(About a 7 minute read)
Before you become unnecessarily more alarmed than is usual for folks to be when reading the posts on Café Philos, this post will not be one of those millions of insufferable pieces that are published daily by people hellbent on telling everyone else what they need to be. I do not aim to give self-important advice here.
No, almost my only goal here is to entertain those of us who — like me — enjoy thinking, and just about anything that gets us thinking. My other goal, of course, is to get laid by the heiress to a substantial fortune, preferably from her family’s involvement in running a chain of upscale bordellos known for the naughty creativity of their staff.
A boy can dream.
Having got that clear, I think we can safely say that the power of art — all art, from writing to dancing, and everything in between — lies chiefly in its ability to provoke emotions. A competent artist can play upon his or her audience’s emotions much like a competent musician can make their instrument do even seemingly impossible things.
But however powerful art is or can be, its power is not its purpose. So what is the purpose of art?
Of course, that’s a question for each person — artist or audience — to answer for themselves. A common enough answer is the creation of beautiful things, great and small. But here, I would prefer to look at two other answers that are almost as commonly given — at least in some quarters.
The first of those is that art’s purpose is to discover and emotionally assert truths.
Now that can be done in two ways, positively and negatively both. A positive assertion of a truth might be a novel with the theme that poverty is actually unnecessary nowadays. A negative assertion might be a sculpture with the message religion is a beast — which might or might not be really true, but no normal artist would create such a thing who believed it was false.
But I think that — while discovering and asserting a truth is a legitimate goal of art — it’s a problematic one. Problematic mainly because artists cannot generally compete with scientists when it comes to discovering truths (although they certainly can when it comes to asserting them). The scientific method of inquiry is simply the most power means of inquiry yet invented by humanity — no one is currently able to generally compete with it.
In practice, that means that artists dedicated to discovering truths tend to either discover personal and/or trivial ones (I feel really bad when my toes are cold), or they discover negative ones. It seems for many of us to see what’s wrong with things — or to at least become interested in what’s wrong with things — than to see or be interested in what’s right with them.
While truths are a legitimate goal of art, I think a more interesting goal is to discover and emotionally assert meaning.
It can be argued that, just as the scientific method is the most powerful means of inquiry, art is the most powerful means of discovering and asserting meaning. It’s only possible competitor is religion, but religion needs itself to be expressed as meaningful, and it does that through art.
So when I ask, “Are you the artist of your own life?”, I have in mind whether you are the person who interprets, creates, and asserts that the truths, conditions, and circumstances of your life are meaningful — or whether that honor belongs to someone else?
This is not a self-help post, so I am free to tell the truth: There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the honor belonging to someone else — just so long as the meaning you take from them is one that fits you. Those of us who look to others to define what is meaningful in life are the vast majority, and we have every right to do what we do.
Those of us who look to ourselves for meaning are few. Yes, creativity is everywhere praised in our society. Yes, we are reminded weekly if not daily to value and cherish it. Yes, there are whole libraries dedicated to books and magazine articles on how to become more creative. But it’s mostly hogwash, so far as I can see.
To be more precise, most folks have very little love for genuine creativity when it comes to the big things, such as the meaning of life itself. Sure, we’re all looking for creative ways to remove a stump from our yard, or to decorate a cake in an interesting and attractive way.
But there is something in most of us that becomes irritated by even the serious thought alone that some fool will start creatively messing around with our worldviews, or with our religious views, etc. Religious leaders instinctively know they lose members whenever they introduce new dogmas, rituals, and other changes.
Stephen Colbert once famously quipped, “Reality has a notorious liberal bias”, and he was right. But human nature has a somewhat less well appreciated bias towards conservatism.
In every age before ours, cultural change was glacial. The art of the European cave painters, for instance, remained unchanged for 25,000 years. The Indian sari has been a standard for women’s clothing for at least 5,000 years. It has only been within the past five centuries that things have picked up.
The rapid changes we see today are almost exclusively driven by the sciences and technologies, but that alone is enough to set most people to complaining things are moving too fast. Can you imagine what the outcry would be if every five or so years there was a new economic system invented on the order of capitalism or socialism?
Most of us are quite content to not be the artists of our own lives. But for the few who are, the rewards can be enormous.
Few things in my experience engage one more passionately, or are more self-fulfilling, than interpreting one’s life in a manner both honest and meaningful. The process can be painful at times, but the rewards are almost impossible to beat, not the least of which is to feel quiet passion about the things one does with his or her day.
The meaning you give your life need not be cosmic. Indeed, it can even appear trivial or ridiculous to others, but all that’s really needed is for you yourself to believe in it.
People who tell you that your meaning is not “true” or “eternal” simply because it might not be sanctioned by a god, are missing the point: If you had to choose, which would rank with you — that the meaning of your life was approved by the heavens, or that it provided a means of engaging your life passionately?
Of course, some will say you can have it both ways, and sometimes they are right. Sometimes the off-the-rack god-given meanings fit someone as well as a hand-tailored suit, but not all of us are clotheshorses, and some of us who aren’t are also motivated to create our own meanings.
Questions? Comments? Cheerful waves from across the internet? Allegations I’m the true father of your second child? Summons to appear in court for once again inflicting upon you a traumatizing blog post?