Art, Dignity and the Human Spirit

By Rachel Kleinsman

In the words of John Ruskin, art is an “expression of the vitality, inventiveness, heart, thought and spirit of humanity”.  Art has the potential to offer insight into the human condition and exists as a cultural repository for the expression of our spirit and spirituality. It provides a means of connecting us with the oneness of the human experience.

The rich and varied tapestry of art history reveals a number of approaches to the expression and validation of human dignity. The Cambridge dictionary’s definition of dignity as: “the importance and value that a person has” offers a basic, albeit interesting starting point from which to consider that which characterises the relationship between dignity and art.

The great Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko proposes a useful framework for navigating this relationship. In 1958, Rothko gave a lecture to New York’s Pratt Institute during which he identified a number of ingredients as collectively comprising the “recipe of a work of art”. One of these proposed criteria was that in art “there must be a clear preoccupation with death – intimations of mortality”.

Depictions of the dead have long been considered a fitting way of honouring the lives of individuals and affirming the enduring dignity of humanity after death. Renaissance art, in particular, facilitates an intriguing dialogue. Piero della Francesco, for example, painted the diptych portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza after Battista’s death, her corpse serving as a life-model for the portrait (a point which seems evident in her pallor). In this vein, the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photography is also of note, combining photographs of deceased loved-ones with such memento as locks of hair and flowers. Similarly, John Everett Millais’ magnificent Ophelia painting of the body of this Shakespearean tragic heroine being carried down the river compels the viewer to confront the wrenching tragedy of her suicide and lost love, and the deepest questions of our human experience.

In exploring the relationship between art and human dignity, there is a certain tension which goes to the heart of the philosophical debate: What is art and what, if any, purpose should it serve?  Is expression in and of itself the end goal, or is the artist obligated to contribute to a more complex framework of social responsibility?

On the one hand, the idea that art is valuable in its very own essence – l’art pour l’art – is compelling. The Kantian invocation that we should “act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means”, might lead one to think that art should serve no purpose other than to honour the individual through representation. However, historically, art has been an incredibly vital socio-political tool, one of protest and revolution, which has sought to affirm the dignity of underprivileged individuals. Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People was a vital revolutionary voice in France and Gustave Courbet’s Stone Breakers, a protest against poverty and cry for the rights of the peasant class. Centuries later, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party gave a voice to the previously-silenced cultural accomplishments of women. In terms of our own national identity, Ralph Hotere’s oeuvre comprises a politically-complex colonial protest defending the dignity and rights of Māori. There is no doubt that art’s role in ‘dignifying’ those of lesser privilege is significant.

In light of the above, it’s clear that artists have a role to play in crafting a broader social narrative which both affords and shapes human dignity – their role is not merely a documentary one. But there is a potentially problematic aspect to this representation also. The photographs taken by psychiatrist Hugh Welch Diamond of patients at the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum in the 19th century are one such example. These extant records of mentally-ill patients are valuable in that they capture something essential of their lives and spirits while affording a real sense of dignity and individuality. However, because they were taken with the intention of contributing to the physiognomy argument, they were ultimately damaging to both perceptions of these individuals and mental illness on the whole. A further example is the problematic nature of colonial depictions of kaumātua by Gottfried Lindauer and Charles Goldie; resplendent in their beauty and historic significance, the portrayal of Māori as a dying race through an overtly colonial lens is well-documented.

The essence of the relationship between human dignity and art is one of dualistic tension. It is incorrect to reduce art’s role in the expression of humanity to a purely utilitarian function. On the other hand, in order to be effective and afford respect to individuals it must “treat people always as ends in themselves”. The greatness of art through the centuries has the power to move us, to facilitate a spiritual connection and emotional response. Most importantly, it resonates with another criterion of note which Rothko laid forth in his consideration of art and life: that religious and divinely-eternal notion of hope, the ability of art to uphold human dignity through its power, properly used, to “make the tragic concept more endurable”.

Rachel Kleinsman is a freelance art researcher and writer based in Wellington. She has a Bachelor of Arts (Art History and Modern Languages, Victoria University of Wellington) and a Master of Arts (Art Business, Sotheby’s Institute of Art).