Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Art is What Makes Life Worth Living

“Art is what makes life worth living,” my kung fu master said, looking straight into my eyes. He knew my story. As I approached the end of my thirties I felt a real need to test myself and pursued full contact competitive fighting. I worked with an MMA coach and learned the sport which incorporated wrestling, Brazilian jujitsu, muay thai and boxing but things didn’t quite work out and in the end, I started hating it. I had to quit. You can’t hate something you love. You just can’t let that happen to yourself.

So it hit me hard when I decided to go back to kung fu (the art of my youth) with the less lofty goal of finding the love and fun in it again, only to hear my kung fu master tell me that I focused too much on competition and not enough on the art.
“Fighting destroys us,” he said, “and you know this from your writing and painting--Art is what makes life worth living.”

Earlier in the week, an online friend of mine shared with me a psychology article that broke down the process of creativity to help artists deal with the extreme emotions they go through. Just a few days before, a friend told me about an artist who committed suicide. “Art is madness,” he said. I never saw it that way.

I snuffed the clinical article that tried to generalize the complex emotions of human beings and I questioned my friend’s assertion that art is madness, something that the article also implied. I think about all the times in my life that art has saved me from madness. Aren’t we all a little mad, and if we didn’t have a creative outlet, what would happen to us?

Art isn’t madness. Art is what makes life worth living. Can you imagine a world without music, dance, crafts, abstraction, movies, festivals, imagination or art? How would we cope? How would we learn? What would motivate or inspire us? How would we court our lovers? How would we teach our children? What would comfort us when we feel lonely?

I once had a friend tell me that she resolved to only read books that would help her with her work. I said, “But that’s no fun.” The greatest lessons I ever learned, I learned from reading fiction or stories. All great leaders, teachers, scientists and more saw whatever they did, not as a work but as art. The greatest movers and thinkers in history were also well rounded artists. It seems to me that denying creativity is denying the very process in which our brain works. We disconnect from everything that makes us who we are.

Art isn’t madness. Art is meditation.  We take the emotions and chaos and turn it into beauty and form. We make sense of the things that we can’t make sense of any other way and this takes discipline. A musician doesn’t just know how to play an instrument. He/she has to practice many hours in peace. One has to get lost in ones discipline in order to express oneself in a way that creates beauty. Without this discipline, everything would be madness.

I think art is often confused with ambition. Ambition is what ruins artists, this desire to be the best in a subjective world. Something happens when marketing a book or becoming world champion becomes more important than the joy and tranquility of just doing what we have always loved doing. And at some point, we artists go through a little crisis. We realize that we’ve lost sight of what it was all about and we have to find ourselves again. At some point, it becomes all about making it to the top and we lose a bit of our souls. Art isn’t madness, ambition is. The thing I learned from competitive fighting is you can’t be successful unless you’re disciplined in your art and you’re passionate about what you do. That’s what keeps us doing what we do, regardless of the trials and tribulations, the rejections and the failures. If it’s just work, we wouldn’t do it. We do it because we love it, because it’s what makes life worth living. Success is just a side effect, not of hard work but of playing hard out of passion and joy for what we do.

A few years ago, I knew a very talented musician who played a killer upright bass. He was hired to play bass for a rock band and he invited me to some kind of retreat in upstate New York for the weekend. I had no idea what it was about but I decided to go. He explained to me that this group of musicians were past their prime. They eventually got jobs as lawyers or what not, but they realized that they still loved playing for their friends. In fact, they decided that it wasn’t worth playing for anyone else. So they pitched in and bought a house in the woods together and that’s where we were headed. There were a bunch of people hanging out in the house and we all brought sleeping bags. We just chilled out during the day and someone bought some pottery to paint. It was drizzling outside but I couldn’t stand to be cooped up so I played volleyball in the rain with my friend.

I made many new friends, all friendly and outgoing people. There was a woman who was exceptionally hypnotic. I remember a butterfly landing right on her finger, inviting her friend to take pictures. She had a fire to her that was instantly noticeable. People referred to her as "the voice" and I didn’t understand why until much later. She explained the life they used to live, touring from town to town playing rock and roll. She said that they were loved everywhere they went but it was a tougher crowd in the big cities where good ole’ rock and roll was overshadowed by other types of music. We asked if it was too much, being on the road all the time. She said that she was built for it but eventually, other members of the band settled down. I thought she looked very young. An acting coach once told me that singers and actors always look young, even though they drink and smoke and party all night. It’s because they breathe so deep.

That night, I found out why I was really there. One of the band members brewed some mushroom tea. We drank and had some barbecue from the large fire pit and everyone ushered me into the big red barn outside. They turned the barn into a stage and they played for their biggest fans, their friends. They were good, real good and the woman had a unique voice, a mix of Janis Joplin and Axl Rose. It was good ole rock and roll and it made me move and scream and whoop. Why had I never heard of them? It takes a lot to be the best in the world,and sometimes you have to be willing to deal with a lot of politics, but there’s talent everywhere. Some people just decide that they’d rather just play for their friends.

A nurse once wrote an article about people’s dying words in a hospital. The top regret she heard from men was that they wished they never worked too much. In the end of the life, what really matters, how hard you worked or how well you played for your friends and family?


  1. I read van Gogh wondered how great he could have been if not for his mental illness.
    I wonder how great he would have been without.
    "We're are all mad here. I'm mad, you're mad."

    1. Van Gogh was true to himself and that's what made him great. His writings and paintings were full of joy, passion and sensuality. That's all that matters to me