The Artistic Life

The Artistic LifeEach breaking dawn demands of us the tasks we must accomplish, the problems we must solve, the relationships we must manage. We need not proactively fill our calendars with many meetings, appointments and errands—life will happily and often subconsciously do so for us.

Without intentionally seeking to stem this tyranny of the urgent, the momentary demands of society can gradually erode the remnants of what remains embedded with us: a child’s right and desire to dream, to imagine, to soar. We can gradually lose our appetite for the truth, settling instead for the cheap imitation of what we take to be a fulfilling life because no one else seems to be alarmed by its shallow waters.

The truth is when the soul of another touches our own. The truth is when tears spring up in our eyes, when our hearts race, when chills traverses along our spines. The truth invades us when we create space for critical thinking, and no longer suppress for the sake of blind duty the natural flow of emotions.

Few things communicate truth to us as powerfully and effectively as forms of art. Without the regular nourishment of creative expressions, we find ourselves starved into mediocrity. We descend into bitter normalcy; we allow life to be reduced to a bite-sized journey bordered by zero lot lines—a microcosm of the blandest suburbia, a “walking shadow…a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”

Painting by Eric NeedleWhen we give ourselves permission to catch but a glimpse of the truth and be changed, we feel new vitality and energy bubbling within. The artists of times past and present stand ready to speak truth to us. We must accept their generous invitation.

When we creak open the shutters of drudgery, we blink our eyes and see ourselves in the pale, horrified yearning of the androgen portrayed by Edvard Munch in The Scream. The cry of this person’s mouth seems much more than an expression of one individual’s discontent and mourning…it seems to penetrate all of surrounding nature, perhaps all of society. It is a silent scream for people to recognize each other’s humanity, to embrace justice, to choose love, to care for children, to refuse to miss life passing by. It is the scream of all our hearts. It remains silent as long as we are anesthetized by apathy, mediocrity and duty.

When we timidly grant ourselves permission to dream again, we drink in the majesty that is Michelangelo’s magnum opus sculpture David. Israel’s greatest king stands poised for battle, geared for love, contemplative of his self-doubts and mistakes. He stands before history as Every Person, embodying the best and worst of the human heart. We stare at David and see ourselves, teeming with unrealized and actualized potential, amazed at how we can hold aspirations for heaven and hell in such dynamic tension. We look into his calm and seek ourselves to envision anew the drama that is all of life, to enter back into the story we began writing as children and youth.

When we glance up from the want ads or Horoscopes long enough to focus our eyes on Dylan Thomas’ immortal Fern Hill, we travel back to the time when we too were green and unaware of our gradual dying. We slowly recognize that within us we have allowed to slouch toward an early demise—and also see what still remains green, untapped, virgin, hopeful, exploding with the ability to be recreated.

When we get past our tacit approval of the ignorance that reduces life to a cacophony of role-playing, we embrace the skeptical eyes of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and allow the simple best of life to be our goal. We are less and less tolerant of façade and pretense and sheer human greed. We desire to prevent our children from careening off of the mountain of hope into the cavern of cynicism.

When we allow it to be more than noise providing a temporary panacea to loneliness, music connects one heart to another. “Evergreen” and “The Rose” remind us of love’s pain and deliverance, while “My Heart Will Go On” and “Georgia” drive home its transcendence. The music of our upbringing still delivers the lessons and emotions of its initial hearing when we stumble across it decades later; it flavors the epochs of our lives, causing us to yearn for “Seasons in the Sun.” Even if the Italian language escapes us, an operatic solo touches something beyond verbal and cultural barriers, as effectively as a smile or a hug.

When we take the gamble to duck out of the office and into the theater, we yearn with Jean Val Jean in Les Miserables for fate to “Bring Him Home.” We share his love for his adopted daughter Cosette and his desire to outrace his sins and truly become a new person. When we watch The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock float meaninglessly in his family’s swimming pool to the words of Simon and Garfunkel, we too are not satisfied with anything less than a quest for the meaning of our existence and a refusal to be painted into a corner or boarded up in a box.

We are not all artists in the same vein as those who give us such lasting works via the toil of talents mixed with passion, sweat, pain and contradictions. We can all, however, live an artistic life—leaving just enough space for art to touch and transform us.

Perhaps it is not a question of “can” but “must,” in order to remain fully alive before we have been buried. The arts round us out as individuals. They engrave our distinctions. They shout the truth to us when we have grown dull in hearing it for ourselves.

And in a world of descending grays and irrelevancy for its own sake, we are desperately in need of hearing more truth.

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