Nihilism, Individualism, And The Continuing Appeal Of Renaissance Art


I stare at my phone with “David by Michelangelo” parked into the search bar. The multitude of results that subsequently flood my device, the rapidity with which I consume them are perhaps evidence of an era of which I am undeniably a citizen of. I stare in awe, as I am analogously flooded with a multitude of emotions, the purely visceral response this piece is able to evoke amazes me. I hold this magic transportive device towards me, pixels gleaming on my face. Perhaps the closest I have ever been to the masterpiece and though this invasive proximity permits nothing but an awkward sensory effect, I acknowledge the temporal detachment that undeniably permeates our interactions. Perhaps it is the luminescent magic device that is clear evidence of historical change and an irrefutable discrepancy in my understanding. I feel the piece evokes a transformative effect, even within the physical and temporal distance that separates us.

David stands, delicate and poised, his head leans almost effortlessly towards the right. His body conveys a delicate stillness that his expression rebukes. “There is this kind of potential energy that the piece has,” I agreed with UofT professor; Alison Syme. Her analogy to chemistry was highly effective, in my opinion. There was this embedded momentum. The piece expresses intense movement, though David remains inarguably fixated to his marble base.

Varying opinions and people, yet the one common opinion shared by all that I interviewed, seemed to be that renaissance art was powerful in its ability to evoke emotions. Laura Carusi, Curatorial and Collections Coordinator at the AGM, became drawn towards art history as a result of renaissance art, but attributed her current contemporary art inclination to the art school she attended. So what about high renaissance art made it so appealing? Why did I find contemporary art to be so devoid of this impenetrable quality? Unfortunately, a quick Google search would not resolve this issue.

Well, I wondered. What is good art supposed to do? Good and bad are subjective terms, though the purpose of art is not and therefore its efficacy isn’t either. There are artistic principles and elements that unite to create effective, powerful art. Effective art has the ability to transform, to communicate through the visual in a way that is powerful or emotive to the audience. What we characterize as transformative may vary, but effective art is able to create a sensory experience, since the medium it expresses its meaning in is traditionally visual. Effective art is able to evoke a transformative effect, in which the work of art, does something to the viewer. Professor Syme described it as such: “It doesn’t have to be something huge. Some people describe quasi-religious experiences that are profound and immersive; others describe works of art that changed them by shifting the way they see or think; some people just take it to mean something that moved them deeply. And of course some people say they’ve never had a transformative experience in front of a work of art.”

Stepping into Prof. Syme’s office, my senses were already somewhat engaged. A large office, the size of which she attributed to her role as the department chair. Modern silhouettes replaced the conventional and expected office desk-chair setup; a comparison between objects that are similar in function but deviate in form. Her office was sprinkled with other various modern art trinkets, including the grey shirt she was wearing with a geometric design sprawled onto its centre, reminiscent of the modern art designs I had come to see as apathetic. As we discussed this topic, we returned to the idea of a “transformative effect” quite often.

In my conversation with her, she said that this transformative effect is essentially the purpose of art. In fact, the first question she asks her Introduction to Art History students is whether a piece has ever had a transformative effect on them, she is flooded with an equal sea of yeses and nos. Interestingly, many of the yeses are in reference to an architectural piece, rather than the conventional painting or sculpture, likely because of the multidimensional experience an architectural piece can create. Being inside the building is able to engage you sensorily, in ways that a painting may be physically incapable of doing. So what is so special about renaissance art, for it to consistently evoke this feeling? Of course there is a subjective quality with regards to our predisposal to this effect, as demonstrated by Prof. Syme, when discussing her own experience with this effect: “I remember as a child being taken to the Louvre and, in the Egyptian section, there was a little model of a cow and a cart and some farmers and I was riveted. I didn’t want to leave this glass box, my parents kind of had to drive me away and I knew they weren’t toys but there was something profoundly interesting about them. It was so long ago, so I can’t articulate what it was but I just remember being stunned by that.”

In many cases, we are not completely sure why or what this transformative effect stems from. There is some kind of internal appeal, an internal quality, that separates a model of a cow and a cart from being just a model of a cow and a cart from being this magical transformative piece that resonates with us for life.

Perhaps it is the same reason that seeing a piece in person evokes a different effect from seeing it online or through photos. The sensory experience is enhanced, we become aware of certain details, that seem to affect us on an emotional level. There is a kind of intimacy, that seeing an artwork in actual physical detail, permits. You feel the capacity to interact and engage with the piece, your neurological response must be different. An art teacher I had back in grade 9 said that she broke down into tears when she saw Pieta by Michelangelo in person. Ms. Carusi said there was a Black Lives Matter piece that left her stunned. And myself? I am left in awe by low-quality Google photos of high renaissance masterpieces.

And so, in order to arrive at an answer to this question, I decided to visit these galleries. On Google’s Arts and Cultures Institute project, which would allow me to view these masterpieces in jaw-dropping detail. As I found myself re-entering “David by Michelangelo” into this new, rather unfamiliar search bar, I felt a burst of nervousness about the emotions yet to come. If a low-quality image on Google Images was able to evoke such a strong emotional effect, then I wondered how I would react to an internet emulation of an in-person experience. Much to my dismay, the search yielded no relevant results. At least I could breathe again. Though I was desperately seeking some kind of connection to this period, feeling a persisting detachment between my ability to fully understand and appreciate these pieces. “The School of Athens by Raphael” was what my brain defaulted to next, feeling the same kind of anticipation with David, I was yet again disappointed by the 0 relevant results. Disappointed by the lack of results my search queries were yielding, I decided to change my approach. I scrolled through the specific Renaissance period category that Google offered, devouring these pieces in bulk. And though I was riveted, I began to think: What exactly about renaissance art did I find appealing? There was clearly some consistent overarching quality between all the pieces I loved.

Well, renaissance art was driven by the age of Humanism. According to Visual Arts Cork: “It was through Classical Greek philosophy that Renaissance theorists and artists developed their idea of ‘Humanism’. Humanism was a way of thinking which attached more importance to Man and less importance to God. It imbued Renaissance art with its unique flavour, as exemplified in works like Leonardo’s  Mona Lisa (a non-religious painting), Michelangelo’s David – a more human than religious statue – and Raphael’s cool secular fresco School of Athens.” There was an exaltation of man, that we see in these pieces and arguably, a greater love of life. With regards to technicalities, the renaissance period was accompanied with the emergence of a new style of drawing that artists would try to integrate in their work, regardless of medium. This style was known as designo and made greater attempts to integrate the intellectual with the artistic, as an attempt to exalt the position of the artist in society. “The observation of nature meant that set forms and symbolic gestures which in Medieval art […] were used to convey meaning, were replaced by the representation of human emotion as displayed by a range of individuals.” This is what I had found so appealing about it. The range of human emotions, the attunement to beauty and harmony over reality. As the quotes mentioned, there was literally a flavour to renaissance art, creating a sensory experience that transcended the conventional response. As beauty and harmony were exalted, there was a greater attunement to perfection and trying to emulate it in the artworks of the time: “Thus, Greek philosophy provided the secret of the perfect human type with its proportions, muscular structure, oval face, triangular forehead, straight nose, and balance [demonstrated in the paintings of Raphael and Michelangelo’s sculpture].” In my conversations with contemporary art specialists and enthusiasts, they seemed to look down on this attunement to perfection, perhaps, because of the social structure that accompanied this period. Yes, contemporary art is more inclusive and represents the voice of a larger group of people but there is nothing wrong with beauty or harmony. In fact, isn’t there a natural human inclination to desire what is beautiful or perfect?

But over time, society has become increasingly more sensitive to morals and to the awareness of others. In the past, it seemed as though the entire spectrum of human emotion was valid and likewise represented in symbolic forms. As my best friend and modern art enthusiast, Helen, said: “Death, gut, torture and religion very popular before. It’s very liberalist now.” There were less laws to prevent man’s will (though I am not looking upon this as something that we would necessarily want), therefore things like war, violence, poison and treason would persist, with little resistance. The lack of any restraint allowed a diversity of emotions to prevail. A very raw kind of human experience. Perhaps, because there was a greater fixation on survival? Since the social ecosystem of the time hadn’t yet provided a moral canopy, to protect in some way, everyone from immoral acts.

I’ve noticed that with time, our human experience has evolved. In modern art, we see a lot more experimenting. Both periods relied on visual techniques to deliver emotive effects, yet the realm of modern art techniques, seemed to extend much further than that of renaissance art. Perhaps because a lot of renaissance art was patronized? The image of the artist has also changed, the renaissance tried to redevelop the image of the artist into an intellectual-type of figure, this image has been modified with time to become the starving artist archetype. It is upsetting how such grace could turn into such deplorability. The piece above (untitled and artist unknown) is a portrait, yet it doesn’t resemble the typical portraitures of the renaissance. In order to create an emotive effect, it alters and exaggerates certain details of the man’s face. It embraces the man’s tired expression and exaggerates detailing on his face to further express this, we end up with almost a hopelessness. I respect modern art, for expressing even the absolute filthiest of emotions with relative calmness, but I think there’s a lack of disciplining, too. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t strive towards perfection.

As the philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “God is dead.” Thus spoke Nietzsche. As a statement, it has been bastardized to no limit, with few recognizing its meaning, having only seen it in a meme context. But who knew the old man’s words would echo through western society as truism, prompting a domino effect upon its actualization into ink. Around the same time as the emergence of modern art, we’ve seen the birth of philosophical movements such as existentialism and nihilism. Nietzsche predicted the death of God and he turned out to be right. With time and with a decrease in the church’s power, society has become more secular. The transition into modern art, is often characterized by an emergence of retail and consumer-based art, in which artwork was being made for the people. The average man achieved more power, he became more individualized, he was no longer being fear-mongered into abiding by the will of the church. Perhaps it was man’s increasing individuality that killed God? The nineteenth and twentieth centuries are often recognized as the transition periods into modern art, in which subject matters became more varied as a result of this societal change. And so, as a result, perhaps the major differentiating thematic factor between classical and contemporary art, is that, with the emergence of modern art, we see a greater degree of accessibility in art. It caters to a wider audience, much as the technological change has granted the average man the powers of a seventeenth century aristocrat. We live as gods, having almost absolute control over the kinds of stimuli we expose ourselves to, these transportative magical devices are controlled by our own input, analogous to the king’s endless control over his subjects. And yet perhaps, this change is what permits me to explore and indulge in my fascination with the renaissance.

But as I exposed myself to more contemporary art, I realized that it was extremely difficult to place all contemporary art under the “nihilistic” category. Especially when I compared my AGM visit to with its imagined counterpart.

I had imagined my experience to be like this:

As I delve further into the gallery, my surroundings become increasingly more minimalistic, I become aware of the negative space that not only conventionally fills galleries, but the negative space in relation to the classical counterparts of some of the works that I delve further into. The intensity, the drama, the horror, a surplus of emotion that I see manifested in its contemporary counterpart as a deficit. The negative space that begins to permeate the modern canvas, forever lacking.

Though in reality, it was quite enjoyable. Though there is definitely a pattern in modern art that is highly nihilistic and undisciplined. There is also an underlying nihilism persisting in the collective consciousness of our society, but if anything, art should serve as an outlet against that. And if anything, art has served as an outlet against that. Perhaps we could benefit by adopting the spirit of the Renaissance-bred man, who sees his existence as a multitude of possibilities and recognizes the power of man’s will, even amongst the shore of the void we knowingly stand against. The existence of this void, becoming increasingly more prominent with the passage of time, perhaps we should follow the advice of Nietzsche again: “For what purpose humanity is there should not even concern us: why you are there, that you should ask yourself: and if you have no ready answer, then set for yourself goals, high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in attempting the great and the impossible.”