as it touches some deeply held thing that is common to all humans. It’s as if, when encountering something beautiful (like when I was reading the Mary Oliver poems), the mind remembers or recalls something from within, something already experienced, perhaps something of the divine.

“These are really the thoughts of all people in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing”

This beauty, or truth, is something that exists already and it seems to me that the job, or calling of the poet (and artist) is to create new experiences by reminding people of these good, and true, and beautiful things.

As mentioned earlier, this premise, that truth, goodness and beauty is remembered rather than created seems to be more in tune with my own experiences. But why would it matter that art is remembered and common rather than created and new? Why is it important in any sense?

Art becomes important because it then tells the human story, which is common to all. Art becomes valuable in and of itself, because in telling the human story, it also tells *your* story, rather than being some distant category of the world which has little to no bearing on your day to day life.  To be fair, “art” is much more than all this, but it is not certainly less than this.

In other words, if it is true that art is common and remembered, then it also becomes accessible. For the individual trying to make sense of their life and their place in the universe we find ourselves in, art becomes one of the most valuable ways of accomplishing self-understanding. One cannot help but be reminded of Socrates resounding call: “Know thyself.”

Why then, do some people claim they just don’t “get” art? Perhaps the answer lies not in a lack of understanding of the artist’s intent, but a lack of experience in what provoked the artist. Perhaps, the individual has never been betrayed, or the individual has never experienced rejection by a loved one, or never faced true terror. There are many “perhaps” involved here. Perhaps as one lives their life out, they will begin to “fill in” those missing experiences. 

Art broadly becomes a window by which we can see and remember what makes us human. Remembering is the key here. The “thing” experienced and seen already exists inside of the viewer, otherwise there is no connection, there is no experience. It is of no coincidence that the muses of Greek mythology were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. These same muses became the conduit through which many artists express inspiration, direction, and beauty.

The featured image is Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. In the history of famous muses, Venus ranks rather high, perhaps up next to Dante’s Beatrice.

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