Recognizing Existential Art – Some Features

Art in itself can be defined in various ways but for the purposes of recognizing existentialism in art, the focus can be on works of art that are displayed in exhibits, museums, galleries etc. including but not limited to paintings and statues. Existentialism is a philosophical movement that was pioneered by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus after the Great War. Essentially, existentialism questions the nature of human existence, whether or not we have a higher purpose, or whether ‘life’ exists in a vacuum. These questions were born of mankind’s loss of faith in organized religion in the aftermath of the horrors of WWI. Thus, existentialist expression is bleak, disorganized, deconstructed and confusing. Here are some ways in which you as a viewer can recognize existentialist leanings in the expression of an artist:

The Overall Mood and Tone

If the overall mood and tone of the work of art is bleak and depressing, there is a chance that the artist was guided by existentialist thoughts, although there are some existential expressions that are overtly and deliberately cheerful as well (in satire). If a painting shows a lone figure at the edge of a precipice, painted in dark, murky colours that have no proper definition, it could be symbolizing the despair and hopelessness that characterized most existential philosophies in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, yet another way of expressing existential leanings is through heavy satire – if a painting shows a happy couple enjoying a picnic in a meadow while a distant factory spews forth toxic smoke and threatens to rain acid on the scene, that is existentialism with an overdose of cheer. 

The Deconstructed Nature of Expression

A more popular method of bringing existentialism to life is to deconstruct the coherence of Life and show its multiple parts. For instance, instead of displaying a unitary whole, an artist can choose to scatter excavator undercarriage parts in the exhibition space in front of wholesome plot of green grass.

This would indicate to the viewer that the excavator undercarriage parts (whose artificial nature signifies Man) have met their defeat in front of the grass (which signifies Nature). Realism and rationalism which were in vogue before existentialism held that life had an ultimate purpose and there was meaning in everything we did. By breaking down a large vehicle into small parts, the artist not only deconstructs that idea of a unified whole, he/she also questions the value of each individual part in the whole. In this case you should read more blogs to find out the suitable parts for your excavator.

The ‘Vibe’ of the Artwork

This is slightly different from the mood and tone mentioned earlier because the ‘vibe’ is not simply what you feel from the piece of art, it is also how you respond. If you look at something and your emotional response is to recognize something within it while your intellectual response is confusion, it is possible that you are looking at a manifestation of an existential crisis. We all face them and when an artist expresses it, we recognize it within ourselves instinctively, even if our minds do not comprehend it.