The Aim of Art and Life: Ask the Big Questions
Updated: Aug 30
In this age we are in where we are bombarded by information constantly, I worry that we are losing the overarching story of our own individual existence – as well as the overarching story of humanity itself. While we are so wrapped up in the onslaught of social media and 24/7 ‘Breaking News’ headlines, do we have the time to sit with ourselves and think about where we’ve been, who we are, why we are the way we are, and what we personally need to do to become who we could be?
Not the collective we – I know it’s popular to focus on that part nowadays in a world where it’s easier to define ourselves within the context of a collective experience. I’m talking about the you, as well as the me.
George Saunders says that the aim of art is to ask the Big Questions. Why am I here; why are any of us here? How am I spending my one existence, and how are you doing it, and what can I learn from that? What’s the common ground between us? Where can we find those shades of gray in our common human condition? Where are the metaphors of the natural world that help us make sense of our reality and human experience? What do I value in my life – and what do we value in society? What’s the point of it anyway?
But instead, the question has now become: can we even hear ourselves think for long enough to ask ourselves any of those Big Questions?
Amidst all the noise and all the information that yells: THIS is important, and so is THIS, you should FEEL THIS, here’s the RIGHT answer laid out for you – can we find the quietude to ask the questions we need to and determine how to use those questions to build the story of our lives?
Today, we have access to a lot of writing – a lot of thoughts and opinions, and real time reactions to everything. I read recently that all writing is expression, but not all expression is art. In a world now built around the written word on social media that has the power to become modern day popular gospel, how much of it is art? How much of it is asking those big questions?
When humanity goes through plagues, the society that emerges from the darkness has a renaissance that awakens individual souls in the wake of the collective tragedy, and in turn, results in an emergence of art. I think we are on the precipice of our own renaissance. I think what we just lived through is forcing us to reevaluate and reflect, and out of those reflections we are beginning to ask questions again – and create art.
If the aim of art is to ask the big questions, the purpose of storytelling is to have a character who is either consciously or unconsciously asking themselves one of the big questions. Once the seed of the Big Question(s) is planted, the character begins their quest. It could be an actual quest that takes them on a journey away from everything they’ve ever known – or it could be a quest they go on internally, in the depths of their soul, as they experience life on life’s terms, in the world they have always known. At the end, the character either finds the answer, or they don’t. The moral of the story is what happens if they found the answer – or what the consequences were if they didn't.
The reality is that in our quest to answer our own 'Big Question', we find that the truth is complicated, it's messy, it has layers, and it should leave you in awe – and changed. You don't know the truth at the beginning of the quest. But wherever you find it, there you are. And what you do with that is everything.
Our lives are just a series of stories — there’s the larger, overarching story of our life, and then the in-between short stories we experience in the eras we live through. The key is to be able to meet the conflicts of those short stories in a way that does justice to the larger story of your life.
Importantly, all those individual stories build the one that becomes the story of our humanity, and defines the eras we leave behind us.
So, as we venture into this new existence we are finding ourselves in at the beginning of what could be a renaissance that defines our time in the history books, the question for you is:
What is your question?