The highest point ever reached in human creative achievement was Greek tragedy. This is for five main reasons, which should be considered together.
First, it represented a successful combination of the arts – poetry, dance, song – and as such had a greater scope and expressive powers than any of the arts alone.
Second, it took its subject matter from myth, which illuminates human experience to the depths, and in universal terms. “The unique thing about myth is that it is true for all time; and its content, no matter how terse or compact, is inexhaustible for every age.”
Third, both the content and the occasion of performance had religious significance.
Fourth, it was a religion of “the purely human”, a celebration of life – as in the marvelous chorus in the Antigone of Sophocles which begins
Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none More wonderful than man…
Fifth, the entire community took part.
This art-form was ideal because it was all-embracing: its expressive means embraced all the arts its subject matter embraced all human experience, and its audience embraced the whole population. It was the summation of living.
But with the passage of time it disintegrated. The arts all went their separate ways and developed alone – instrumental music without words, poetry without music, drama without either, and so on. In any case its available content dissolved when Greek humanism was superseded by Christianity, a religion which divided man against himself, teaching him to look on his body with shame, his emotions and suspicion, sensuality with fear, sexual love with feelings of guilt. This life, it taught, was a burden, this world a vale of tears, our endurance of which would be rewarded at death, which was the gateway to eternal bliss.
In effect this religion was, as it was bound to be, anti-art. The alienation of man from his own nature, especially his emotional nature; the all-pervading hypocrisy to which this gave rise throughout the Christian era; the devaluation of life and the world and hence, inevitably, their wonderfulness; the conception of man as being not a god but a worm, and a guilty one at that; all this is profoundly at odds with the very nature and existence of art.
Such a religion, based as it is on the celebration of death and on hostility to the emotions, repudiates both the creative impulse and its subject matter. Art is the celebration of life, and the exploration of life in all its aspects. If life is unimportant – merely a diminutive prelude to the real Life which is to begin with death – then art can be only of negligible importance too.