October 15, 2012
You might say that my neighbor around the block has a somewhat cynical view of the electoral choice facing voters in a few weeks. Or you could say this is a creative approach to our last Halloween, should the Mayans have the final word this year. So perhaps a few last words about creativity may be in order…
A moral life is not a matter of training, vigilance, or even effort — it is only a matter of art. Stay true to your art and you stay true to yourself. Then you will have no need of morality.
This principle can be applied to any life: you do not have to be a painter, writer, musician, or other kind of “artist” — you merely need to live artistically. So it seems as if learning art could be a worthy undertaking for anyone. What, then, is art?
Most people would respond: “creativity.” To create is to make something new that has not existed before, something that attracts and engages those who experience it. But as we all know or at least sense, there is more to it than that — something else that makes all the difference between art and pretense. What is it?
Most people, again, might respond: “genius.” Or (at least): “talent.” For the moment, let’s leave genius out of the discussion, since it leads us into some muddy waters of derived perception and societal training (i.e., we too often “find” genius only where we’re told to see it).
What, then, is talent? Ability, surely, but of what kind and degree to meet the measure of art? Let’s try these features of talent as a hypothetical definition:
- an ability or family of abilities refined by education and experience;
- native or inborn ability that is raised and focused both in comparative degree and precision;
- perhaps most importantly, ability that is unique to its possessor or medium
We can quickly see that the first two attributes may vary according to the culture or to the individual’s socio-economic station within his culture. Not everyone has access to education — and at any rate, in a nation like ours, study of the arts is to education as the library is to the football team. Native talent often goes unrecognized in favor of scandal, celebrity, wealth, or infamy; and when it is ignored, it can also go without development or nurture, even to the point where its very existence is denied or even lost.
Uniqueness, however, even to the common mind, is impossible to deny, because it is universal. I could tell you that you couldn’t write or sing or paint or dance your way out of a wet paper bag; but I cannot tell you that you’re not different. We all implicitly accept uniqueness as a cosmic attribute of being: every individual is different somehow, and the manifest evidence for it is as plain to experience as it is indisputable to common sense.
So if uniqueness is a defining attribute of talent; and talent is a prerequisite of art; and uniqueness is a trait we share, each and all — then it seems both logical and intuitive to explore uniqueness as a path to an art of living — if only because it is accessible to both social agreement and personal experience. We begin…
One of the primary virtues of uniqueness is that it defeats comparison. I can admit that you’re a far better writer than I am, and add that my ability at flower-arranging exceeds yours. But each of us can say we’re unique without contest or any sense of hierarchical ordering between us. Uniqueness has the odd nobility of uniting us by affirming our individuality. It is a true reflection of Nature: a single attribute of universality that reveals the distinction of the individual. That is, uniqueness defies comparative or hierarchical division between the whole and the part, the great cosmos and its myriad of formed components. On a smaller scale, the society and the individual are joined not by hierarchy but by symbiosis — the great cannot be where there is no honor to the small. The strength of a nation comes not from its institutions but from the creative might of each citizen’s uniqueness.
Every work of art worth the name — a Grecian urn or a neat piece of web design; the three-hour long Bach St. Matthews Passion or a three-minute tune from The Beatles — bears the stamp of its creator’s uniqueness. And by doing so, it also touches the chord of the universal: its life includes and then surpasses that of its creator. The ancient Chinese proverb tells us, “the master potter leaves no trace.” No trace of what? Of ego: of the derived, the conventional, the imitated, the artificial. The work is so complete and pure in its uniqueness that no trace or shadow of stolen energy can be discovered in it — this is why work of diverse forms, materials, sources, and eras can be equally recognized as art.
What makes art strike that chord of universality through the tone of its creator’s uniqueness? The children’s writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery (“The Little Prince”) offers us a hint as to how “the master potter leaves no trace”: “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”
Whether it is a Shakespeare play or a Kubrick film, we get the sense from certain works that every excess has been removed and only the essential remains in what we encounter. We obviously can’t all create like that when it comes to art; but we surely can when it comes to life. We can reveal, express, and actualize our own uniqueness in how we live, and make life itself an art. We can do this by identifying and rejecting the excess around and within us. Our uniqueness does not have to be beaten or trained or cultivated into being; it merely needs to be revealed.
It’s not a matter of “doing good works,” but of undoing “The Good” — relentlessly excising what is derived, what we might do merely because we’re told it is good. So to avoid evil is not a matter of following the good but of abandoning excess — transforming the traditions of another time and transcending the conventions of received truth. But to pursue or imitate what is accepted is to plant the very seed of evil, which is stagnation. Where would music be today if every composer after Bach wrote fugues? Where would morality be if we all still lived by the law of Leviticus? Blind obedience is an ass pulling a millstone of imitation through a pit of excess; but influence is the spark that makes the fire of creation brighter. To beat a Bible kills its original life; to transform its voice for a new era reanimates its essence. To imitate Christ is to slander him; to become ourselves is to honor his teaching.
Where does it start? From within: from the realization that the imitated good is a pale, ugly reflection — the sun in a mudpuddle, the moon in a funhouse mirror. Such good is not truly your own; it lacks uniqueness and bears only the excess of what is copied, borrowed, or stolen. There is no art in it, for it is conventional rather than distinctive; thus it defeats or falls short of its own purpose.
It is not necessary to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” No past, however great, can withstand the weight of a false and slavish dependence. Be what you are and where, and the light of the past will be broadened by your own. You needn’t reject your culture; only its excess of convention and its decadence of prejudice. If you cannot question what is derived, you cannot discover what is uniquely yours.
False motivation also can destroy natural good. Artists of course must work for money; but while a commission, an advance, or an honorarium may inspire work, it cannot inspire the work. If money alone could create, there would be no need of artists but only capitalists. Creation happens on an entirely different plane than compensation.
Our lives must also honor this reality. Live out of a lust for payment — in fame, money, reward, status, or reputation — and you live a lie. Your life is no longer yours but a slave to an image, an institutional decree, an ideological monument of shadows.
Thus, I offer a remodeling of an old Latin proverb: vita brevis, ars longa. Life is short; art is long. Since I’ve long forgotten my Latin*, I’ll offer this English revision: Life is short; art is long; living art is eternal.
*okay I’ll try: vita brevis, ars longa, ars vivus aeternus