Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Meaning of “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis”

The phrase “ars longa, vita brevis” is a Latin version of the Greek proverb. It means ‘Art is long, life is short’. In simple words, the phrase means a piece of art lives longer than humanity, but the life of the creator is limited as humans die at a certain point. In other words, it also means that a person takes much time in learning artwork and tries to perfect it. However, a person will miss other things in life if he/she tries to keep perfecting the existing thing.

Origin of “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis”

Originally, the phrase was used by Hippocrates, a Greek physician by profession. The full quotation goes in Latin is, “Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, iudicium difficile”. It means “life is short, the art is long or lives long, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.” An English rock band, The Nice, have used it as a title of its album, becoming a reason for its popularity during the 60s and onward.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

Ars Longa by Adam Lindsay Gordon

[A song of Pilgrimage]

Our hopes are wild imaginings,
Our schemes are airy castles,
Yet these, on earth, are lords and kings,
And we their slaves and vassals;
Your dream, forsooth, of buoyant youth,
Most ready to deceive is;
But age will own the bitter truth,
Ars Longa Vita Brevis

The hill of life with eager feet
We climbed in merry morning.
But on the downward track we meet
The shakes of the brilliant warning;
The shadows gaunt they fail aslant,
And those who scaled Ben Nevis,
Against the mole-hills toil and pant,
Ars Longa Vita Brevis

The obstacles that barr’d our path
We seldom quail’d to dash on
In youth, for youth done motto hath,
“The will, the way must fashion.”
Those words, I wot, blood thick and hot,
Too ready to believe is,
But thin and cold our blood hath got,
Ars Longa Vita Brevis

These three stanzas have been taken from “Ars Longa,” a poem by an Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon. The poet has beautifully explained that our dreams, vigorous youth, and our will see the future differently where our life gives way. He believes that despite this difference between desires and transience of life, art is everlasting. The use of this phrase at the end of each stanza affirms this claim of the poet.

Example #2

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis by Christopher Pearse Cranch

I STARTED on a lonely road.
A few companions with me went.
Some fell behind, some forward strode,
But all on one high purpose bent:
To live for Nature, finding truth
In beauty, and the shrines of art;
To consecrate our joyous youth
To aims outside the common mart.
The way was steep, though pleasure crowned
Our toil with every step we took.
The morning air was spiced around
From many a pine and cedar nook.
I turned aside and lingered long
To pluck a rose, to hear a bird,
To muse, while listening to the song
Of brooks through leafy coverts heard;
To live in thoughts that brought no fame
Or guerdon from the thoughtless crowd;
To toll for ends that could not claim
The world’s applauses coarse and loud;
Then onward pressed. But far before
I saw my comrades on the heights.
They no divided homage bore
To Beauty’s myriad sounds and sights.
In blithe self-confidence they wrought.
Some strove for fame and fame’s reward.
They pleased the public’s facile thought;
Then paused and stretched them on the sward.
And still though oft I bind my sheaf
In fields my comrades have not known;
Though Art is long and life is brief,
And youth has now forever flown,
I would not lose the raptures sweet,
Nor scorn the toil of earlier years;
Still would I climb with eager feet,
Though towering height on height appears —
And up the mountain road I see
A younger throng with voices loud,
Who side by side press on with me,
Till I am lost amid the crowd.

The poet Christopher Pearse Cranch has used this phrase as the title of his poem. He presents his pursuit of art as an extended metaphor of his journey with others. They see many things during their trip and conclude that art lives longer than their life, which is transient, but he assumes that his companions are not aware of this fact.

Example #3

Ars Long Vita Brevis from Now Here’s The Thing… Short Stories By Brian Bourner

 “Archie McGeachy spent most of the evening skulking in corners, looking chronically ill-at-ease and trying hard to avoid being noticed. He hid behind the thick curly black hair which fell over his face and covered his small brown eyes. But eventually the champagne and canapes had all been consumed, with the dirty plates and glasses left scattered on small tables across the room, and the last well-dressed guest had finished mwah mwahing with Constanza. The assistants rapidly put their coats on, waved goodbye, and disappeared in the night. The wrinkles on Archie’s forehead finally began to dissipate. As he stopped frowning and tried to relax, he wiped his hair back across his head and looked to Constanza for reassurance saying with feeling, “Well Connie, thank God that’s over, eh?”

This is a short story written by Brian Bourner, an independent author and publisher. The title of this story shows the character of an artist, Archie McGeachy, and the sales staff of the gallery, which is engaged in deriding the art of the artist. It also shows this reverse side of the phrase used as a title of this story. However, the end of the story proves that the words as written with the “mythical demise” of Archie though his paintings have made a name in the gallery.

Example #4

Ars Longa Vita Brevis by Lee Jackson

Life is too short to paint a kiss
So sing a picture, paint a song
Take it home and bang your gong
Life is an ill cast comedy for fools

Ars Longa Vita Brevis
A caption to a life of bliss
A rose too beautiful to see
Jumped off the bush to speak to me
Of life that’s an ill cast comedy for fools

This lyric has been written by Lee Jackson and sung by The Nice. The first stanza elaborates the meanings of this phrase that life is too short to paint a kiss or sing a song. The last line makes fun of life showing the truth behind this phrase. The second stanza almost states the same thing in beautiful words that it is the same with life that is brief while the art lives forever.

Examples in Sentences

Example #1: I met an artist last year. He was dying and his last words were ‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’. It means that art is long, life is short.

Example #2: Why are you obsessed with you perfecting this one piece which is already good. You can make a better painting and remember the Latin saying, ‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’.  Whatever you do will live after you are gone.

Example #3: The Golden gate bridge is one of the examples of  ‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’. It was built in 1933, and not one of them is alive today.

Example #4: Mona Lisa’s smile is a perfect example of ‘Ars Longa, Vita Brevis’ and hopefully, it will be an inspiration for many centuries.

Example #5: When you create art work, remember people will remember you by seeing this masterpiece because there is a famous saying, Ars Longa, Vita Brevis!