Art is a fundamental part of our world, and its existence contributes to the quality of our everyday experience. It’s found in the music we listen to, the shows we watch, the ways we move (well, sometimes), and perhaps even our state of mind, assuming it’s a good day. At the same time, we are surrounded by non-art: music without soul, products built in accordance with the doctrine of planned obsolescence, and aisles lined with processed food, all made without love and packaged into colorful, chemically stained boxes. So what leads us to call some things "art" while others things we do not?
The western world as we experience it is an ever-changing landscape in which what we identify as art lives in and among that which we do not. If you reside in a populated area, chances are good that wherever you fix your gaze you’ll find art and non-art living side-by-side. And although there is always more art being created, we are also producing more and more of the the stuff we dismiss as being "unworthy" of art's moniker. Alarmingly, when I look back at my life, it seems that the proliferation of non-art has been accelerating over time, while true art receives lower and lower prioritization.
The trouble with art is that it cannot be labeled or identified in any reliable or systematic way. Yet, we cannot deny that art seems to contain a mysterious element which marks it as having special value, an element that can neither be named nor described, and yet whose existence is testified to by nearly anyone you ask. This state of affairs is well illustrated by the statement, “I can’t define ‘art’, but I know it when I see it.”
This extra, mysterious element is a "quality" of all art, yes, but is it quality itself? Does a thing simply have to be well made to qualify as art? Somehow such an explanation rings hollow, and while craftsmanship is laudable and, indeed, on the decline in our society, it doesn’t seem to rise to the level of art. Art, when it comes right down to it, is a hard concept to nail down.
For my part, I’ve been most comfortable defining art as any creative act that is both meditative and evolutionary. That is to say, an act in which the participant loses themselves to the act itself, sacrificing control temporarily to "other" or "the muse." An act of this sort causes the artist to express genuine curiosity as to the creative result, to stand witness. Mystery is mystery, no matter who's looking at it.
When holding this perspective, the "evolution" inherent in art takes place within the mystery itself, inside that place no human can reliably access or understand. This is the very aspect of the creation about which the artist also wonders and, it is within this "spark" that we find root cause, prime mover, or the "primordial om."
Is this the seed of all that we witness around us, great and small? Is art a process by which bit by bit, inch by inch, over time, "mystery" reveals itself, causing the world we live in to spring to life? If so, it sounds an awful lot like the process we call evolution, and I take no issue with that, generally speaking. Now, the random part, well, that's another matter, but I digress…
If we accept the above definition of art-art and mindfulness as an inseparable pair-then an artist may be defined as someone who performs such an act as ongoing practice. Accepting that, such a practice can be said to consist of two parts: 1) the ongoing refinement of the final result (the quantitative aspect), and 2) the consistent deepening of the state of consciousness associated with the act (the qualitative aspect).
If there is indeed a subtler, meditative aspect to the creative process that distinguishes an act as being more than simple action, but instead, mindful (artful) action, we find artfulness, then, as bound to the nature of the creative process, rather than solely derived from the creation itself, be it a painting or a dance step. Is it within the process-the act of creation-that artfulness takes root? Perhaps this is why something is said to be a “work” of art?
The result is that actions can be seen as falling into one of two categories: artistic and inartistic. The former involves the inspired creation of some object, idea, movement, or state of being, while the latter is rote and involves repetition or regurgitation, the unfolding of a process which is unaffected by the personal “touch” of the participant(s).
When we engage in activity mindfully (note, this does not mean the brain is leading the way) there is a deeper, more fulfilling level of beingness that creeps in, as if on cue. This often goes unnoticed, as it only seems to show up when we're not really looking. When this happens our relationship to life changes, if only for a moment or two, as does our relationship to time. The hands of the clock may move faster than we're aware of, surprising us and causing us to wonder as to where the time went. It is seemingly within this place, out of time so to speak, that mystery makes its appearance.
Once a person begins to approach aspects of their life in a meditational manner, as well as questioning the validity of aspects that resist mindful interaction, they may begin to see that doing things mindfully-with a spirit of acceptance and love, devoid of expectation regarding outcome-endows not only the things they touch with artfulness, but the entirety of their life as well.
In contrast, we find that spending large amounts of our time engaged in non-artistic endeavors may result in stress or dissatisfaction. This idea plays out in workplaces everyday. Many employees are productive beyond the wildest dreams of most artists, however, a successful artist is unlikely to trade places with a salaried/hourly worker, as the worker is, in many cases, not producing art, but simply executing tasks according to an unchanging process or design. When the act of productivity does not require (i.e. is not guided by) mindful participation, it fails to rise to the level of art, existing only as a process which is rigid and unbending, allowing no room for artistic influence or evolution.
Even the most inspired worker seems likely to succumb to despair when presented with the same task hour after hour, week after week, and year after year. For if the worker has no direct means by which to improve the final product itself, they are excluded from participation in that product’s evolution. It brings to mind something I read somewhere once, although I don't recall where or when, "one is never closer to the creator than when engaged in the act of creation."
Note: At this point I'd like to admit something about this particular blog post and some of those which will follow. When I initially began writing on the subject of art it was intended to be a small essay, just something to help me think through some things that'd been nagging at me. However, as may be expected with such a subject, things quickly grew way out of scope. With this being the case, I've decided to begin breaking things up into pieces and posting them as they feel ready, in whatever order feels right. So, for anyone reading, I suppose it's best to just "go with it" and I'll try and do the same.
This post, then, seemed a good place to start. For if we hold the definition of art put forth, even if only for arguments sake, a lucid explanation begins to take shape as to why an ashtray made in China and purchased from a Wal-Mart is not considered art, but a similar ashtray made by hand and purchased from a farmer's market is. (By the way, don't buy either ashtray, you really shouldn't be smoking ... or whatever)
Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.
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