art and fear

Art and Fear : On Public Foolishness

Over the next week, I’m going to talk about making brave art and making art bravely and today that means talking about both art and fear.

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Through the silliness that is late stage capitalism — indeed through a certain business stupidity that turns all things to profit — folk seem to have forgotten the benefit of practicing our amateur crafts in public — of using both the manual and the fine arts even when we do not plan to join a guild for either. And the proof is one of severity — for it is less severe in the manual arts for no reason other than utility: someone might hammer for awhile on their own roof to learn to drive a nail. It’s much harder to practice painting by tinkering with a mural on the side wall of your house.

Further, no one says, “I clogged my grandpa’s toilet during family Christmas but I won’t plunge it because I’m not a professional plumber.”

No one says, “I haven’t eaten in three days, my fridge is full of food, I’m just not a sous chef so I can’t cook for us.”

Certainly no man in any culture at any time in history ever said, “I’m handsome, married to the woman of my dreams, young, financially independent, on a four week vacation with my bride and sex crazed for her but I won’t have sex with her because I’m not a professional male escort.” A world where only gigolos are allowed to have sex is a world without fathers, families, and — as a domino effect — even the sort of family Christmas wherein I clog grandpa’s toilet but refuse to plunge the refuse because I’m not a professional plumber.

Were it the case that only professionals — business professionals — did the work of building society, monks would take vows of chastity not out of joy like Francis of Assisi but out of insecurity like Steve Erkel. Foodies would go on forty day fasts not in anticipation of some Easter feast where they roast a leg of lamb, but out of insecurity as does the man who has never seen fire, never boiled water, never put seed to soil. And grown women would die of constipation not by something in the water, much less from cancer or cheese, but from a morbid modesty worse than anything the hypocritical Victorian Age ever dreamed up.

Recently, some good friends of mine made fun of my attempt to cut an album because that’s “not what I do.” They were trying to make a connection between art and fear in my life. In the same day, they made fun of my vigorous (and, ultimately, bad) dancing at a wedding by pointing to a dancer in attendance. It seems to never have crossed their minds that I sing in public and dance in public not because I am a singer or a dancer, but because I’m a man. There once was a time when the humanities were taught right alongside crafts before a student chose their practicum. This was done to show, for instance, how music fit into society and why all men must sing — even, and especially, tone deaf men. Only in a society full of bar brawling drinking songs, church hymns, battle chants, odes to nightingales, love songs, and ballads about every little moss and stone could The Marriage of Figgaro have ever arisen. Only in a culture that pairs off to dance at every little party in every little house of every little town across Hispania could we have discovered salsa and bachata. Only in a world of garage tinkerers — of men who played professor and manhandled machines in their garages and basements — could the Industrial Revolution have arisen.

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Stephen King once said that life is not a support system for art, it’s the other way around. It’s a statment about the relationship between art and fear. What he meant, in context, is that it’s not about driving your health into the ground through drinking and your marriage into the ground through divorce and your fatherhood through deferment and your hospitality through hurrying and your life learning through some manic quest for livelihood all in order to have perfection in one craft. Rather it’s about practicing any craft that gives you joy and peace and wonder — especially the single craft that gives you the most joy and peace and wonder — in order to enrich your health, marriage, parenthood, neighbor, town, society, and the rest. The whole point of art is to boost and strengthen our humanity — for the word art means craft and the word craft means not just skill but strength: strength to sing in public even when you’re tone deaf, to dance at a wedding for the joy of the marriage and not the approval of some attending ballerina, to change your oil even before your neighbors who watch you and judge for the sake of your car and your family who rides in it and not for the applause of those neighbors among whom stands your mechanic, to repair your childhood home not for the blog of a local DIY blogger but for deference to the better carpenters that raised you, to their memory and strength by way of matching strength to strength.

Art, after all, bridges man and nature and like Lewis said, as reason is the organ of truth so imagination is the organ of meaning. By that respect, I would rather hear the worst story by the most tone-deaf man than any songbird because it is man and not the bird who hears the cry of the crow and calls it a mourner’s song. I would rather sit under the worst shanty built by the most disabled and destitute woman than to be a queen ant in her hill, for the queen ant is but an organic machine and it is that poor woman who calls her hill a home. I would much rather hear the most bland lie about some dumb young man’s fumbled engagement than the greatest Shakespeare a mob of monkeys ever wrote because those monkeys won’t follow the fool’s narrative of lies but even that fool would recognize their accidental Shakespeare. It takes a man to mean anything at all.

(And by man, of course, I mean mankind which as a historically inclusive term has included womankind whereas womankind has never in history been an inclusive term that included mankind for the same reason a square is always also a rectangle but a rectangle can never be a square. So I’ll say it again because I mean the essence of the phrase and not the appearance of the phrase: it takes a man to mean anything at all.)

In man there is a qualitative difference from the beasts and machines. It does not bother me in the least that Deep Blue beat some chess grandmasters. The chess grandmasters didn’t exist first and foremost to win at chess — indeed only one master could ever reign at one time. No they played chess for the love of the beautiful game, for passing it down to the next generation, and for fostering the community that gave the pickup games played in Union Square a market for charging a dollar a round. A computer may be invented that can beat the whole chess community at chess, but it still will not be man because it will not be a chess community. Beat as many men as you like with your specialized algorithms — it means nothing without a group of men to bear witness and call the whole mess of numbers chess, even without the dumbest, most amateur chess players who ever sullied the checkered ground with grey. Beat all men who alone mean “chess” by turning lose your supercomputer upon them if you like, that won’t stop nerdy young boys from founding chess clubs.

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My point is that utility and commodity and profit is never the point. Winning isn’t the point. You can build a house, you cannot build a home — you must fashion, make, and then mean a home. You can bind a book, but you cannot bind a story — you must mean a story. You can sell a car, but you cannot sell transportation — it takes a family of four to make that minivan mean anything at all and when car sickness, wrecks, offensive billboards, high gas prices, and the world’s largest rocking chair all get in the way, even the lamest most irritated family can still mean by that beat down messy old van “family vacation.” Nostalgia isn’t innocence. Nostalgia is our longing for the deeper meaning of things as applied to our past. People don’t get nostalgic for a particular Tudor style of home. They get nostalgic because to them, that home means grandma’s cookies, breakfast, boardgames, and jokes. This is why I sing in public, dance in public — even tinker with combustion engineering or knitting. Not because I will be great at it but because even in my worst attempts I, as a man, can still mean the whole wide world by my failed, unprofessional attempts at both manual and fine arts.

That alone makes me proud to make a fool out of myself — for I may act like a court jester with my foolish attempts at what greater men mean, but my jesting serves not the monkey king or the queen bee or tomorrow’s government algorithm. By meaning anything at all, by my foolish attempts at song and soldering, dance and dining, paint and programming, I become the court jester in the throne room of the divine.

And that means the world to me and mine.

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