Our Life as Work of Art

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about contemplating a statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god and symbol of the sun, healing. and fine arts. Apollo was also, so to speak, for the Greeks, the mirror of an ideal human being. Rilke concluded his poem by saying that it was as if the statue saw him and spoke to him, with the final words of the poem. “You must change your life.”

Certainly it is not a literal voice that can be heard, but rather the call that the experience of beauty evokes on us. It is the call that summons us to become the person we can be, to become the best we can be. Shakespeare has written that the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature. That would seen to mean that a good play or novel or painting or sculpture reflects us back to ourselves. It allows us to see into ourselves and challenges us to grow into the person we can be. I would add that a truly good person does the same. Who they are is an invitation and challenge to us to become all that we can be.

There is a striking Peanuts cartoon. Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown and threatening to “pound” him. He responds by saying that if we small children cannot solve our problems without resorting to violence, how do we expect the larger world issues to be solved. She then punches him and comments as she walks off with a companion: “I had to hit him, he was beginning to make sense.”

It reminds me of the Quaker expression of speaking truth to power. A prophetic voice expressing a compassionate truth, however peacefully invitational, can evoke a hostile and even violent response. In a similar vein, it seems that those who wish to inflict abuse on others label their victims as inferior, as in racism, or as evil, as in political propaganda. What is remarkable here is that this perspective also contains an implicit recognition that what is human is to be acknowledged, honoured, and respected. Otherwise there would be no need to devalue other individuals or groups

The challenge to realize our own true potential is, I believe, the heart of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The young woman’s challenge is to spin straw into gold. This I understand to mean that we are challenged to take the raw material of our lives, which might seem brief and passing, like straw, and fashion it into gold, into a lasting work of art. We do so by the way we spin or weave our life story. The dwarf stands for the inner resources upon which we must draw. The possible gifts to the dwarf stand for what is involved in the process. The pearl necklace stands for the different qualities that need to be developed; the ring stands for the unifying or integrating of these qualities, and the possible loss of the child stands for the those elements that can take away our future, or even destroy us.

It is a process of developing all of our gifts, integrating them, and struggling with what may be destructive forces within us. We do so by naming those forces, by “coming to terms” with them; that is, by understanding the whole complex of our interior life, both light and darkness (as we have previously discussed). We need to discover words, images and ideas, stories and paintings, and even cartoons, that help us to name the totality of our experience. We return again to the thought that the different arts, especially if they are beautiful, do reflect to us who we are, including our sacred worth. They also challenge us to become who we can be, which is to realize and live according to to our sacred worth.

I once heard an Inuit artist comment that he sat meditatively before the soap stone that he was going to carve. After a period of time an image would emerge, whether of a walrus, seal, hunter or the like. He then removed the excess, so to speak, and freed the figure within. I also saw partially carved statues of Michelangelo which were human figures from the waist up with the rest being an uncarved block of marble. There was an uncanny sense that the figures were trying to escape from the marble. It seems that our own growth involves discerning our own unique, but inseparably communally situated self, and freeing it from all its clutter so that the work of art that each of us is can emerge more fully.

At the same time, how we look at ideals seems very important. If we are beginning piano lessons, for example, we can listen to recordings of Canadian artist, Glenn Gould. We can then move in two directions. One is to notice how good he is compared to our present level, and simply give up. The other is to see him as an example of what a pianist can be and, starting where we are, try to move, however slowly and incompletely, in that direction. In other words, we need not see ideals as a club to beat ourselves with, or as a criticism of where we are now. Rather, starting where we are now as already something sacred, we can look to an ideal as a good direction to move towards.

Once again, in this perspective, it is always a matter of beginning from a conviction of our own sacred worth, even though it can be hard to feel that worth at certain times. Then, like gold in a crucible, we can gradually unveil the work of art that is each of us.

May you come more and more to realize the precious work of art that you are and gradually uncover that masterpiece in every area of your life–and not be discouraged at the slowness and incompleteness of the process.

Norman King, January 16, 2022
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