Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Basic to existentialist philosophy is the idea that people are what they make themselves to be. We are born as empty slates and spend a lifetime creating our personas. Who we are is the result of an ongoing series of undertakings and the various thoughts, actions and relationships that comprise those undertakings. We constantly define and redefine ourselves through our dealings in the world. Our nature is not fixed. Critics charge that this view is too harsh, uncertain or arbitrary to be of any positive use. But its proponents see it as the most optimistic of doctrines. It entails that our destinies are within ourselves. Everything we do matters.
The flip side is that unrealized thoughts and unfulfilled potentials are of little or no consequence. Actualizations are what counts. Jean-Paul Sartre put it thus: “A man is involved in life, leaves his impress on it, and outside of that there is nothing.” This principle goes for all areas of engagement: there is no love but the love that is felt; there is no skill but the skill that is used; there is no conviction but the conviction that becomes deed.
Sartre gave the example of art. An artist’s genius is the sum of his or her work. There is no other way to assess it. We cannot discuss the merits of a sculpture that was never sculpted or a concerto that was never composed. “Nobody can tell what the painting of tomorrow will be,” wrote Sartre. “Painting can be judged only after it has a chance to be made.” There are no a priori aesthetic values: creation precedes evaluation.
This perspective exposes the pointlessness of asking speculative artistic questions. What if Shakespeare had written another play? What if Michelangelo had painted another chapel? What if Plath had not died so young? What if Schubert had finished his eighth symphony? Track records and intentions are not the same as results, and there is no practical use in imagining things that will never be.
Of course, none of this precludes the fact that the artist must begin with a plan. Creations need a conscious creator, and nothing exists prior to the vision or inspiration. Yet if the plan is confined to the vagaries of conception and does not progress beyond them, it will not become art and thus have no impact on the artist’s genius.
Existentialists consider this a liberating and motivating concept. Whether the activity is art or something else, it is our efforts that ultimately constitute our identities. We are born without essence and become ourselves through action. Life is what we make of it, and what we make in life is who we are.
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