DON’T BE AN ARTIST
[Art] must have begun as nature — not as an imitation of nature, not as a formalized representation of it, but as the relationship between humans and the natural world, from which we can’t be separated despite our attempts to set up a technological superstructure to destroy it.
— Lucy R. Lippard, in Art in America, 11/81
My mother filled our home with beautiful and useful things that she made: hooked tapestries that told stories and covered naked walls or floors; finely jointed boxes full of shells and carvings in flowing black and white beach sands that shifted like miniature dunes; knotted necklaces, clothes, bread, furniture, and tools. I drew a lot, and started carving stone at 10, working with a penknife on bits of soft soapstone. In high school, I found a piece of marble at a demolition site, learned to forge and temper old files into chisels, and carved an oversize portrait of my own fist. One summer, I picked up a piece of granite off the beach and pecked it into a recognizable figure. My New Yorker mother took me to major museums and little galleries. I loved Michelangelo and Brancusi, but found much modern art confusing and unrelated to the world. Art seemed both expensive and common. At a gallery in our town, I saw and fell in love with a small soapstone sculpture made by an unknown Inuit. The forty dollar price tag seemed huge (I was ten), but I saved my money and bought it. It remains my first and only gallery purchase.
That year I also learned to use a potter’s wheel, and started to shape wet clay into bowls, cups, and a horn I could play. A year or two later, I learned to take and develop photographs, and started to use the camera to share with others the beauties I saw in shadows, shapes, and pattern. I drew. I looked for beauty in clay and light and line, volume and texture – I measured my results by comparison to what I saw and felt around me: the feathers and form of a dead gull I found on the beach; the patterns of light and shadow in sand dunes and grasses that I photographed; the swelling forms of bowls and cups I saw or used; the shape and colors of fish that I caught and drew, or sculpted. It seemed important to see and to celebrate.
Outside home and a few galleries and museums, however, I saw little celebration. My mother didn’t sell much of her art, and complained that the only way an artist could make a living was by teaching. And while teaching was good, the beauty it added to the world seemed small and private (“idiotikos” in Greek). I wanted beauty large, useful, and public. I wanted to work in a world where anyone and everyone could see and celebrate all beauties. I looked at pictures of Michelangelo’s stone figures and Sistine murals and loved that popes and royals had commissioned him to fill public squares and churches with beautiful figures from great stories – and I loved that Italians seemed to love Michelangelo as much as I and my hockey buddies loved Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky (who will remember them 5 centuries from now?)
By contrast, at the rink and at school, I learned to measure myself on standardized scales: goals made, grades or wages earned, all scored on a simple numerical scale. None of my teachers taught beauty as a subject, nor suggested it as a goal or a measure. Even my art teachers evaluated us according to technical standards reducible to number alone. Beauty was a simple thing, a matter of personal preference rather than a source of common wealth or a unifying force greater than our small, human selves, theories, and knowledge.
All my teachers worked within this modern world view, in which each human is whole unto himself, rather than an equal participant sharing responsibility for maintaining the world as a whole. So rather than seeking ways in which each of us might express and celebrate a common beauty, they divided and sorted us like merchandise: “A” students on top, worthy of high esteem, high price, and high wages, and the “B,” “C,” “D,” and “F” students below, ready sorted to uphold neither the beauty nor goodness of all, but rather the status of the few.
While individual teachers may have felt and acted differently, the overall result required us to strive against everyone else; it also denied the beauty around us all. How could I pursue (much less know) this beauty if the pursuit required me to deny it to others? How could I be worthy of that common beauty if someone else was not? I see this clearly enough now, but at the time I just wanted to fit in. When people asked me “what do you want to be?” I chose “artist” but I couldn’t see how I would get there, nor what it would look like when I arrived.
After college, my peers chose careers according to their aptitudes, went to graduate school according to their grades, got jobs and wages according to their evaluations, married or made progress, and set about either teaching or raising more professionals. I chose a seemingly random path, from art to community organizing to carpentry to bureaucracy to writing and publishing to teaching. It was a bit confusing, to others and myself. When my mother asked when I intended to return to “my art,” I got angry.
Thirty years later, my life revolves around the arts of sculpture, writing, and building, but if I tell people “I’m an artist,” the next question is almost invariably, “And you make a living at it?” Then I know it will be a long time before we can talk about art. Often I take an oblique tack, and tell them what I’ve actually been doing – making stuff, working in the office, digging in the garden, or picking mushrooms in the woods – no titles, career categories, or credentials – but it seems to make normal professionals uncomfortable. Perhaps the alternative – talking about what we actually do – might force them to admit that their job bores them, or makes them feel small? Perhaps the daily details of what they love doing are too intimate or complex? One state senator I met at a party just said “I’m a public servant.” Perhaps humility kept him from claiming the status of his title? He certainly looked uncomfortable. Maybe we’re all afraid of being misunderstood! I suspect it’s a combination of all this and more. Labels are so easy.
Imagine, on the other hand, actually knowing each other by our daily work, not just our titles. If you doctor me, I call you Doctor John. If you shoe my horse or make my bread, I might call you John the Smith or Jack the Baker. When I worked as a bureaucrat for the City of Boston, they called me a contract administrator in the Department of Employment and Training, but what I actually did was talk, type, and sit at a desk. I never trained or employed anyone, and the “office culture” had nothing to do with how any of us lived at home. Later, I worked in construction, but rarely called myself a “carpenter” because I’d never spent enough time with one good carpenter to get what seemed like real training or discipline, much less mastery. I learned to swing a hammer by swinging a hammer. I spent another ten years working with community groups on projects ranging from selling food, to building houses for poor and working people, to running a community newspaper. In professional circles, this kind of work has become a “field,” so when I moved to Oregon, I got a job where they called me a “community developer.” My duties included things like “facilitation” and “coordination” -— terms which, if they meant anything to the people I worked with, meant that the government was coming to tell them what to do, or that I had money and power and might share it if they would cooperate with me. The biggest part of my job description was “building relationships and trust,” but I was a stranger to everyone I met, and no matter how well I did, when our three-year grant ended, career and profession would require me to abandon relationships to seek another paycheck.
I worked out of a little one-man office in a small town on the edge of the most rural section of the county. One day, our administrative assistant came by my office to deliver supplies and stayed for lunch. As we ate, she asked – in a perfectly conversational tone – what it was that motivated me. For her own part, she got on well with all the staff, never took sides in conflict – even her husband often came in to volunteer. While her title conferred minimal status and pay, she didn’t merely take care of correspondence, accounts, and office supplies, she truly cared for the needs and concerns that kept us all at work. (Why do we assume that “administrators” just take care of things, while “ministers” take care of people?) Her own motives clearly ran deeper than self-serving career notions like “personal goals” and her “5-year plan.” Her question shook me up. I was unsure why I was there at all.
“I just want to be a person,” I blurted.
It felt embarrassingly vague at the time, but some years later – after making a life in which I knew and worked with my neighbors and had found work where I could build real relationships with the people I worked for – a book by Martin Prechtel clarified the larger context in which we become persons rather than just titled automatons.
In his 20s, Prechtel found himself in a traditional Mayan society in Guatemala where the phrase for “person” translates roughly as “a full twenty” — i.e., someone with ten toes and ten fingers. In the wholly hand-made life of a Mayan village, if you lacked toes or fingers, you’d be hard-pressed to fully participate. Of course, toes and fingers aren’t so rare, but it takes time to learn to use them well, it takes time to discover our particular gifts, and it takes time to fit ourselves into a community and the world.
Though he was in his 20s when he arrived in Guatemala, once in the village, Prechtel had to enter “as a child,” first learning the ways of home, food, bodily comforts – literally, the mother tongue. Then, in public, he began to learn the language as shared by neighbors and men at work. Finally, in order to grow up from raw childhood into fully cooked person, he had to join the other young men for initiation, out in the jungle, there to confront life and death, and to experience the sources and meanings of all the stories they’d been told – those impersonal authorities that won’t negotiate with anything less than a complete person, or a “full twenty.”
Village life included much suffering: from the brutality of occupying military forces that eventually destroyed them; to the hardships of a wild land that provided nothing without toil and which exacted severe consequences for mistakes. Despite the lack of a safety net or an organized system to motivate and reward them, however, people celebrated life, gratefully and skillfully accepting the invitation to participate, at home, in the fields, in the shared life of the community. Prechtel says they “used the gifts they’d been given…to make beauty.”
He also explains that their ability to live this way stems in part from the absence from their language of the verb “to be”:
One cannot say, ‘She is a mother,’ for instance. In Tzutujil, you can only call someone a mother by saying whose mother she is, whom she belongs to. Likewise, one cannot say, ‘He is a shaman.’ One says instead, ‘The way of tracking belongs to him.’
Prechtel’s adopted people understood each other by what they actually did, not by what they thought they were. Real activity related them to a shared existence where every individual saw and understood themselves in living connection not only to each other, but the land under their feet: Prechtel explains that “Where an American settler says ‘this is my land, this land is mine,’ a Mayan would have to put it…as ‘this soil carries my people, we belong to this land.”
To know and be known this way requires an intimacy and engagement with life that most Americans, I think, don’t experience. Rather than “belonging to the world,” we think we can just “be in the world.” We argue creation versus evolution, where they simply tried to maintain the world that gave them life and carried them through it. They saw themselves as caretakers rather than authors. Yet all people, American or Mayan, indigenous or industrialized, do have and can share real experiences that bring us together. That fitting together of people and life is the literal definition of art. The indo-European root, ar, means, simply, “to fit together,” a meaning that crops up in many interesting places, and has much more to do with how we care for the world we live in than it has to do with our status as makers, painters, or performers; parents or personnel. Each one of us, simply in order to live, fits ourselves into life in some way. When it works, we reap rewards that go beyond money: worthiness, goodness, strength – all forms of beauty that gain value as we share them.
Language shifts experience, and giving up the verb “to be” forces us to recognize the context we do share. Try it and see what happens. Every time you catch yourself writing am, are, is were, was, or will be, re-formulate the thought with another verb: instead of saying “the grass is green,” say “the rain gives green to grass,” or even just, “green grows the grass.” Is it not true that “the grass that is green” is, literally, an object; something small that we own, interpret, or manipulate as opposed to the common ground that carries us all?
Language can isolate us, or bring us together. People, by the traditional definition, always belong to and participate in something larger than themselves. I think we all know, at some level, that the life we all face is not a problem requiring a solution. Rather, we come into the world helpless and weak, born into something too big for solutions, that we can only hope to know by living through it. But how will we do it? Each of us must choose a way to follow from the ways that we find open to us. So imagine answering the question “what do you do?” by declaring what way you follow:
“I follow the way of health” (doctor)
“I follow the way of justice” (judge/lawyer)
“I follow the way of caring” (minister)
“I follow the way of water” (plumber)
“I follow the way of design” (artist)
Imagine! Rather than winners and losers, rich and poor, professionals and peons, we could all strive to use our gifts according to our own natures. Not only would the plumber earn the respect due him for working with the source of all life, but we would all receive honor and rewards for service to noble ends – and all of us could share a common humility, with common roots (and a common future) in the same soil. We would share the true work of culture. Prechtel calls it “feeding the holy.” I call it art. Either way, beauty invites each of us to participate, and makes equal demands on everyone, not as separate individuals graded and sorted by price or status, but as whole persons, all related and equally responsible for maintaining what sustains us all.
 Quotes from Martín Prechtel come from his books, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun, and from an interview with Derrick Jensen, in The Sun, April, 2001.