“To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote in contemplating the spiritual element in art and the three responsibilities of artists. “The aim of art is insight, understanding of the essential life of feeling,” philosopher Susanne Langer asserted a generation later in her trailblazing treatise on the purpose of art. But even more nebulous and nuanced than the question of why we make art is the question of what art — great art — is. “Art like prayer is a hand outstretched in the darkness, seeking for some touch of grace which will transform it into a hand that bestows gifts,” Kafka offered.
Around the same time, across two European borders, the Nobel-winning French writer André Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) — another titan of literature with a harmonic mind and uncommon insight into the life of feeling — was pondering the same question. His meditations survive in The Journals of André Gide (public library) — the most cherished of young Susan Sontag’s favorite books, and the source of Gide’s enduring wisdom on growing happier as we grow older, the paradox of originality, the vital balance of freedom and restraint, and what it really means to be yourself.
Three decades before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his comprehensive and artistically significant writings, in which human problems and conditions have been presented with a fearless love of truth and keen psychological insight,” Gide writes on a loose, undated page from his 1918 notebook:
All great works of art are rather difficult to access. The reader who thinks them easy has failed to penetrate to the heart of the work. That mysterious heart has no need of obscurity to defend it against an overbold approach; clarity does this well enough. Very great clarity, as it often happens for the most beautiful works… is, to defend a work, the most specious girdle; you come to doubt whether there is any secret there; it seems that you touch the depths at once. But ten years later you return to it and enter still more deeply.
Revisiting the question, Gide wrests from a verse by Charles Baudelaire — whom he admired as one of the greatest literary artists of all time — a periodic table of the elements of a great work of art:
In these lines of Baudelaire:
Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
[There, all is order and beauty,
Luxury, calm, and voluptuousness]
in which the inattentive reader sees only a cascade of words, I see the perfect definition of the work of art. I take each one of these words separately, next I admire the garland they form and the effect of their conjunction; for no one of them is useless and each of them is exactly in its place. I should quite willingly take them as titles of the successive chapters of a treatise on aesthetics:
- Order (logic, reasonable disposition of the parts);
- Beauty (line, dash, profile of the work);
- Luxury (disciplined richness);
- Calm (tranquilization of the tumult);
- Voluptuousness (sensuality, adorable charm of matter, attractiveness).
More than two decades later, Gide would elevate the fourth of these five pillars above the rest and write: “The sole art that suits me is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.”
The Journals of André Gide is an endlessly, regeneratively rewarding read from cover to cover. Complement this particular fragment with Lebanese-American poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran on why we make art and poet Jane Hirshfield on how great works of art transform us, then revisit the young Gide’s rules of existential conduct.