Vita brevis, ars longa: On art and immortality

Vita brevis, ars longa. So said Hippocrates.

"Life is short, and art long . . . "

Adapted from the aphorism by Hippocrates, translated below.

"Life is short,
and art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experimentations perilous,
and judgment difficult."

Art exists for the ages, even as we mortals quickly turn to dust. Artists create art for many reasons. Primary is the fact that they are internally compelled to create. It's an urge that's practically impossible to ignore. It haunts the artist's mind, keeps the artist awake at night, and drives them until their ideas are expressed.

But for many, there's another underlying motivation — the need to leave a lasting mark that will remain after we flawed humans have passed. We don't want to be forgotten. Through art, perhaps we can achieve a modicum of immortality.

Fashions change and tastes modify over time, but art remains important and beautiful, and eventually circles back into popularity, because transcendence overcomes trendiness.

Not just for artists, the urge to leave a mark is a human one

In the American West, you can still find the names of early explorers carved into the stone surfaces of natural landmarks. Hikers often see trees scarred by carved initials and the hearts of lovers, but that love and even the trees won't last forever. In the middle east, artists long ago carved what seems like eternal art in stone. And now, after thousands of years, some of those ancient sculptures and temples have been destroyed by war criminals leaving their own mark on history by defacing the creativity of their predecessors. In the caves of France and others in Indonesia, human handprints and animal totems painted in ochre are still being discovered, some of which are more than 30,000 years old.

Here are the words of a handful of great artists on the topic of art and immortality:

William Faulkner — Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind him that is immortal . . . This is the artist's way of scribbling 'Kilroy was here' on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass.

Woody Allen — Woody Allen I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

Leonard Baskin — Art is man's distinctly human way of fighting death.

Romare Bearden — Every artist wants his work to be permanent. But what is? The Aswan Dam covered some of the greatest art in the world. Venice is sinking. Great books and pictures were lost in the Florence floods. In the meantime we still enjoy butterflies.

Anthony Burgess — In two thousand years all our generals and politicians may be forgotten, but Einstein and Madame Curie and Bernard Shaw and Stravinsky will keep the memory of our age alive.

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