Madrid’s Art Museums

Within easy walking distance of each other lie Madrid’s three great art museums of the Golden Triangle—the Prado, the Reina Sophia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Though they occupy only a square mile in a city of over 230 square miles in size, this illustration shows them standing above the other buildings of the city. They’re special, and so, for our purposes, they represent the place of the arts in the writings of German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer stands in the line of “German Idealists,” who, following Immanuel Kant, placed great emphasis on the the human mind and spirit to shape the world. Their “school of thought” arose in reaction to the British empiricism of John Locke, who was himself reacting to philosophers who built great conceptual superstructures through reason alone (men like Descartes, Leibniz, and Spinoza). Locke said that thought that was not grounded in experience was literally nonsense, and that all meaningful talk about the world must start with perception, either external (like the appearance of trees or lightening) or internal (like the deliverances of memory or pain). And he pictured the mind as a blank slate (a tabula rasa) on which experience may write. From this, we mix and match what’s been written and come up with useful concepts.

Kant argued that we’re far from passive receptors of whatever may show up in our circumstances or observations. Rather, the mind is a very pushy entity, ordering the world before we’re even aware of it. (We talk about this in the “Strip Map” piece.) And once his notion was on the table, a number of prominent German philosophers ran with it, with their own twists. Gottlieb Fichte preferred to speak of his own, personal world-manufacture, rather than of everyone’s shaping the world in concert. He could even be construed as a solipsist, one who says he’s the only one around. Furthermore, he extended the aggressive-mind concept beyond the crunching of what was given to the actual projection of things with which the mind now must deal. For instance, it could generate illness in order to wrestle with it, growing yet stronger by the challenge. (I think of the days in the church nursery, when we stacked up blocks for the purpose of knocking them down.)

Hegel (discussed in the “Oxbow” piece) construed the shaper as the “World Spirit” (Weltgeist), which wrestled history into shape through conflict between the old and the new, producing ever-more exalted institutions. It involves a lot of crash-bang refinement, with many eggs broken to produce the omelet (nicely serving the Communist and Darwinian notions of the march of history).

And then there was Frederich Nietzsche, who celebrated the “will to power,” rubbing the nose of the weak in the tears of their own cravenness. Through his fictional character, Zarathustra, he heralded the coming of the Superman (Ubermensch), who would take us back to the time when ‘good’ meant “intimidating.”

Into this milieu came Arthur Schopenhauer, who was not as exhilarated as Nietzsche with unleashing the primordial will and parading the fruit of power. Rather, all this willfulness exhausted him, and he needed some relief. And this he found in the arts, which he called a “sabbath,” picking up on the biblical day of rest prescribed in the Decalogue. If you can just make it through the “six days” of the grind that mark our human existence and then stumble into the concert hall or gallery on the “seventh,” you can restore your soul.

Not suprisingly, he had an affinity for Eastern thought. The Buddha had taught that suffering came from desire and caring, so let those concerns go, and you will find serenity. Are you tortured by ill health? Stop desiring good health, and you’ll be much happier? Do you want to be married and rich? Stop pining for matrimony and wealth, and you’ll manage life much better.

In this spirit, Schopenhauer said, “Take a break. Get out of the rat race,” at least for a season of sojourn in the arts. There you can give yourself over to things in themselves—the play of color, the surge of a symphonic movement—and stop worrying about whether the matter at hand will give you relief from your creditors or gain you entry to a profession or social circle.

Of course, Christians have their own Sabbath – the “Lord’s Day,” on Sunday, the first day of the week, when Jesus rose from the dead (instead of Saturday, the last the of the week, corresponding to the seventh day of Creation). It’s restorative power comes not only from rest from workaday labors, but also in worship and the communion of saints.

Of course, the arts can refresh the soul in their own way, but they don’t stand so tall in the Christian worldview and pilgrimage as the museums in this illustration suggest.