I’ve been on a persistent high the last few days. Sunday was when it started. I had a long conversation with my art teacher K – we didn’t do any art in class that day, but just sat and pored over the works of artists, Impressionism and post, while another student and I listened closely to K’s commentary on them. With Google Arts and Culture, it is possible to look at thousands of pieces of high definition masterpieces, zooming out and in, from Cezanne’s landscape and still life compositions to Van Gogh’s individual brush strokes.

We did exactly that. And while I was earnestly absorbing the visual buffet with my amateur eyes, we also discussed technical and philosophical questions of art. What constitutes good structure and composition? Why was Cezanne considered the father of modern art movements such as cubism and abstract art? And the one that has been occupying my mind a lot – what is the point of art? Is it too optimistic to imagine that, through finding the meaning of art, we might also find the meaning to life?


Paul Cezanne – The Basket of Apples (circa 1893)

Classes are supposed to be only two hours, even though K never really enforces it. By the end of four hours, we had sat through a two-hour storm in the poolside pavilion where we usually have our class. The other student had left an hour ago, and I was nursing my lukewarm tea, with a million thoughts racing through my head, each one deserving and competing for my attention. The sudden expansion of information to digest took up all the brain space that I had, the pieces fusing into each other and I couldn’t remember where each piece started and ended. It was all very confusing – but satisfying.

K believes that art is a tool for self-expression, an innate need that humans have had since the age of the cavemen. To communicate something that is within ourselves, to create something from nothing. Within a technically adept painter may not necessarily live an artist. They may be excellent at portraits and landscapes, but remain at most draftsmen that are mostly good for commissions (I sense some quiet contempt there). The point of art is therefore not to please others. It is through art that we can understand more about the world and about ourselves, and through that achieve freedom.

gauguin self portrait

Paul Gauguin – Self portrait with portrait of Bernard, ‘Les Miserables’ (1888)

To K, art is freedom. It is the ability to make full use of our senses, and to then translate all of this into a piece of unique work. A true artist has philosophy behind her work, not only technique. She draws not only with her hands but also with her mind. Upon further research at home, I can see through some quotes from Paul Gauguin, an artist that K adores, the philosophy that he might hold. Here are some that I found endearing, encouraging or wise.

  • Art is either plagiarism or revolution.
  • There are two sorts of beauty; one is the result of instinct, the other of study. A combination of the two, with the resulting modifications, brings with it a very complicated richness, which the art critic ought to try to discover.
  • Out in the sun, some painters are lined up. The first is copying nature, the second is copying the first, the third is copying the second… You see the sequence.
  • A critic is someone who meddles with something that is none of his business.
  • I have come to an unalterable decision – to go and live forever in Polynesia. Then I can end my days in peace and freedom, without thoughts of tomorrow and this eternal struggle against idiots.
  • There is always a heavy demand for fresh mediocrity. In every generation the least cultivated taste has the largest appetite.
  • Art requires philosophy, just as philosophy requires art. Otherwise, what would become of beauty?
  • Go on working, freely and furiously, and you will make progress.
  • With practice the craft will come almost of itself, in spite of you and all the more easily if you think of something besides technique.

Vincent van Gogh – Bedroom in Arles (1889)

I am increasingly convinced that, art is but a tool to communicate one’s truths and emotions. The better we get at it, the more robust our ability is to express ourselves, accurately and exactly as we see it. Through writing my Japanese essays I have become painfully cognisant of the fact that I have at times had to embellish what I originally intended to say, only because my arsenal of Japanese vocabulary and grammar is insufficient to explain the nuances of what I had wanted to express. Far more rarely, but it does happen – is when I want to say something in English that would have been easily said in a phrase in Japanese, yet in English it comes out feels clunky and unnatural.

From the top of my head, an example: 来てくれたんだ roughly translates to “You have come for me (in this statement there is a slight nuance of appreciation – thanks for making the effort for coming to see me/attend this event because of me)” but I can’t think of an English equivalent that is as succinct as the Japanese phrase, that doesn’t fall flat on its face.


Katsushika Hokusai – Two ladies with a telescope from the series “Seven habits of grace and disgrace” (1798 – 1811)

However, the real and bigger question does not lie in how well our craftmanship or mastery of language is, since that is something that can be acquired over time with lots of practice. No. The real and bigger question is that, do I have something worth expressing? I believe that this may be the key of how art links to life. Perhaps the most pressing mission that an artist has is to find that burning something that she has to shout out to the world, her emotions, her struggles, her worldview… and that comes from a life with meaning.

What then, is my life’s meaning?

Is art then, an invitation to open this door to self-exploration, of introspection, of listening closely to the murmurs of our souls? Am I up to the task of finding the authentic me, even if it might yield an answer of disappointing mediocrity, of a life not worth communicating?

The thinking continues.

Featured image by Josef Koudelka. K said that a good composition is when every element within the picture is essential, taking away something will render it ineffective. Incidentally, I watched Amadeus last week and that was what was said about Mozart’s composition – it is perfect, as is. Add or take away a note, and its beauty is diminished.