The truly gifted artist is both a master craftsperson and a visionary. Some see deeply into the heart of humanity. Others see deeply into the future. One of the values of art is that a masterpiece shows us ourselves more accurately than does a mirror.
Three sculptures that come to my mind frequently are The Pugilist from the Hellenist period, around 100 BC, and The Thinker by Rodin, 1902, and The Youth by Lehmbruck, 1917. They all have much in common.
The old Greek fighter had been a strong man but now he has been pummeled and beaten for too many years. He is tired, very tired, and cannot help but wonder when enough is enough. The glories of Greece have been on Roman life support for a long time now. There is little glory left. Rome has taken the place of Greece as the cultural center of the Mediterranean world. It’s time, the old pugilist seems to be thinking, to give up and step aside.
The Thinker by Rodin also seems to have been roughed up by life a bit, though he still has his strength. The dawn of the twentieth century was experiencing cultural development accelerating almost mindlessly. We can now look back and see that the pace since then has only quickened. Change comes in a constant and sometimes overwhelming flow. If we needed to stop and think a century ago, how much more do we need it now?
Just a dozen years later, with his native Germany unable to make any progress in The Great War and with Kaiser Wilhelm floundered as a leader of the German people, Wilhelm Lehmbruck also saw that modern humankind needed to stop and think. Now, though, the people are weak and discouraged. The great optimism of the Western world was creating horror and the devastation of a huge proportion of its young men.
Little could any of these artists have guessed that the twentieth century would see two World Wars, mass scale murder of millions of people, and the creation of a weapon that could kill a hundred thousand in a moment.
They did not know just what was coming but they knew that the human race was in desperate need of reflecting upon and gaining some sort of control over the rushing flood waters of human culture. Alas, we still limit the depth of our thinking to the level of the marketers and advertisers. No wonder our visionaries despair!
Would you dare to say this simple prayer? “Lord, please call me not to greater speed but to greater depth.”