Powerful artists infuse their work with a blend of deliberately chosen emotional themes, their own emotionally important ideas, and subtly distinguished shades of meaning. The great work always starts with the individual, yet manages to present universal aspects of life. Artists do this by looking for the universal elements of their own experience. They never lose sight of the simple fact that we are all human beings. What happens to one of us, in some specific way, has undoubtedly happened to others, in somewhat different ways. Artists suggest the underlying commonality and reveal the universal. In this way, they make the specific general, the individual universal.
Lighthouses and stars are examples of those images with a rich array of symbolic meanings favoured by writers, poets, and painters. (Image: public domain.)
Arthur Koestler put it somewhat differently when he said the artist’s task is to equate the individual with the universal, to find the intersection between what he called the “trivial” and the “absolute” planes. The individual is the microcosm and the universal is the macrocosm. Joining them is essential for the artist’s work to be of any value.
Linking the individual with the universal is what artists do. The question is why do they do it? The answer lies within the artist himself. An unusually powerful need to make sense of life characterizes the artistic temperament. This urgent need drives artists to find ways of organizing their insights, ideas, and perceptions. Art is a powerful tool for doing this and has the added advantage of providing a way to share with others. However, merely to record personal experiences does not explain them. For that, the artist must uncover the universal aspects of what has happened. By finding and revealing the universal, the artist provides himself – and others – with all-important context and meaning.
Since we have touched on the topic of artistic temperament, let me mention one other characteristic of powerful artists: they have commitment. Ivan Turgenev put it this way: “A man wishing to create something integral must devote to it his whole integral self.”