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Tipping on the tightrope of life and art

“Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. I try to act in that gap between the two” – R. Rauschenberg

Once upon a time, there was a little man living together with billions of other little people on a (more or less) little floating rock called planet Earth. This little man loved painting but was eyeballed from the other little people, since they could not get why the brushstrokes of his works were so thick or why the sky of his landscapes was so twisted and unrealistic. The little man eventually passed away but only few of the other little people on Earth noticed it.

But right out of the blue, the same blue that Vincent van Gogh had used to paint his skies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (or NASA) discovered a century later that the soon-to-be explored Jupiter, the biggest planet of our solar system, has a quite extraordinary appearance: thick and twisted clouds envelop all its surface, reminiscing those peculiar landscapes the Danish painter used to love so deeply.

In the history of mankind, art and life have cut through their paths so many times to the point where the downfall or rising of the first always drags along a consequential downfall or rising of the second: The Enlightenment was indeed a flourishing time for both the human spirit and its art, whereas Romanticism saw the ruin first of the previous century’s principles and then artistic production.

In this perspective, one could also consider whether it would be possible to distinguish between the end of life and the start of art. One could ask themselves: “who imitates who?”

For Oscar Wilde (ndr. Irish writer, poet, aphorist, playwright, journalist and essayist), this question is not to underestimate. In his essay “the Decay of Lying” (1889), Wilde explains through the lines of a Platonic dialogue that it is in fact life the one inspired by art:

“Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment.” – from “the Decay of Lying”, p.7 (1889)

An astonishing example of how art “takes life as part of her rough material” can be noticed in the work of Samuel T. Coleridge “Kubla Khan” (1816). In the preface, the poet explained how the city of Kubla Khan appeared to him during a hallucination by opium and how this lucid dream inspired one of his most famous composition. What then he thought was just imagination happened in real life too and the palace that the poet had described in his work was built in the city of Shangdu (out of which the work is inspired) years later.

However, it takes all sorts to make a world; Henry James (ndr. English writer and literary critics) stated in a magazine article called “the art of the novel” (1884) that a novel was nothing more than “a direct impression of life – and art, indeed. Evidences of this statement can be found in the Trümmerliteratur (“rubber literature”), artistic movement founded at the end of WWII in Germany, where the artists would try to “show reality just as it was, without any unnecessary information out of the view of the common people” (

These two line-ups seem to be strong of their own reasons. Nonetheless, if we cannot distinguish art from life and vice versa, we can surely understand why: most of the times, art and life appear to have the same purpose – to feel. One could even argue that people create art in the same way they live life, that is for the sake of experience: this argument is brought on the one side by pragmatists like William James (ndr. American psychologist and philosopher) saying that the meaning of life is only discoverable by its experience and on the other side by the discovery of how mirror neurons (ndr. a neuron that fires both when humans act and when they observe the same action performed by another) activate even when actions are described during a narrated story, making it possible for spectators to learn how to handle new experiences even when these are indirectly witnessed.

In conclusion, the origins of this relationship do not seem to weight more than the relationship itself, or at least, more than the goal they both pursue: life and art find their reason in the feelings they result into and the tangled exchange between the two should not distract people from the fine thread that eventually hold them together, that is the experience of human sensitivity.

Articolo a cura di: Sara Magnacavallo


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