Of Art and History: Connections between Fine Art and the Arc of History
Note: This piece I submitted as the final project in 10th grade World History. I love the subtle differences in writing quality and similarities in voice. One of my favorites.
Human history has always been a balance between the promise of human advancement and the invisible division of human dignity. Humans are power hungry creatures. Throughout all of history, power has been kept in place through oppression and tyranny for the sake of preserving one’s personal interests and goals. We’ve strayed from the righteous sense of communal justice sparked from our tribal necessity in the Paleolithic Era. The human race has pivoted from the rediscovered beauty and imagination in Renaissance humanism into a selfish scramble for putting oneself above others. It can be seen in the bloody whipped backs of slaves, the soot-filled eyes of desperate factory workers, and the cut off hands of the Congolese in Colonial Era. Every time that there is an imbalance of power, humans will ravenously claw at anything that opposes their control and dominion. As technology develops, it becomes more feasible for humans to distance themselves from those whom they hurt, and suffering in the world becomes more accepted and frequent. The arc of history bends towards chaos and injustice. This balance between progress and oppression is illustrated by Newton by William Blake and Guernica by Pablo Picasso.
Newton demonstrates how innovation in science and technology allows for oppression and selfish gain. The painting depicts Isaac Newton—a brilliant man whose ideas, in a somewhat literal sense, changed the world around him—sitting atop a beautiful, well-lit rock diligently drawing a circle with his scribing tools. Newton is facing a dark abyss with his back turned to the beauty adorned into the rock. Here, Newton acts as a symbol of human progress in science, solely focusing his attention on his compass and meticulously drawing a circle. As he creates, he sits completely oblivious to the illuminated beauty, and stares outwards into the dark ocean ahead. The darkness he faces is a recognized symbol of a malign future, one that, as he completes his perfectly formed circle, ceases to be distant. One of the key aspects about this painting is the multiple interpretations that one can draw from it. One interpretation adapts a more “renaissance” viewing of Newton, reflecting the humanistic approach that Blake takes. The viewer sees the beauty of humankind trying to progress in knowledge of the sciences. It captures a curious group of creatures that, as they progress in scientific, political, and philosophical achievement, are moved to malevolence the closer they get to being gods. Newton, like all humans, searches for a way to control or understand the world. He, in the painter William Blake’s words, “imposes a rational order on the world”. Science itself is not bad, in fact, it can be and is used for the forces of good. But undeniably, science can allow a certain capability for human nature to malform innovation into oppression and selfish gain.
Another interpretation focuses on Newton’s position arching towards the darkness. Newton bends towards the darkness, yearning towards “progress” but only reaching farther and farther down into a more chaotic world. This chaos is developed alongside the creation of the steam engine, which led to large factories being built, people losing jobs, cruel factory work out of necessity, and overall, more evil. The painting describes the notion that with each “progressive” step we take in innovation, we move away from the light and towards the darkness.
Guernica captures the intrinsic nature of war and revolution. The viewer first sees distorted versions of people with horrified grimaces and fearful expressions. The painting, historically, relates to the bombings of Guernica during the Spanish Revolution; a tragedy that was achievable only through the creation and manipulation of weapons of destruction. Similarly to “Newton”, Guernica demonstrates a ‘technology creates evil’ symbol with the light bulb in the top center of the painting. The lightbulb, which appears eerily familiar to the evil eye symbol or an explosion of a bomb, is a symbol of innovation and marvel. Picasso’s use of black, white, and grey convey a somber mood while stressing the actual shapes themselves. The somber mood constructed through insipid color choice—in addition to the emotion in the faces of the people in the painting—reflects the suffering of people oppressed by those in power. The flaming buildings and dilapidated concrete walls reflect not only the destruction of the Spanish Civil War, but of virtually all revolutions. Whenever people try to change their human condition and get out of the oppression, there is destruction and violence. We see the devastation firsthand: the mother weeping over her dead child; the person carrying the torch of revolution fleeing in terror; the dead rebel with the broken sword.
The malformed humans of Guernica not only project basic emotions, but also represent our misreading of the beauty of humanistic premises established in the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, humans strayed farther and farther away from communal approaches towards philosophy, government, and art. Divulging into individual goals allows for an equal ground for each of us to become successful, but has often times led to greed and many times the hoarding of power (i.e. Rockefeller, Child Labor, Belgian Congo). Guernica gives us an almost dystopian version of the Age of Man-like reality we live in.
Human progress comes with a cost. While ideally every human is entitled with dignity and worth, the last several centuries have proved to either distort or remove this idea. Innovation leads to shifts in power, which in turn leads to oppression and chaos. Enlightenment thinking romanticizes a notion of utopia and, while giving reasonable explanation of human nature, cannot work in reality. For instance, the peaceful ideas born from the French Revolutionaries fell apart once new power was put into place. Fear and horror kept people in line, and after a while, a monarchy worked better than the current system. Newton and Guernica both represent a fear come to life: our failure as a human race to create anything remotely close to an idealistic reality of progress. The arc of history inevitably bends towards chaos. However, it is in our best interest as a species to keep fighting for peace and prosperity.