Leonardo Da Vinci was brilliant. And not just in one area. He showed great skill in chemistry, music, architecture, anatomy, engineering, etc. Yet as he explored the world in an effort to find meaning, he realized that meaning would not be discovered through the sciences. You simply cannot begin with the individual things of this world and derive meaning through examining them. (This is a concept I explored in a previous post: What Science Can’t Do.)
Realizing that finding meaning through science was futile, Da Vinci set out to find it through art. He had hopes of painting the soul or essence of man. Of course he failed. But Da Vinci is not alone in thinking that meaning can be found through the arts. If we can’t find meaning through the sciences, perhaps the poets, painters, and musicians of this world can point us toward the meaning of life.
The French painter Paul Gauguin’s search for meaning culminated in his painting, Whence Come We? What Are We? Whither Do We Go? (1897-1898). But as we know, these important questions could not be answered through art. He writes about the painting:
“Whither? Close to the death of an old woman, a strange stupid bird concludes: What? O sorrow, thou art my master. Fate how cruel thou art, and always vanquished. I revolt.” (Cited by Francis Schaeffer in How Should We Then Live?)
Meaning is elusive, but only if we are looking for it in the wrong places.
Meaning is closely related to art. There is an important link between the two. Art is mankind’s constant wrestling with meaning. We find our existence and experience with the world intriguing, so we create works of art—works that go beyond propositions and rationality—in an attempt to identify and record the significance of life.
Art wrestles with meaning and can be a powerful means of communicating meaning. In fact, much of God’s revelation to us in the Bible is encapsulated in beautiful and complex forms of literary art. But art alone can never create meaning. It can present it, challenge it, illuminate it, etc., but art can never produce the meaning we are searching for. Many artists over the years have looked to their art to give them meaning. Some have thought that the meaning won’t be found in the artistic objects themselves, but in the very process of creating art. Either way, art simply cannot do what these romantic minds have hoped it would.
We misuse art when we try to pull ultimate meaning out of it. The best art is a response to the meaning that has been discovered in God, in the world, and in the human experience. Art carries and conveys meaning, but it will never be the source of meaning.
Though we seek substitutes all the time, God alone is the source of meaning. And once we find meaning in Him, we can explore that meaning in powerful ways through the art we create.