Thursday, October 01, 2015

My Life as Art

At the end of my last I promised to be a guinea-pig for the proposal that “we each and everyone be conscious artists, painting our existence on to the canvas of each new day”. What could it mean? Could it be played out practically? Natalie had a suggestion that
“to be an artist in one’s life” could simply mean accepting to be ourselves, with all our flaws, and perhaps even turning those flaws into some kind of art.
That certainly appealed to me, and offered a route for further exploration. Where else but in my own life? It’s all too easy to theorize and have opinions about others. Everyone does it. I must stop myself adding to the pile of pronouncements, and go easy on the distillations too. (I’m referring to a comment Ellie made on my last.) Most everyone seems to have an answer to everything. It’s a comfort to know I don’t need to. I can always go back to the personal, say how it is for me. I might be the only one to see it this way, or it may turn out to be universal. Either way, it’s worth a try. So I took this project on seriously and started to scribble a lot of personal stuff about my daily life, especially my flaws, current and historic. We were discussing “letting one’s guard down” too, in the last two posts. Was I prepared to do that? It feels uncomfortable, of course. One has to dress things up. The oyster feels the grit, resents the irritation, coats it with multiple layers of nacre. Pearls are the oyster’s way of “turning those flaws into some kind of art”.

At an early stage in my week of self-experimentation I succumbed to vainglory. I thought I was already the conscious artist, painting something-or-other on the canvas of my day. So my task was easy. I just had to report back on how it was done. I was hanging out clothes at the time, with blue sky above and birdsong in the air. Beyond the ivy-clad fence came excited cries and murmured conversations from the small children’s playground, in twenty languages. All I could heard was the lilt of their voices, even when they spoke in English. Children and parents were at the swings, while drinkers sat on the low wall, reminiscing about Poland perhaps, or Rumania. I looked at the lawn, my border of flowers, herbs and climbers: a work in progress, trial and error, evolving, like everything. I saw chimneypots, bright terracotta in the sun, there since 1901, when they used coal fires. All these are given things, found objects if you like. I was simply basking in the sense of having got my living “down to a fine art”, acquiring a competence in doing and seeing, honed through repetition; knowing what I can do, doing it better. Or in Beckett’s words:
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The quest for “my life as art” remained an open one. Perhaps I could rummage through my own past, find inspiration there. I count as my biggest achievement the fact of coming from there and ending up here, being who I am today. Things have turned out well in the end. Was there. Am here.

And then there’s “The Art of Living” a phrase with twenty million hits on Google. I can define it merely as something I never managed to grasp. I was blessed with a good education, but handicapped with scant nurture in childhood. So I’ve stumbled, clumsy and uncouth, with nothing but trial and error to guide my way, like a blind man in strange territory. Perhaps I have an inkling of it now, having become a recipient of Grace, where sufficient guidance is given when it’s needed, and as Simone Weil says:
Our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it. *
And this is how my question, as to how my life could be art, was answered. A simple thought arrived unheralded, a thunderbolt out of a blue sky. You become an artist through doing. Not doing whatever you like, if you’re privileged enough to have that good fortune: but in unconditionally liking what you do.

And so, in the last few days, I’ve been prompting myself to practise that. It’s appealing, easy to practise. It has potency. This is how I paint my existence on the canvas of time, by fully engaging with my action. It’s been raising my consciousness to an unusual level of awareness. It’s been making me focus on my own doing, rather than the situation I find myself in. It’s been challenging my unreflective habits. Suppose I’m in a situation which provokes an emotion. I’ll do the thing that feels right, which satisfies my conscience, my sense of beauty & honour. The emotion is a messenger, not for me to wallow in the feeling of the message, like someone endlessly repeating the words in a telegram just received. Not an invitation to victimhood, but the opportunity to create a worthy action. And if I am cornered, with no place to go in face of this onslaught? There is always a choice. Even my thought is a form of action.

Perhaps what I’ve said is just a personal view, and those who learned the art of living as far back as they remember, unconsciously and without thought of naming it, will tell me I’m stating the obvious, welcome to the world, applause for the marathon runner who’s completed the course after nine hours. Others might say it’s all very well for people who have it easy like me. I’ll merely say that it’s neither a pronouncement nor a distillation, let alone a proposed remedy for the world’s ills. It’s my experiment, and I like it so far.

Or perhaps the concept—of deciding to like what you do, moment by moment—needs more description. For now, I’ll just say it sharpens the attention.
*See the new epigraph above for Weil’s original words in French.