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The Artsy "Type"
Doodles on the edges of papers, hairstyles, Facebook photos and status updates. We would hardly classify these mundane things as art, yet they express us. All humans are naturally artists; we create reality with our every thought and word, with each whistled tune and prepared meal, with all deliberate movements of our body. Consciously or subconsciously, everything we do is a manifestation of the stuff inside our heads and hearts. An injection of our identity into the world’s vein of flowing advertisements, buildings, books, trees, tattoos, -isms, elections, religions, pornography, people.
To create art is so natural, most of the time we do it without even noticing. Much like the digestive process, which moves food through our body, the constant activities of our mind—the questions, daydreams, ideas—seem to progress involuntarily within us. With a quick stroke of the hand, we flush away the magical result our digestive system leaves in the toilet, and so, too, with thoughtless flutters of the tongue, do we disregard the glory that speech, for instance, arises from our wonderful ability to take something in from the world, process it, and generate proof of that process. Unlike poop, however, art has much greater effects, but we will get to that later.
This natural, creative process originates in the imagination, art’s womb—to put it in terms of another bodily process. Here, stimuli absorbed by the senses inseminate the fertile egg of preexisting memories, ideas, and beliefs, and a new storyline, independent of reality, takes form. For example, one day I was sitting at my desk reading or typing away at an assignment (I can’t remember which, but at the time, I found it quite disagreeable), when I felt a familiar, dull ache in my knotted-up shoulder muscles. Oh, not again, I thought. I should have gotten more sleep... Damn schoolwork. My ache-related thoughts distracted me, and I began to daydream:
I wish I had a massage slave. But let’s get real, Erica, you will never have a slave—except for maybe Mom. Everyone wants something in return. But... everyone likes massages! They’d probably exchange a massage for a massage! Ben could be my massage buddy! (My Thai-massage-trained friend.) And we live on the same floor, so we could exchange massages any time! And then my mother’s voice chimed in my head, “No hagas cosas buenas que parezcan malas.” (Literally: don’t do good things that seem like bad things.) Dang it! Mom was right. Addie might think I’m trying to steal Ben from her. The only way to avoid seeming sketchy is to involve other people...
And from there, I invented a whole “massage society,” as I called it in my head, with a governance structure and auditions to join our skill-based hierarchy and biweekly massage rituals.
To me, these thoughts seemed to sprout forth of their own accord—a side-effect of my achy body. But in fact, my mind was performing its natural function, imagining potential solutions to the problem of my sore body. Daydreams like this one, although seemingly pointless, are really the mind’s subconscious way of problem solving. We form thoughts, ideas, and imaginings like a capricious god moving wind, water, and tectonic plates at will or whimsy. And those mental forces change the physical geography of our mind, filter the way we see the world, shape our reactions and the way we treat others and our self. Thus, upon awaking each morning, we consciously pick up where we left off creating our biggest masterpiece: our life. This primal art of living is the foremost expression of the individual.
The art of living is how we outwardly express the reality inside our head. We can never fully convey the contents of our soul, but we do the best we can: we use symbols. Colors, pictures; scents, flavors; noises, gestures, facial expressions, body language; rhythms, dance, music; numbers, letters, words. As far as symbols go, language—communication with words—is the most precise; it is the most universal medium of human art, and the least. Language is one way we give worldly life to the spirited ideas, emotions, and questions within us.
Although I never actualized the massage society of my daydream, I planted the symbol of it through the words in my vignette. By those few short sentences, what can you tell about me, the author? You might think, “The author seems self-centered. She wants a massage slave, but is constrained by her perception that everyone is equally as self-centered. She is practical and doesn’t want to waste her time on a fruitless endeavor. The author refers to her own mother as a kind of slave, so she takes advantage of the few who allow her to do so. Like a true utilitarian, she heeds her mother’s words only because they serve her in that situation. And she resorts to socially acceptable behavior only as a vehicle to achieve her selfish aim.” Wow! Look how much you can tell about me!
You can also tell a lot about yourself by what you think you can tell by another person’s art. In fact, your interpretation of art reflects more profoundly on you than it does on the artist. While I surely may be a conniving person, I could just as well be an innovative undergraduate student on the brink of inventing a new cultural institution, or a self-suppressing conformist, or an ironic egalitarian with a high regard for her mother. There are an infinite amount of conclusions you could come to, and you might never know which is true, even if you knew me. Whatever image you create of the artist in your mind, of the infinite possibilities, is a result of your mind’s unique geography. What does it look like?
But in the very act of perceiving art, of deciphering its meaning, something very powerful happens. The winds start to blow in new directions; the rivers shift the sediments of their banks. A story, song, poem, dance, sunset, or conversation that causes us to question our beliefs might even provoke an earthquake in our mind. Herein lies art’s potency: its ability to interact with and change our perspective.
Whether modern (wo)man is classified according to our ability to think or to craft sophisticated tools, or by our creation in the “image and likeness of God,” all point to our essential identity as artists, creators of our own reality. Art is the only tool by which we communicate. As philosopher Denis Dutton puts it, art “[calls] into question our traditional values” (qtd. in Malpass 48). And as French street artist JR notes, it fulfills the need to “[leave] our mark on society. To say ‘I was here’” (JR), or, in the words of the self-immortalized ancient Briton (and godfather of the Sharpie-marked and key-etched bathroom stall), “Tolfink carved these runes in this stone” (Le Guin 29). We think, we speak, we compose, we dance, we write, we connect parts together to make a whole; we create.
JR. “JR's TED Prize wish: Use art to turn the world inside out.” TEDTalks, Mar. 2011. Web. 1 April 2011.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night; Or, Why Are We Huddling around the Campfire?” Dancing at the Edge of the World. New York: Grove Press, 1989. 21-30. Print.
Malpass, Luke. “The Art Instinct.” Policy 25.2 (2009): 47-8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Mar. 2011.