In his search for insight into the meaning of life, and in the absence of any direct divine revelation, Qohelet tests the potential of wisdom, folly, and pleasure (1:17; 2:1). Through his experimental philosophy, he seeks to discover meaning by understanding the world around him (1:13), and identifying what constitutes a good life (2:3).
When Qohelet creates an Edenic royal garden, filled with fruit trees, he is both declaring his kingly power, and making a philosophical test of pleasure.
From the rulers of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Louis XIV of France, a ‘king’s green thumb’ demonstrated mastery of nature, symbolized territorial expansion, and expressed virility (Brown 2000: 32). Bartolomeo Bimbi’s painting of citrus fruit from the Medici gardens demonstrates the ongoing passion among ruling elites for creating gardens and cultivating rare species. These exotic havens proclaimed their owners’ power. But they also provided a place in which to explore—imaginatively and scientifically—the world and their influence within it (Bundvad 2015: 225–70). Qohelet’s epistemological experiments (including gardening) resonated with the Renaissance pursuit of knowledge through science and philosophy; Ecclesiastes aligned well with humanist thinking, which increasingly privileged scepticism and empirical evidence (Christianson 2007: 35, 41).
Qohelet, though, came to hate his earthly paradise because it would be inherited by someone else, who, whether ‘a wise man or a fool’ would be ‘master of all’ Qohelet had achieved (2:18–19). Even dynasties as powerful as the Medici fall, and the great wealth, knowledge, and skill represented by the cultivation of bizarrely-shaped citrons become merely another form of ‘vanity’.
If gardens are one field of exploration, painting can be another. Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? is a testament to a search for meaning, as personal as Qohelet’s. For Paul Gauguin, the great question of life was, ‘What is our ideal, natural, rational destiny?’, and his enquiries into religion began with the questions inscribed on this painting (Shackelford 2014: 7). Believing that painting was capable of ‘resolving the paradox between … feeling and … intellect’, he thought that in this work he had ‘transcended the obsolete boundaries of conventional representation’, bringing together the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘ineffable’ (Shackelford 2014: 27; Gauguin 1897: 134–5, 147).
Although Gauguin believed that he had thereby surpassed other painters (2:9) he remained, like Qohelet, acutely aware of mortality. If his testamentary masterpiece brought satisfaction, it was also intended as his last work, and Gauguin planned to commit suicide thereafter. Despite the apparently comprehensive view of human life which it attempts, Gauguin’s search for understanding through painting and religious belief, did not provide the answers he craved, but returned him to the riddle of human life, (Shackelford 2014: 7), full of ‘pain’, ‘vexation’ and ‘vanity’ (2:23).
His search for a unified system of belief notwithstanding, Gauguin strenuously asserted his own individuality. In contrast, Andy Warhol famously (and perhaps ironically) claimed that he wanted ‘everybody to think alike’. His remark referred in part to the confrontation between the capitalist-consumerist society epitomized by America and the Communism epitomized by Russia. In Russia, Warhol noted, people were forced into being the same; in America, it was happening ‘all by itself’ (Swensen 1963: 26).
While his comments perpetuated a self-image steeped in the banal and commercial, his point is arguably both political and theological. His observation of increasing uniformity—whether by political repression or personal choice—subverts the equation of affluence with freedom which was ‘the ideological weapon’ of the USA. It might also be seen as rejecting the contemporary political adoption of the symbolism of ‘radiance and darkness that was no longer … primarily theological, but had become consumerist in character’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Warhol’s hands, the righteous glow of consumerist freedom is overturned by the image of the mangled car.
Warhol’s fascination with ubiquitous commodities—including cars—can likewise be read as a deconstruction of consumerism in which ‘the mass-produced image as the bearer of desires was exposed in its inadequacy by the reality of suffering and death’ (Crow 2016: 137). In Green Disaster #2, the affluence of the individualistic, automobile generation of Americans crashes headlong into the meaninglessness of wealth, and the inescapability of death. The corpse could be anyone. Two political systems, with divergent value claims, are shown to be equally impotent in the face of mortality.
Whether driving cars, cultivating citruses, building palaces, or jockeying for political supremacy, searching for meaning through hedonism or territory-marking leads to a dead end: ‘This also is vanity and a striving after wind’ (2:26).
Brown, William P. 2000. Ecclesiastes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press)
Bundvad, Mette. 2015. ‘At Play in Potential Space: Reading King Qohelet’s Building Experiment with Psychoanalytic Spatial Theory’, in Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, ed. by John Jarick (Bloomsbury: London)
Christianson, Eric S. 2007. Ecclesiastes Through the Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell)
Crow, Thomas. 2016. ‘Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol’, in On & By Andy Warhol, ed. by Gilda Williams (The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA), pp. 135–44
Gauguin, Paul.  1996. ‘Miscellaneous Things’, in Writings of a Savage, ed. by Daniel Guérin and Wayne Anderson, trans. by Eleanor Levieux (Da Capo: New York)
Shackelford, T.M. 2014. Paul Gauguin, Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? (MFA Publications: Boston)
Swenson, G.R. 1963. ‘What is Pop Art? Answers from Eight Painters’, Art News 62.7: 26
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13And I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. 14I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be numbered.
16 I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
2 I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, man’s delight.
9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. 10And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what he has already done. 13Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. 14The wise man has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet I perceived that one fate comes to all of them. 15Then I said to myself, “What befalls the fool will befall me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16For of the wise man as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise man dies just like the fool! 17So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind.
18 I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me; 19and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? 23For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity.
24 There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; 25for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26For to the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives the work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.