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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

I grew up in a home that my artist mother filled with beautiful and useful things: 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 was huge for a ten- year- old, but I saved my money and bought it. (I still have it – my first and only gallery purchase.)

That year I also learned to use a potters 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. With negligible training and my mothers example and encouragement, I became proficient at all this before I was fifteen.

I learned to look 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. Of those years, I best recall the shapes and colors I tried to copy: 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 made of clay; 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. I wanted beauty large, useful, and public. I wanted to work in a world where anyone and everyone could see and celebrate any number of beauties. I looked at Michelangelo’s stone figures and Sistine murals and loved that kings and popes 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 (How many sports heroes names live on after 5 centuries?)

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 some graduated numerical scale. “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 structures, our theories, or our knowledge.

My teachers had all apparently accepted without question the judgmental and reductive demands of a world view in which every human was a whole unto itself rather than a whole participant partially responsible for the maintenance of a much larger design. Rather than looking for the ways in which each student might express and celebrate a common beauty, they divided and sorted us like merchandise, with the “A” students on top, worthy of high esteem, high price, and high wages, and the “B,” “C,” “D,” and “F” students all below, ready sorted to uphold neither the beauty nor goodness of all, but rather the status of the few. Those pre-destined or mysteriously successful ones were deemed “to be better and brighter.” The rest were actually and symbolically discounted and devalued.

I neither saw nor understood, but I could feel that the requirement to strive against everyone else also required denying the beauty that held us all – and that I held most dear and most worthy. How could I pursue (much less know) this beauty if the pursuit required me to deny it to others? How could I be worthy if someone else was not? While I did well enough at school to fit into a comfortable layer of existence, the whole thing didn’t make much sense. When people asked me “what do you want to be?” I chose “artist” but I didn’t see a clear path, a way of beauty that would make me whole in a beautiful world.

When I got out of college, I did whatever seemed to work at the time, and managed to escape categorization. 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 not to be – not to be an artist, nor, really, anything else. I wandered down 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.

Now, fifty years later, my life revolves around various arts, 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 just hanging out – but this often makes normal professionals uncomfortable. They’d rather have a recognized career category and swap credentials. The alternative of actually talking about what they do might force them to admit that their job bores them, or makes them feel small; or maybe the daily details of what they love doing are too intimate or complex. Some who love their work are humble and don’t want to claim the status of their title. (One state senator I met at a party just said “I’m a public servant.”) Maybe we’re all afraid of being misunderstood. I suspect it’s a combination of all this and more. Labels are so easy.

But to be an artist – or anything else – requires you to claim a status beyond that of neighbor or relative, to make yourself an anonymous player in a game where some are rich and others poor, some win and others lose. Your status depends on how much you can sell yourself for – and who wants to be reduced to merchandise? 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. But we don’t do that because we’re strangers to each other. Career and profession convince us to abandon family and tribal roots, often every few years. We lose the opportunity to observe and know each other by what we actually do. So I rarely claim any title, much less that of “artist.”

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 as a desk. I never trained or employed anyone. Later, I worked in construction, but I learned to swing a hammer by swinging a hammer. I rarely called myself a “carpenter” because I’d never spent long enough with one good carpenter to get what seemed like real training or discipline, much less mastery. I spent about 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 job was for a drug and alcohol abuse prevention project with a 3-year federal grant to reduce drug and alcohol problems by engaging communities in positive and healthy activities. These ranged from “just say no” parades in schools, to building community centers or organizing other neighborhood projects. But while the rest of the staff worked on blatantly anti-drug activities, I ignored the “just say no” parades to work on saving a local campground from the budgetary axe, and starting a small community center. It put me in conflict with my boss, and made me the odd man out, which I remained, even after the first boss left.

In the midst of my troubling oddity, a lovely and open-hearted colleague named Jill asked what motivated me. It stopped me cold. Jill had lived in the area for years, got on well with all the staff, and didn’t take sides. She also seemed to have a deep and sincere commitment to service that went beyond self-serving career notions like “personal goals” and her “5-year plan.” And while her title of “administrative assistant” conferred little status (and commensurate pay), she contributed hugely to whatever success we had because 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?) In any case, her question shook me up.

“I just want to be a person,” I blurted.

What I wanted wasn’t status or rewards but recognition – I needed to fit into a life bigger than I was, where others could see and know me as a person rather than just some government functionary. Some years later, a book by Martin Prechtel put my desire into a deeper context. When he was in his 20s, he found his way to Guatemala and into a traditional Mayan society where the phrase for “person” translates roughly as “a full twenty” — i.e., someone with ten toes and ten fingers, all the parts required for participating in a wholly hand-made and humanly measured life. While most of us come into the world so equipped, it takes time to learn to use the tools we’re given, it takes time to discover our own particular gifts, and it takes time to fit ourselves into the community and the world.

To fit himself into his new place, Prechtel first had to learn the language. Like a child, he started with home, food, bodily comforts – the language of mothers and (mostly) women. When he took home language out into the village, he had to learn new words and structures for a different kind of work and shared life. Finally, in order to grow up from a raw child into a fully cooked adult person, he went out with the youth for an initiatory test against life and death – the final authorities that give meaning to all speech and all activity and that ultimately confer the title of “person,” or “full twenty.”

The life of a Mayan villager included much suffering: the brutality of a military government that abused and eventually destroyed them; 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 typically recognized and celebrated their life, gratefully and skillfully accepting the invitation to participate, whether at home or in the fields. As Prechtel puts it, they “used the gifts they’d been given…to make beauty.”

He explains their personhood partly as the result of the absence of the verb “to be” from their language. Instead of “being in the world,” they “belonged to the world.” Instead of arguing creation versus evolution, they devoted themselves to maintaining the world that carried them, and gave them life. Rather than authors, they saw themselves as caretakers. Prechtel explains:

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 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. Yet we do have and sometimes even share real experiences that can 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. 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 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 kind of traditional definition Prechtel offers, 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 have chosen:

“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! The plumber would earn the respect due him for working with the source of all life. Rather than winners and losers, rich and poor, professionals and peons, all of us could receive honor and rewards for service to noble ends – and all of us could share a common humility, with common beginnings and endings in the soil from which we all grow – and which, when we die, we must all ultimately return to and feed. Prechtel calls it “feeding the holy,” and says it’s something that requires the participation of every member of the community. I call it art, because beauty invites each of us to participate, not as separate individuals graded and sorted according to profession and status, but as whole persons, all related and equally responsible for helping to maintain what sustains us all.

(more essays at

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.



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