Saturday, January 10, 2009

Life as Art

[photo: Snow Woman, by Susan Barrett]
Years ago I went to a lecture titled something like "Life as Art," sort of thirsty to hear more about that idea. How do you live a life that is art? It seemed to me that I struggled to get through the dailiness of my ratty old life - characterized by an oil patch on the floor of the garage, a stain on the kitchen counter, endless heaps of laundry - and escaped from time to time into creativity, or other people's art. As I reread that bulky sentence I see that my life at that time was always about some mess that should be cleaned up. Our friend Ott always popping in: You really Ott to clean that up. This was nothing more interesting than ordinary karma, what I learned growing up. It is not even very interesting how hard you have to work to get over that, since it's everyone's same story.

The lecture turned out to be mistitled, and was a boring PR plug (without visuals) for an art exhibit then going on at a local museum. I still remember how later a friend tried to convince me that I had really had a good experience, that going to the lecture wasn't a waste. This woman was always fretting about my attitude, trying to make me nice, and I resisted, of course. I remember saying querulously, "My time is valuable to me. I made a point of putting this on my schedule, and I was disappointed."

She insisted, "But didn't you get something out of it?" I thought about that. I did want to soothe her in a way; she was so troubled by my annoyance. I remember saying, "Her clothes are interesting. She must buy her suits in New York." We had come a long way from the point, and it didn't really mollify my friend.

I recount that because it reminds me that I have been interested for a long time in Life as Art. I didn't mean dressing poetically in velvet jackets and flowing scarves. I think what I wanted was more of a sense of order, form, gracefulness, intention - even what you call meaning, when you are younger. Certainly I didn't think folding dishtowels could be an interesting experience, an okay thing to do; it was something to get through on my way to - oh, an art exhibit, or at least a party.

Not long after the abortive lecture, I stumbled on the Buddha Way. The simplified forms of Zen pleased me: not song, but chant. Patchwork black robes. Silence. Nobody disturbing the pattern. Much about Zen is art. . . . but (paradoxically?) its purpose is to lead you into really being with your daily life. Actually washing a dish without watching the clock, thinking of the next six things you have to do.

And art? Well, there's a sense in which an awakened eye sees the art of everything. You've had the experience, perhaps, of leaving a good exhibition to see the streaks of red and green lights on the rainy street, or the subtlety of the grays and browns of winter.

And then there's a sense in which life well-lived slows down enough to admit beauty and play.

Susan's Snow Woman, the expressiveness of her eyes, the way in which she is formed entirely of beautiful things that grow in the ravine, has a natural playfulness. It is art without any thought of gain, for it only lasted a few hours.

It brings to my mind a tai chi teacher I once studied with, who said, "Every good book about tai chi has a picture of a toddler in it, because they naturally have a perfect stance." And they naturally play, too. Just walking is the most delightful activity they've ever known, even better than trying to bite your toes. And they naturally create, they are artists, as when they play in sand or snow. In many ways, that's what we want, what I wanted when I wanted an art-full life, the open mind of a child to whom a snowflake is amazing, who never willingly lets a beautiful snowfall pass.


  1. What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is only related to objects, and not to individuals, or to life. - Michel Foucault

    This quote is what inspired the poem which inspired the name of my blog. So yeah...sometimes it's art.

  2. The word that came to my mind reading your comment was "commodified," how art is seen as an object in the context of the marketplace. It's true that when we are devoted to an art, we want some equivalence, something back from the audience. That can even be money, but its importance is that the "buyer" is giving of their own resources, making a commitment to the art (same way as to a meditation or yoga class).