J.D. Salinger died last month. I remember him most for his reclusive lifestyle and characters who questioned why they were alive, their purpose in life and why even bother at all? His central figures seemed confused by the people and world around them. Surprised to be alive, caught off guard by their own existence and a little self-destructive. I heard existential pessimism and sadness born of alienation.
I love his writing. I am comforted by his quirky, self-absorbed, tragic characters. Reading his short stories reminded me that I wasn't alone in my struggle. I shared the same demons as Holden Caulfield and Seymore Glass. This connection to an artist's work is what makes something Great Art.
Great Art remains relevant across time and geography. We select out and label certain pieces of art "masterpieces" and travel the world to stand in front of them. We buy reproduction posters of Michelangelo's frescoes to hang on our walls and still read "Catcher in the Rye" 59 years after it was written.
Why? Because these works of art ask the enduring questions we all struggle with: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where will I go when I die?
Great Art is humble. It doesn't answer these questions, it can't. There are no answers - only the questions. But there is solace in the not-knowing. Looking at, or reading, Great Art soothes and allows comfort because it connects us to each other at our most basic level of humanness. Great Art relieves us of the vulnerability caused by the impermanence and free fall of life.
After the death of my sister I came across "Letters to a Young Poet" by Ranier Marie Rilke. Finding this must have been an example of the right teacher appearing when you need them most, because I can't remember how I came to find this, but did, and it was exactly what I needed to hear. This is from letter four, written July 1903:
I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Art that holds significance over time, provides a mirror for our individual search for meaning. Art validates our existence and lasts beyond our own narrow and finite life. Mighty big shoes to fill for one who makes art. However, my guess is, one cannot set out to create this type of art. All an artist can do is ask the enduring questions, move their ego out of the way and see what comes forth.