Did you ever hear of Lady Jane Grey? Possibly not, unless you’re a fairly serious student of history, or even specifically of English history. Jane Grey had the bad luck to be born into the ruling Tudor family of England. According to historical accounts, she was very intelligent and well educated, and she suddenly became Queen of England, to be deposed nine days later. Queen for nine days. In 1554, at the age of 16, she was then murdered by being beheaded, though since it was state-sponsored murder, of course we call that “execution”.
Is there any way we might connect this teenage girl with Aristotle (other than the fact that she read him, possibly in the original)? Aristotle said—as best I remember, don’t quote me—that things that would displease us in real life give us pleasure when rendered by a skillful artist. Almost 300 years after Jane’s death, in 1834, the French painter Paul Delaroche did a dramatic rendering of her death, pictured on this page. (Here is a larger version than the one I’ve used.)
Two weeks ago I had an email exchange about this picture with a friend who is a painter. My friend commented on the use of light, and I looked again at the painting, which I had seen for the first time in a museum in London. This picture affects me strongly, but for all the awfulness of the scene, as a piece of art, it’s simply beautiful. Jane glows in white, in contrast to darkness around her. In composition, the two collapsing mourners on the left contrast with the executioner standing tall on the right, dressed in…what color?…red. And look at her hand pathetically reaching forward blindly.
Though it evokes—for me, anyway—sickening emotions, there is also a gloriousness about the painting, a sublimity that defies words. Indeed, there is a strange phenomenon in which displeasing things are given a kind of beauty by artistic skill. This is certainly true in music. Aren’t there songs that make you happy to hear them, sung about things that you sure hope don’t happen to you?
We do this in writing as well. One of Shakespeare’s most popular plays is “Hamlet”, but my God, by the end, the bloody stage is covered with the bodies of people who were all miserable up until they died. Or consider the novel The Grapes of Wrath. The last few pages of that book feel as if civilization has ended, after so much grief to get there. We might also consider Anna Karenina, that sweet little package of wretchedness, suffering, and death. But it’s such a pleasure to read these books.
When I try to understand this phenomenon, I first think that we must feel some admiration for the artist who created the painting/song/book/etc. Even if artistic skill isn’t the main thing in our mind, we may notice it. We’ll say of a painting, “Look at the nice colors in that” or after a movie we might think, “That was cool how she came through the door with the light behind her.” We’re struck by artistic skill.
The more we think about it, the more we might realize how much talent and thought were involved in creating a work of art. But even if we don’t consciously think about the talent or imagination of the artist, we experience it, and that experience gives us a pleasure, an admiration for what a human being can accomplish. The pleasure seems to alleviate the displeasure of an awful topic.
I also want to suggest something else that happens with art. I’m using words to express my idea, because words are what I have here, but words are not very helpful. Picture an image of Shiva dancing in a circle of fire. That comes closer. When art is at its best, whatever that might mean for each person, it can pull our spirit into a place beyond this world. And whatever that mysterious place might be, it’s a place we reach out and try to touch.