July 11, 2012
The Imagined Life
The artistic life is a calling that is essential to sustaining us as a people. Without our mythology, we’d unravel. Our mythology shapes the religions and philosophies of the entire world and it was born in the bosom of the poets. We must have a vision of the creative life we seek. We must see ourselves in the context of the unbroken flow of creative lives since the dawn of civilization.
Whatever artistic discipline you pursue, you are the living mythology of humanity, but only if you place this high value on your efforts. The world is all about power and success, art is all about learning and teaching. The teaching must be shared. The learning must be sought. Both must be cherished by the artist.
Pure art is not just beauty plus effort. It is not just vision plus originality. It is a combination of all of these plus the recognition of the teaching-learning. There is purpose behind creativity. The unseen combines with the seen in the same way that the life force combines with the dust to make us human. Art must contain the life force that breathes animation into the work. The word “inspiration” means “to breathe in (or into)” something original.
Creativity is merely the fuel. It can be burned in the oven that fires any objective we choose. We can either be court jesters, who might get rich one day and ridiculed the next, or we can connect with our mythology and create art that moves people in profound ways. As we bridge the spirit world and the tangible one, we learn and teach in the process.
You might be looking for more practical advice on how to live creatively, but that is of minor concern compared to finding your motive as a true artist. The poet Gary Snyder writes about his early days in San Francisco when the Beats where as yet an unnamed movement. At that time most poets chose academic careers so they could live well and be part of “the system” while writing poetry from the comfort of a tenured paycheck near the warm fire of peer appreciation. Snyder says that for him and a few others, the system was dead. He opted out of the academic career and consciously chose a life of poverty and scrabbling for the sake of his art. He preferred to earn a living doing whatever labor was available so that he could dedicate his mind, heart and soul to the deeper process. He fed his imagination from Native American lore, studied the environment and practiced Zen in Japan. Snyder chose to connect with the mythology and be a learner-teacher of the ancient wisdom.
This doesn’t mean we must sacrifice creature comforts entirely. Success may come as a byproduct of the learning-teaching. But as artists we will earn respect not through how well we live but how well we learn and teach through our work. This is the reason humanity looks to us. There is a void, a hole in the fabric. Everyone is seeking an antidote for a toxic world. Our mythology connects us to our roots. Without roots we are a people out of place, adrift on a vast sea of uncertainty. Our creative life fulfills the needs of the dream-yearning.
Practical existence is a very dry affair compared with our ideals. We imagine ourselves in the perfect home. In our fantasy we spend our days in leisurely creative work that is accepted and sustains us with room to spare. It’s a dream we all share at some deeper level. The art that we make reflects this yearning for a better way of living, but few have the courage to go all the way. That’s the role of the artist. He or she will take us by the hand and either lead us to the imagined life or point out the mistakes we’ve made in our practical one. Either way, we are improved.
For many of us, the practical world is the “tomb of hope”. Creativity is the rebirth of hope. By allowing the imagination a little leeway, we become self-respecters of the ancient wisdom that is our collective birthright, our mythology. We learn and teach, for that is the true art in life.