The image and the glory: a glance at the covenant between Art and Immortality

There is an ancient covenant between art and immortality. A brief visit to any castle or museum on the Old Continent will immediately reveal a key dimension of painting or sculpture, and that is conferring immortality – or perhaps only a temporary victory over time, which is but death in waiting – to an event or an individual. Art is an attempt, which knows to be vain but hopes to be somewhat effective, at defeating the inexorableness of human time; otherwise it is mere illustration or distraction. Each art form is a different way of attempting it: some in a symbolically explicit way such as painting, sculpture or the cinema, some by putting in motion feelings which guide us towards mental or indeed spiritual experiences, such as music or dance. Literature, being mediated by the symbolic tool of language, is capable of acting on our conscience through all available channels; doesn’t poetry, at its highest level, craft enduring images through words rather than shapes and colour, images that may mold human minds for centuries?

In some Buddhist stupas, the eyes of Buddha consciousness or wisdom are painted between the dome (or anda which means “egg” in Sanskrit) representing the womb, the receptacle that is the universe, and the heavens represented by the spire (yasti which means “stick” in Sanskrit), which is symbolic of the link between the human and the divine worlds and indicates a pathway of spiritual ascent. These eyes are at the point where that which is manifested meets with its principle, to make a rough summary. Art rarely aims at any spiritual teaching; but in essence it is at the junction of life as experienced and the ideas which shape it. It is the passage, the eye (or ear…) that opens the path.

The performer (dancer, musician or actor) is usually the intermittent and passing receptacle of artistic creation, the chôra (“space”, “territory”) in the sense outlined by Plato in Timaeus, although in some cases the Idea (to keep with Platonic language), the performance and the performer merge as one; this may be the case with a film of Charlie Chaplin, say. Similarly, a painting – to take but one example – is the lasting receptacle of the Idea, of the everlasting dimension once embodied in an event or the deeds of a person, real or mythical, and ever since repeated in (rather than by) a physical image. Or obviously of God Himself, the source and essence of all Ideas, if one thinks of a byzantine icon from the perspective of the faithful. The Idea is obviously not the art creation itself, the mere artistic “invention”: it is that which is conveyed or harboured by such means.

For there is, all along the Western tradition, a distinction between, on the one hand, an idea of eternity as the “place” of unity and permanence, symbolized in the Greek mythology by Chronos, and on the other hand the instability and flowing of human time; the Greeks, and later Christianity influenced by Greek thought through the “conceptual filter” introduced by the translation by the Septuaging of the Hebraic Bible into Greek, have tried to reconcile the ideas of eternity and the passing time of human experience, and of history. Plato had found a clever way:  “Accordingly, seeing that that Model is an eternal Living Creature, He set about making this Universe, so far as He could, of a like kind. But inasmuch as the nature of the Living Creature was eternal, this quality it was impossible to attach in its entirety to what is generated; wherefore He planned to make a movable image of Eternity, and, as He set in order the Heaven, of that Eternity which abides in unity He made an eternal image, moving according to number, even that which we have named Time…. “was” and “will be,” on the other hand, are terms properly applicable to the Becoming which proceeds in Time, since both of these are motions; but it belongs not to that which is ever changeless in its uniformity to become either older or younger through time, nor ever to have become so, nor to be so now, nor to be about to be so hereafter, nor in general to be subject to any of the conditions which Becoming has attached to the things which move in the world of Sense, these being generated forms of Time, which imitates Eternity and circles round according to number”. (Plato, Timaeus, 37(d) to 38(c)).

In other words, the Creator ordered the movement and structure of the universe according to the Number, which provides its template, so to speak, to the moving world, so that time is but an imitation of the Eternal via the permanence of its rhythm and regularities. From a Christian perspective, if God is an absolute present (“Your today is eternity” says Augustine), faith is an aspiration to return to the stability of eternity, to get rid of the impermanence of human time. The two “times” get together at the moment of Krisis, which means “judgement”. When humans enter (or not) in the “time” of eternity. The eschatological perspective reconciles the two “planes”, that of passing human time, that of the eternal present of God.

This aspiration to escalate from one plane to another has long pervaded “Western” thought and attitudes; this aspiration has found satisfaction in what one could call an “escalation by analogy”, which is outliving one’s time in the minds of humanity, or a section thereof, which also implies a form of judgement by the collective minds of others, a judgement repeated year after year for as long as possible, and which in the minds of many until at least the 17th century is implicitly “agreeable” to God as He permits such a judgment and thereby converts it into an image of His Judgement. This way to conceive time has been of great importance to the history of art, and it could be argued that the quasi-disappearance of what might be called “the plane of eternity”, whether one talks of the Greek or Christian approach being unimportant here, is the single most important shockwave which has traversed the universe of western “art” in the last hundred years of so.

Three categories of experiences have resorted to painting or sculpture with the explicit purpose of overcoming the passage of time : glory, heroism, and martyrdom, which only overlap in parts. These are experiences that require a disconnect between the moment when the act which may bestow fame on their authors or participants is performed, and the moment when people will become witnesses of that act, whether days or centuries later. That time distance is necessary for anyone to become a hero, a martyr, or a glorious person, for that requires a process by which the singularity is transformed into, or comes to reflecting, an archetype. Once risen, that sun may also wane; but importantly, it will have risen.  

Glory is a fairly vague term. It stems from actions which may be directly or indirectly attributed to a person: a memorable victory may well be attributed to the monarch under which reign it occurred, rather than the general who actually fought; the king could have accomplished himself, though not necessarily, any deed which brought him glory. Glory is indeed a reflection on the person, or a group of persons. By contrast, heroism is individual, and – particularly in its sacrificial form – does not necessarily lead to glory. It stems from a behaviour by which a person chooses by her own free will to incur an extraordinary risk, that of death, moved by an idea (honour, faith, love, collective identity…) held by his community (or humans in general) as being of a higher order than necessity.

Martyrdom was for a long time the acceptance to be inflicted death in the name of God, which was the equivalent of attaining immortality, obviously from a spiritual rather than biological perspective. Martyr meaning “witness” (from the Greek μάρτυς), one is never a martyr full stop, but the martyr of a particular divinity or ideal. With time, it has been transformed in an acceptance to be inflicted death in the name of a collective ideal, which is a substitute for divinity in the age of rationality. The hero chooses, the martyr accepts. It goes without saying – but our times impose the proviso – that being used as a mere weapon by a bunch of coward ideologues “Daech-style”, or by a government “kamikaze-style”, only degrades the individual into a tool which, having relinquished his own free will, is thus dehumanized, and bears no relationship to either heroism or martyrdom. Even if he has faith, usually in a rather idiotic version of an idea, the kamikaze does not die because he was persecuted; he dies because he is pushed into, or elects himself to commit, a more or less repugnant crime.

It is self-evident that all these “states” are related to memory: there is no such thing as an unknown hero, an unnoticed martyr, a discreet glory. But memory is not enough: it needs to be exalted, to raise the event to a higher level, a level where the act is not contaminated by anything mundane: Achilles does not scratch his nose, the victor of Lepanto or Trafalgar does not comb his hair, for what is common to these achievements is the implicit quest for immortality, a quest which requires to leave behind any trace of earthly banality, any occupation unworthy of immortality. But also a level which is acknowledged by the many as being admirable, elevated beyond common reach, arousing a desire of identification.   

Some art forms are capable of granting a substitute for immortality, of giving us a glimpse of that dimension which we may call immortality, but only for as long as those who receive the work as readers or spectators are culturally capable of accepting and acknowledging the underlying ideal: for instance, the disappearance of the concept of honour in modern societies, or the demise of the ancient Mayan or Egyptian beliefs, interrupt the energy flow between a distant past when such ideas were widely shared and the present when they have become a mere intellectual curiosity. Many of those ideas which provided meaning to human life, because they were deemed capable of raising humans to a higher plane which we call divine, and were conveyed by a myriad of artworks over time and space, are no more.

Immortality can only be perceived in those mirrors, or receptacles – objects, epic poems, or rituals – which connect us with the realm of ideas structuring our aspirations. For glory, as love, is in the eyes of the beholder, and the eyes need to rest upon the object of their craving: art re-presents that object. God, or “the gods”, need such a representation to make their connection to humans: their immortality may of course be assumed, but from a human perspective God is manifested and so to speak repeated through narratives – all monotheistic religions rely on one or more writings – while gods must rely on statues, icons, rituals and other representations. Only a few godless and mostly immanentist philosophies such as, say, Shintoism or Taoism, rely on a very narrow body of representations.

The hero, the martyr, the emperor, raise to a form of divinity thanks to representation. Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff wrote separately and simultaneously, in 1945, two of the most remarkable essays on the Iliad, the literary matrix of heroism in the European civilization, respectively Iliad, the Poem of Force and On the Iliad. But the spectacle of the woes and miseries of war prevented them from seeing that the Greek hero fights not to display power for the sake of power, but in order to achieve glory as a byword for immortality, as the words of Sarpedon to Glaucos in Book XII of the Iliad clearly spell:

“Ah my friend, if we could escape this war,
and live forever, without growing old,
if we were ageless, then I’d not fight on
in the foremost ranks, nor would I send you                                  
to those wars where men win glory. But now,
a thousand shapes of fatal death confront us,
which no mortal man can flee from or avoid.
So let’s go forward, to give the glory
to another man or win it for ourselves.”

Alexander is forever the Conqueror. It does not matter that his empire lasted but a few years, and collapsed into many kingdoms after his death: his deeds are eternal, perhaps as a metaphor of the energy of life and the potential of human willpower.  Let us look at the ultra-famous mosaic found in 1831 in the House of the Faun, in Pompei. It is most certainly a copy, made in the 2nd century B.C. and using the then perfected technique of opus vermiculatum, of a lost painting dating from the times of Alexander himself. Either by Apelle, who was close to Alexander or, according to Pliny, by Philoxenus of Eretria who may have painted it for Cassander, king of Macedonia. The painting represents the battle of Issos (333 B.C.), one of the three key battles fought and won against all odds by Alexander against the Persians.

We can see that Alexander is the only bear-headed figure in the vast mosaic. It makes him immediately recognizable, but also signifies that he needs no physical protection being protected by the gods, a god himself perhaps. On his breastplate shines the face of Medusa, whose eyes petrify whoever looks at her; for poetry, from Dante to Goethe, she was always the image of that part of femininity which both attracts and destroys, or to put it differently, of irresistible power. As the Gorgon, she is on the shield of Achilles. The carriage of Darius is fleeing away, but Darius himself looks at Alexander as if in disbelief, and strangely extends his bare right hand towards him. The right hand was symbolically the seat of man’s power in Ancient Greece, hence the ritual of the δεξίωσις, the handshake which means welcome and confidence, must always be performed with the right hand to be valid. Darius thus seems to be abandoning his power to Alexander. A segment of the mosaic, to the left of Darius’s carriage, seems to have been added, perhaps to fit the work to the room: it contains some odd elements. Had it not, the look of Darius, his hand, and the eyes of Medusa would be roughly aligned.

“Glory” is a term which inevitably brings us back to religion, or at any rate mythology. For simplicity, let us limit the enquiry to the Jewish and Christian writings. In Hebrew, the literal meaning of kavod, the word which we translate as “glory”, is “heavy”; it is associated in the Bible to a piece of armament, or more generally with the presence or power of God. Exodus, 16:6-7 : ” Then Moses and Aaron said to all the children of Israel: “…And in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord; for He hears your complaints against the Lord. But what are we, that you complain against us ? ”. A similar meaning may be inferred from Isaiah 43.7 : “everyone who is called by My name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made ”, or from Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands”. The same could be said of the word “glory” as we read it in the Gospel of John (2:11) : “This beginning of signs (i.e., miracles) Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him”. The meaning of the word is however extended in the Christian tradition to signify in general that which is divine, the state of divinity to which men are to become participants as in St Paul’s 1 Corinthians (15:42-43): “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory”. This is a quite explicit mention of the ultimate aim of human life according to Christianity (and in practice to all religions under one name or another), which is divinization, i.e. the overcoming of our physical, temporal and moral limitations through spiritual ascent. St Paul is of Greek culture, and the message of Christianity is known to us almost exclusively through Greek writings which are impregnated by the culture and concepts of Ancient Greece.

One of its best-known pictorial representations is The Glory (picture on the left) commissioned to Titian by the emperor Charles V, the greatest monarch of his time. Completed in 1554, it shows the blessed – among which the emperor and his family – admitted to the Glory of God. Two years later, Charles would retire to a monastery in Spain, surrounded by paintings from Titian, in the hope of been admitted to the contemplation of the one true Glory though he had been enjoying himself all possible earthly forms of glory.

The quest of the Greek hero is immortality, or divinization, whichever term is preferred, which was also the quest of Gilgamesh, the most ancient hero know to us through what can be called literature. The same could be said of the “pagan” heroes in Norse mythology, which end up in the Valhalla (painting by Max Brückner, 1896, on the left), under the aegis of the god Odin. The difference with the Christian “hero” is that the latter is a “saint” and does not reach immortality through combat or other feats, but through humility and love (more precisely, ἀγάπη (agape), as the word “love” is silly in this context; however, the meaning of its proper translation, which is charity, has been completely deviated long ago to a mere do-good attitude…). Through the hero, art has attempted to capture something of the glory, and through that something of the glory, what is imperishable.

Do we need to be immortal in the minds of others, so that visibility of some form is required ? In principle, it should not matter, and there should be no need to publicize this achievement. A saint is not going to order a portrait of himself as a saint, nor does he care if such a portrait exists. And for a hero or a martyr, who is likely to become so after his death, it would be pretty challenging. But let us consider this from two different angles. The martyr about to be devoured by some wild beast is not accepting his fate in the hope of being painted eighteen centuries later by Gérôme (see the Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, commissioned in 1863 and delivered in 1883), but in order to access immortality by being faithful to God.

Alexander or Caesar, Hernan Cortés or Napoleon, also aspire to immortality, but of a kind that requires the knowledge and admiration of posterity. Their glory is nowhere without us, and therefore without the “receptacles” which carry their glory across time and space. They knew it, and considered art as a means to that end. The artists and their patrons have long felt that too, reproducing the images and deeds of such personages. But let us go one step further: whether or not that particular hero – say Alexander – may be interested in posterity or not is beside the point. We are the ones who need him as an exemplum, a reflection of what humanity is aspiring to, destined for, capable of, irrespective of who or what may have been the actual living template. In the saint, humanity looked at sanctity, in Alexander it looked at greatness, or courage, or whatever other idea it used as a tool to bring imagination to a “higher level”, whatever we choose to call it.

It is indeed the non-heroes, the non-martyrs and the non-saints, who have long felt an urge to keep in touch with the plane of immortality which is also the plane of meaning, an urge to glorify heroes through works of art, those works that both acknowledge their immortality and simultaneously make them immortal in the eyes of the spectator, not in the eyes of the ones who became immortal and sometimes could not care less. By means of the canvas of Gérôme, to pick only one, the faith of the martyr is perceived eighteen centuries later, giving us access both to the idea of faith and the plane of divinity. Through the mosaic of Pompei, we see Alexander facing Darius at Issos, and revere through that image the courage, the daring, the charisma of the ultimate Conqueror, brought to a level which is inaccessible to most humans. Why do we do that, or rather, why did humans do that?  Probably because we need collectively to aspire to something higher, to remind ourselves that humanity resides precisely in such an aspiration, and to find either inspiration or solace in the achievements of heroes and saints who literally embody such aspirations. These visible figures maintain the presence – some will say the illusion – of a vertical dimension to life. We are reminded of the verses of the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno in his mystic poem, the Christ of Velázquez, which could be transposed in many other traditions:

Tú sobrenaturalizaste, el Hombre,

Lo que era natural, humanizándolo.

« You, the Man, you rendered supernatural

What was natural, by humanizing it.”

What about glory according to its historic rather than religious meaning ? One might contend that it is a reflection, or perhaps only a metaphor, or divinity. It requires to reach a form of trans-temporality (rather than actual immortality) in the eyes of one’s contemporaries, and perhaps a few more generations. It is a way of grabbing something of the divine, a Promethean impulse. Glory does not necessarily require a representation of the individual upon which it is bestowed: the painting of a battle or a siege might suffice. Let us consider the 1717 Battle of Cape Matapan, a naval victory of the Republic of Venice, supported by some ships from Portugal and Malta, over the Ottomans. On the painting made of this battle by João Dantas (1892), a Portuguese artist, the only flag to be seen among a few burning or sinking Turkish ships is that of the Portuguese royal house of Bragança, under king Dom João V; as if the main victor had not even existed. This is a painting to the glory of the House of Bragança without any visible individual on the canvas, and through a half-stolen (to the Venitians) feat… When it was painted, 175 years after the battle, the House of Bragança was still on the throne of Portugal, but not for long: the monarchy had only eighteen years to go, with the empire in steep decline. Reviving the glory of the past was therefore a way to revive legitimacy and to claim more time. To defeat immediate events by appealing to the higher court of History which had the Portuguese achievements over many centuries carved in the marble of eternal memory. After all, not so long ago the Jesuit António Vieira (1608-1697) had written his History of the Future where he predicted, according to a whimsical reading of the Bible, the domination of the world by the elected people of Portugal, under a resurrected king João IV !

The canvas is seldom empty of any human beings, however. When they appear on the canvas, the seamen, the soldiers, the captains, are mere instruments of the king’s or the dynasty’s glory; they should not be depicted in too much detail, failing which they might become heroes themselves, casting a shadow over the One truly deserving or claiming glory. The latter is usually represented on the forefront, the former in the far distance. The Crossing of the Rhine by Louis XIV in 1672, painted by Adam van der Meulen, is a pretty good example (picture on the left).

A second example would be a magnificent high relief carving exhibited at the Castle of Pena, in the Portuguese city of Sintra. It looks like an enlarged version of the fury of the fighting scrum on the Alexander Sarcophagus on the forefront, and the tidiness of a chessboard battle such as the Battle of Fleurus by Vincenzo Carducci (1622), in the distance. Whichever battle this was, it was epic and glorious to the victor: the vanquished do not paint their own defeat. It must endure forever in the memories for the ones, sink in oblivion for the others. Glory through violence, or at the very least through the exhibition of power, is an inheritance of the Bronze Age, an inheritance of Homer.

So-called “Sarcophagus of Alexander”

A troubling question one may ask could be framed as follows: if art had not made power so appealing, would its exhibition in actual life have attracted so much energy? Power and glory, as we have seen, have a close connection, so that the mere exhibition of power was long tantamount to glory, itself a form of survival after death. Glory achieved through victory – or sometimes discoveries and other more constructive achievements including a patronage of the arts – was for many centuries one of the few ways to trump death… That perspective has recently changed – at least in Europe – through a cultural refusal of visible destruction and, in parallel, a rejection of the plane of immortality upon the advent of what has been coined by the esoteric writer René Guénon as the “Realm of quantity”. In market-oriented societies, glory is replaced by success, which is the ability to have your own image consumed by many others, here and now. It is indeed the realm of quantity. The successful individual distributes, or has others distribute for him, his own self to people who would like to be like him, but have to be content with consuming his image like a wafer in the Eucharist of present fame. It does not really matter what the successful person has achieved; what matters is to have as many people as possible commune with your image. Art is irrelevant here, because there is no need for the imagination to embark for any voyage, no “transmutation” is required. Mere image-making, diffusion and consumption are important, for what is an invisible success where success is visibility ?

In comics and video games, heroes are characters endowed with extra-ordinary powers of one kind or another, usually the one to kill as many people or zombies as possible. With kabod, if you like, but one that is only effective on the screen. We cannot believe in the achievements of such characters, while we can believe in those of Achilles – although his historical existence is in doubt, yet plausible as a model – because he was another Leonidas, another of the kind who fought at the Thermopylae and did exist: Achilles could have existed in this world. The hero in the video game can never die because you can always replay, or because he has many lives built in the algorithm. He never dies but he is not immortal. He is turned on and off with the power button. Could he ever become an example, a model ? Something humans may want to follow ? It is too early to say, but it would be unwise to discard the possibility that some robots will become heroes in time, heroes with which we may identify, particularly if we endow them with the ability to save use from some perils, including human-made perils. Will that robot want to be remembered ?

One could argue that the European civilization was built to a large extent around the twin images of the hero and the saint (or the martyr, which is a “crossover”, so to speak), and that a key function of art – by no means the only one – has been to commemorate and perpetuate these exempla, to maintain a link between worlds removed in time or in nature. Exempla which are now fissured, in good part because of the negation of any form of vertical dimension to human life. A negation which is the natural result of the focus on analysis in that civilization (from ana-lyein in Greek, which means to unfasten, to dissociate), but also paradoxically the negation of a dimension that some try to replace with an extension of biological life either by genetics or by fitting replaceable inorganic components into our organic fabric: the so-called “transhuman project”. These are attempts, in the age of technology, to keep the idea of immortality while getting rid of the idea of transcendence, the mirror of Plato’s solution: instead of returning upwards to the world of eternal Ideas, we try and bring down eternity inside of the world of history, and “take it over”. The bets are off.

These cracks have progressively widened, more rapidly in the late 20th century, but for one dimension – at least for now – which is that of the sacrificial hero. The sacrificial hero is an individual who freely sacrifices himself (or at the very least puts its life at risk) for the salvation of the collective that is threatened, or that has endangered its own physical (King Leonidas, Joan of Arc…) or spiritual (Jesus, Buddha, Parsifal…) existence. Clearly, for the sacrifice to operate, the values of the hero and its Umwelt, to use the concept of the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll(the clan, nation, community, etc), must coincide; and these values are in turn reinforced by the sacrifice. 

Two interesting contemporary examples are those of colonel Beltrame and Nelson Mandela. The former was murdered in 2018 by an Islamist terrorist at Trèbes, in southern France, after having exchanged himself for a hostage. Here is a typical sacrificial hero; however, there is no statue or any other artistic form of commemoration to be found; only a couple of tiny plaques here and there. This is of course partly out of a mixture of cowardice and embarrassment by the local and national politicians, whose supreme objective is to avoid trouble. But more fundamentally, because this hero was not part of a community of ideals, and in the end, stirred matters of identity which have become inflammable in western societies.

Nelson Mandela, as everybody knows, accepted to live many years in prison in order to free his community from oppression. This is typical of an ideology of progress, where a trajectory of emancipation can be framed within the hope in a better future, a time that will eventually come, a time of Parousia. By contrast to colonel Beltrame, there are many statues of Mandela around the world, because millions of people share – or anyway cannot openly oppose – the message of liberation of his oppressed minority given by the late President of South Africa. Thus, immortality is “borrowed” from the realm of divinity and vested in “generally accepted ideals” which constitute a horizon of achievable conquests. Does it matter if most of these statues are of unconvincing artistic quality, and hardly deserve the qualification of “art”? Probably not, as anyway the ideal is made visible through the man. To some extent, great art often belittled the underlying ideals by shifting attention on the demiurge at work.

The time “lent” by El Greco to cardinal Niño de Guevara, of whom he made an extraordinarily powerful portrait around year 1600, no doubt enhanced Guevara’s status above that of many mortals during his old days and shortly after his death. But who remembers today the Great Inquisitor of Spain, who dared challenge the pope on the nature of papal authority, other than a handful of historians? And his “services” are not held in high esteem these days, if you consider that he had a couple of hundred heretics sent to the pyre. No ideal seems to be conveyed in that portrait, other than warning against the dangers of orthodoxy, perhaps. But this is a masterpiece by El Greco. It is the genius of El Greco that is visible now, not the forgotten cardinal. Ultimately, Niño de Guevara the man, the cardinal as a grandee of the Spanish kingdom, is an unwilling instrument of El Greco in the artist’s accession to the pantheon of human demurgies, and in his portrait humanity can celebrate its own genius, its own potential for ascent.

Going back to our two sacrificial heroes, we could say that Mandela is still very much a part of the “time regime” of Christianity, later reframed in the ideologies of Revolution and Progress, where the future brings a better or higher “state” of humanity thanks to the accomplishments of a sacrificial hero, while Beltrame is a soldier fallen in a battle without the support of any capital letter: neither the Nation nor the King, neither Progress nor God, all dead on the battlefields of Chronos. Not even Humanity as a whole. Contemporary art has no idea what to do with that kind of hero, who belongs to the old realm of sanctity.

If art is not any more a way to bridge the “planes of time”, the contingent and the eternal, it must now deploy its resources in the suspended time of anxiety. The social acceleration which creates a general feeling of lack of control and self-alienation, and the ability of humanity to destroy itself – whether by nuclear and biological war, by its collective impact on nature, by the looming violence that may erupt from natural disasters, migrations, aggressive ideologies, or mass poverty – all tend to transform the future into a peril, and to freeze humans into the straightjacket of the present, or indulge in the massified illusions of a giant escape game.

Considerable artistic talent is focusing indeed on this “Great Escape”, from fantasy to video games, and one could call it the “control function” of art, similar to those bars which control the neutron flux of a nuclear reactor. As an example, the global gaming market is now worth 160 billion US$, growing 9% a year, the global animations market is around 260 billion US$, and the global entertainment and media market is over two trillion dollars, the latter category including of course a good part of the former.  

As the philosopher Günter Anders writes in The Obsolescence of Man, the future does not come to us through the passing of time because “we are the ones who make it”, and therefore to some extent “it is already present”, as anything programmed; only the program is so complex that we hardly understand what will come out of it. With the “merging” of present and future, after the take-over of eternity by historicity, there is nowhere left to go but to dwelve in our conscience of the present, a conscience which art – in the widest possible sense – has the mission to question. The time of heroes and saints has passed, or is at least suspended. Humanity is circling the wagons, but the threat is inside the circle. Art can still hold the mirror, and it does.

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