“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
― Jack London
Sometimes I lose track of why I’m here…. Sometimes its not at all clear that when I’m gone I will have left the world a better place for my efforts. Sometimes I just can’t see the difference I make….. What is this thing, life? What is this opportunity we’ve been given? Sometimes I feel as if I’m fumbling it away. That I’m getting by without getting on. That the rub of friction is building up callouses which only insulate me further.
The trick, it seems, is to not stop feeling, but to learn how vulnerability is the price for being alive. And if living is a struggle, we need to learn to change the world rather than make ourselves immune to it. Living isn’t merely coping. We need to imagine what could and should be, rather than simply accepting what is…. The trick, it seems, is to take those abrasive grains of sand and imagine something different. Fashion pearls. Monasteries and playgrounds…. The trick, it seems, is to be an artist….. And everyone is an artist, whether they know it or not, whether they have it in their job description or not, whether they get much practice or not….
Its the thing that Jack London knew as the difference between being alive and merely existing. Its a sometimes tiny heartbeat fluttering in a sickly body. But its there inside every human being. Only, the odds are stacked against us…. In this life of merciless pressures keeping that tiny flame alive can seem improbable. Perhaps even a small miracle….
So, my friend Adrienne who has started this amazing new blog had yet another post that blew my mind. It was a reminder of why it is important for art to exist. The reason for art is not that galleries will be well stocked or that rich patrons can enjoy fabulous beauty in the comfort of their homes. Its that art itself is an exploration of what it means to be human, and for each of us what it means to be ourselves….
Adrienne’s post was a reminder that in our adult world of insidious compromise keeping the brittle flame of imagination and naive compassion alive is a difficult task. We are simply not well trained to look inside ourselves and to be compassionate with ourselves. Changing things from the inside out rather than the outside in…. We have so little real experience of bringing forth the nacre that transforms the world into a place we can call home. Not simply the place that will have us. We are more often the victims of circumstance than the agents of genuine change. Too often we are renting our space on this planet rather than owning it and investing our unique imagination in what it will be.
And yet, we do have the power to transform it. To make it a home. A place where feeling yet lives. Where we care, and ache, and cry, and laugh. Because of that thing within us. That thing from within which builds the world into a more livable place. I call it art. Not as in yet one more consumable product, but as in that which we each are responsible for generating to make a difference.
To let introspective passion and exploration die out would be among the greatest crimes against humanity. And yet we school our children almost exclusively in the world beyond our skin. Math, language, social studies, history….. We have so little training in that aspect which is most personal to us. In a sense we are trained to know the world but not ourselves. And this is what the experience of making art can give us. It teaches us to reach down inside and draw forth the gossamer to spin new webs. While much of our education teaches us to be a member of society it is really only art that teaches us to be human…… Art is the mirror of our humanity.
You should read her post. It was brilliant, and it was achingly beautiful. Quite frankly I felt shattered by it…. It reminded me of who I am and who I want to be. It reminded me that I can do a better job. That I am in a position as a teacher to help nurture that fragile flower. It reminds me that as a person, this has always been my job, and ever will.
I’ll leave you with Adrienne’s response to my comment. Its worthy of a post itself, but I’ll just let it rest here for your consideration:
“Wow, Carter – I am so moved by your response. Thank you dearly for taking the time to read this, and for putting your thoughts into words so carefully and with such deep feeling.
I like that you articulated the improbability involved in teaching art – in making art, even – and the miraculousness of just our human existence and our ability to have become these profoundly sensitive creatures with this thin external layer of brain tissue that takes us beyond our survival drives and allows us to do things like create material metaphors for our experience, taste color in dreams, and imagine in our own mind’s eye, what someone else is seeing in theirs.
This improbability you touched on is the single factor that motivates me most as a maker, in the content of my work, as a teacher of art, and as a human. This whole existence is itself so precarious, fragile, and miraculous. The fact that, amidst the most fundamental daily challenges of survival, each of us still – also – has this inner world where our sense of personal identity, purpose, and deepest desires resides — this just blows my mind, breaks me open, makes me feel so tender-hearted to even the most seemingly unengaged, most ardently-posturing 18 year old college student. Because I know he has that place in him, too, and I know that if we can inch him past his self-consciousness and superficial, rigid self-concepts and get him to dip into this mysterious and utterly unique place, what he touches there will energize him in a way nothing else can. It will give him a chance to create from this place, and, in so doing, he will wind up with a thing he has made – no matter how clunky or unresolved – which he can stand back from and look into as a mirror. What he finds in that mirror is something no one else can tell him – something only the process of creating, as channeled through his own hands – can tell him. Every time I witness such an encounter (of a maker being mirrored-back-to by a thing he or she has made), I experience the sense of witnessing a tiny miracle. And each one of these feels so fragile and improbable, and so I love each more for all the factors that had to align and conspire to bring it into existence.
Thank you for helping mirror back to me the meaning in what I wrote. Thank you for letting me know that this clumsy little essay with its cumbersome metaphors resonates with you, too, as an artist and art teacher.
It is encouraging to know there are many of us doing the improbable work of creating, of teaching creative practices. It feels good to be able to be honest with each other about what that work is really like.”
Make beauty real!