The Ninth Wave

Throughout the ages man has expended a great deal of energy and effort on the creation of beautiful art dedicated to his ideal. He poured forth his heart and soul into forms that honored and represented his meaning and purpose, laboring day and night on projects that took lifetimes to complete. He sacrificed everything to give this world a tiny glimpse of the ideal, a glimmer of perfection, a ray of Beauty to ignite the heart and nourish the soul. Where the ideal is a conscious representation of man’s purpose, art is its emotional counterpart, the fuel that keeps the journey going. Without art there is no energy to pursue the ideal; without the ideal art falls apart into purposelessness.

The state of today is that both the ideal and art have suffered an almost total collapse. Modern political philosophy rests on a single word: growth; modern art is described by a single word: everything. Without a clear conception of Man, we have to suffer the inanities of modern political “issues” that can only be decided by emotion – primarily fear – since those debating lack the moral principles on which to base answers to their questions. Without its moral framework, art has been reduced to base experimentation. In the world of modern art everything goes, everything is permitted, originality being the measure of worth. As the scales of emotion have replaced reason in the political sphere, purposeless sensory exploration has displaced beauty, meaning and morality in art.

The purpose of a good work of art is the generation of emotional pull towards rational purpose. The more vivid the subject and the stronger the transmission of feeling, the higher the worth of that work of art. Up until recent times, history and myth were a feature of public architecture, were a theme for most any work from pottery to carpentry. The artist was responsible for fashioning society with fragments of the ideal, either as pieces of imagination or as impressions of reality. His works acted as constant reminders of a people’s struggles and triumphs, trials and victories, works that not only decorated its subjects and delighted the passers by but provided a constant confirmation of a people’s place in the world, an affirmation of a path towards their ideal.

Man being a sensuous creature, a rational purpose is not self sustaining. Without encouragement and confirmation we fall astray, reverting into a life pushed around by instinct. Art in the form of directed, purposeful emotion acts as a powerful guide that aligns man’s feelings and inclinations with his rational purpose, helping him fulfill a meaningful life. A good work of art should elevate the spirit and leave one with a heightened sense of potential. That is not to say that a work of art should be happy – a depiction of great sorrows and trials is a common theme of the greatest works – but that it should depict the massive potential of the human spirit, generating a burst of inspiration in the observer that lifts their gaze and strengthens their resolve. Works that are able to do that become catalysts of civilization.

Ivan Aivazovsky’s great painting, The Ninth Wave, is a striking portrayal of Hope itself. It depicts survivors of a shipwreck struggling to hold on to a piece of wreckage in a violent storm. The name relates to a nautical tradition in which successive waves grow in strength up to the ninth, after which the cycle repeats. Even though the subject of the painting is a brutal struggle against nature, the treatment of the scene is dramatically beautiful, and in a sense, heartwarming. In the horizon we see the bright light of the sun radiating through clouds like a giant flame. The blaze of the sky is reflected on the surface of the water, touching it with a flickering glimmer of light. The men fighting for their lives may perish at any moment, but the sense of imminent death is dispelled by an even stronger sense of hope, a sense that one’s struggle will not be in vain if only one keeps his resolve to carry on. In this way, the bright, warm, burning sun is a personification of Hope, the rays of which keep the survivors’ will afloat just as the remaining part of the ship carries their bodies. The physical piece of wreckage is essential for their survival, but what is more essential is the ever present hope that keeps their efforts going, for once the spirit surrenders nothing else will matter.

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Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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