This I believe… We were wiser than we knew fifty years ago when we spoke of the art of bricklaying and medical arts. In my lifetime, the arts have moved from being the highest expression of any endeavor, something we all value and strive for, to becoming a rarefied expression, made by and for an elite few.
Not everyone is an artist—if we think of an artist as someone dedicated to creating in dance, drama, music, or the visual and literary arts. But I do believe we all engage in life artistically every day and that this artful creativity provides the same pleasures and revelations that artists value and crave. It makes the difference between a good and a great day.
Twenty years ago I was juggling two careers—as a New York actor and running a business I’d started with my life savings. As I wrote a crucial marketing plan for my company one day, I suddenly realized I was feeling as engaged and challenged as I had when I played Hamlet a few years before. This was a bad moment!—had I sold out, lost my integrity as an artist, become a capitalist pig? Then I got curious—how could I equate this mundane project with the highest expression of my artform?
I saw the distinction between the internal actions of art and the things those actions produce–call them the verbs and nouns of art. At my desk, I was experiencing many of the same verbs as I had onstage—total attention, engaging heart and head, reaching deep inside for expressions that would connect to others—even though the noun I was creating wasn’t worth sixty bucks to come see. But I cared about it and was pouring in the best of myself. I began to notice ways all of us slip into the work of art in bits and pieces throughout our lives. I also came to a deeper appreciation of works of art—when we apply the verbs of art in oil paint or music, we can produce the greatest nouns that humans make. But in recent decades, the arts have become purveyors of virtuosic products, not celebrators of the universal processes. Nouns separate people; verbs unite us.
The relevance of the arts throbs in action. I believe paintings are tombstones that mark locations where significant acts of aliveness once took place—and they await fresh attention from us to bring them back to life. Similarly, I believe that many events in our lives—writing reports, building stone walls, having conversations—are opportunities for us to slip into the work of art. And when we do, we tap our creative nature which keeps us joyful and awake to life’s possibilities. Philosopher John Dewey said he could not define the word aesthetic, but knew its opposite was anesthetic. I believe that awakeness, through the work of art we all practice, is the bedrock for a relevant future of the arts in our culture.
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