Column: The Finer Things
On The Subject Of Love
Published: Sunday, February 17, 2013
Updated: Sunday, February 17, 2013 23:02
Little pink hearts, bright red roses, and adorable, chubby cupids have, undoubtedly, become the most universal and recognizable symbols of love. It’s fascinating to consider how a concept so beautifully complex could possibly have been reduced to mere representation. And though I enjoy the sweet, cliched cards—with their basic, emblematic illustrations of affection—that Hallmark sells around this time of the year, there’s no denying that love is about more than the designs and colors seasonally featured on a piece of cardstock.
For centuries, artists, like card companies, have tried to befittingly depict love. A countless number of paintings, songs, novels, and poems have been inspired by its existence, and if anything at all can be learned from analyzing its evolution as an artistic subject, it’s that love is more complicated and multifaceted than any commercialized card could ever attempt to convey.
Even though the basic figure of a heart indicates it as a concept, a feeling, and even as a theme, love isn’t so easily reducible, simply because there is more than just one kind of it. The ancient Greeks solidified such an idea when they categorized love in its variety of forms: agape, eros, and philia. Agape love is unconditional and pure, referring to the unselfish feelings one has towards either God or human kind. Eros, on the other hand, is passionate—it’s characterized by a sensual, and often physical, attraction to another person. And lastly, philia is the other major form of love in philosophy, corresponding to the love—the friendship and virtuous affection—one feels for family, friends, and community.
Broken down and classified as such, love seems straightforwardly comprehensible—maybe not as easily understandable as the symbol of a heart is—but its distinct forms make it obvious to see how and why love consistently influences artists of all genres and mediums. And, moreover, since it evidently embodies itself in many different ways, it’s really not surprising that artists have taken diverse, varying approaches in representing and expressing it.
They’ve appealed to miscellaneous thematic elements of love throughout time, but in every period, artists have done their best to consummately capture the fullness of love in each of its respective facets. The classical art of the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, often communicated a strong nationalistic love for community and civic life, while, during the Middle Ages, art generally reflected deeply religious sentiments, such as a resilient love for Christ and the Virgin Mary. And later on, throughout the Renaissance, art, including paintings and sculptures, subtly began to depict a more romantic, sensual representation of love. In each artistic movement, different types of love have been thematically dominant—no matter the era, however, love, clearly, has always been vitally influential as a subject.
Just as fine art exhibits the versatility of love, literature displays its broad range of expression. Shakespeare characterized love as all consuming and often tragic: consider Romeo & Juliet—today, their relationship is so iconic that it’s often held as a symbol, representing the purest, most perfect love. During the Romantic period, love took on a less dramatic persona, and instead, was characterized by reservation and formality—chivalry and traditional courtship, central features of novels by writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters signified love during that era. For authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s and ’30s, love was represented quite contrarily. It was glamorous and spontaneous, just like the decades in which their stories took place. Since then, love’s expression in literature has continued to evolve. With writers like Nicholas Sparks and 50 Shades of Grey author E.L. James dominating the theme, it’s apparent that our modern society perceives love differently than people did five centuries ago.
Whether for better or worse, the expression of love in art has indisputably changed with time. It’s a feeling, an idea, and an artistic subject so involved that its representation by tiny colored hearts and bouquets of pink flowers almost makes sense. But, no matter what form it takes, no matter how it’s adapted, transformed, and portrayed, at bottom, love—like art—is something that is shared, and for that reason alone, it is, and always will be, truly beautiful.