Contempt for immortality

3:55 PM

"The Lovers" - René Magritte 

A post about Magritte and Wagner but Chevy Chase will make a brief appearance.

“What I paint is addressed to those who “live” in the present, or rather, for it… An artist who paints for posterity has an intention that I do not have. In my opinion, he is doing something idiots understand very well – those who do not concern “living” men. The man who seems to be alive, whom one refers to as “alive”, is an enigmatic reality that need not be lent a meaning that would interpret that reality as one that is concerned with posterity.” 
Letter from René Magritte to Louis Scutenaire, February 24, 1955[1]

Wagner has a similar quote on working for the present:

I have felt the pulse of modern art and know that it will die! This knowledge, however, fills me not with despondency but with joy, for I know at the same time that it is not art in general which will perish but only our own particular type of art—which stands remote from modern life—, whereas true—imperishable—constantly renewed art is still to be born. The monumental character of our art will disappear, we shall abandon our habit of clinging firmly to the past, our egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price: we shall let the past remain the past, the future—the future, and we shall live only in the present, in the here and now, and create works for the present age alone.[2]

Magritte’s ideas continue to baffle me. Now, I don’t actually think that an artist needs to aim for posterity.  There’s nothing wrong with painting for the present, but after that, you might no longer be relevant.

I’m no artist, but I would dread that this happened to me. As a matter of fact, it’s like what the guy from Gladiator said: what we do in life echoes in the eternity. If you aim for greatness it will count, whether you achieve it or not. If you aim for the present – it will also count - badly.


Because what these artist are not saying is that making works that will last years, centuries, millenniums is hard. It is actually extremely hard to have enough talent, creativity, ambition and faith (not to say guts!) to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Doing all this without encouragement from art critics, art dealers and the media is even harder. It’s also quite difficult to be able to make a sculpture as marvelous as the Pietá when you are only 24 years old.

What’s implied in this contempt for immortality is that it’s much easier to cater for today’s fashions, ideologies and caprices. Besides, if you are living in a time that what matters most is to be original, shocking, subversive and revolutionary – the better!

The word obsolete is used a lot in technology but I think it might be useful here. Do you know when movies get old and the technology in them gets obsolete? Take the movie Vacation for example. The family’s computer is huge and has no screen, so it’s connected to the Tv and to the boy’s videogame. We see these objects now and we laugh and make fun of them. But they weren’t funny in the late 80’s.

However, you can still watch Vacation and find it funny because its premise is not specific of a certain time. The humor they get out of the horrors of family vacations is pretty much the same in the late 80’s and now. What’s specific from this decade (the computer and videogame) doesn’t affect the movie so much because it’s merely a detail.

Now, Wagner and Magritte were doing art - something light years away from Chevy Chase’s antics (which I love, by the way). So how come they seem less concerned than Chevy about making their works last?

How do you interpret Wagner’s and Magritte’s quotes? Is despising immortality valid?

[1] Magritte: the true art of painting by Harry Torczyner p. 50

[2] Letter to Franz Liszt quoted on The rest is noise by Alex Ross. Here's a longer excerpt of this letter. 

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