In her beautiful book, Brave Intuitive Painting, my teacher Flora Bowley writes, “For many years I struggled with my desire to paint for the sake of exploration, raw expression, and release. I thought my art needed to support an intellectual theory, make a political statement, or in some way change the world. Eventually I surrendered, allowing myself to paint for the purpose of painting and the joy it brings… I now understand that… it is through this kind of heartfelt expression that truths are revealed, lives transform, and new worlds are born.”
I suspect many artists, myself included, can relate to the nagging voices, sometimes external but usually internal, that pester us with skepticism: Why are you doing this? What’s the point? Does it sell a product? Does it feed the hungry? Does it advocate? Believing that we need to justify artistic work is a pervasive and dangerous piece of cultural programming, the same programming that demands that every waking (and even non-waking) moment of our lives be chained to the proverbial hamster wheel of earn and spend.
But this post is not only for those who identify as artists, it’s for the artist in every person. Whether you know her or not, she’s there, and the more I explore creative process, the more I see with clarity how my own inner artist takes me by the hand and steers me gently away from undo commercial and political influence and firmly toward choices that further my holistic well-being.
Another brilliant teacher of mine, Nina Wise, writes, “Creative self-expression, a time-honored methodology for accessing our spiritual natures, for making contact and giving form to our subconscious, for establishing interpersonal bonds and building community, and for enhancing vitality, is essential to our welfare personally and collectively. We can, together, take this moment in human history to wake up to who we already know ourselves to be: a free people dedicated to a sane and just world made up of individuals who celebrate their common humanity and this planet of indescribable beauty through song and dance, poetry, and care of all sentient beings.”
Jobs and shopping themselves, of course, are not problematic. Problematic is over-identifying with these things while squelching our own inborn, self-determined meaning and purpose. We are not our work. We are not defined by our wealth or our lack of wealth.
Art-making, down to the idlest doodle on a napkin, is inherently radical because to do it, we must step off the hamster wheel. In creating, we externalize an internal experience, and in so doing, affirm that the internal experience does, in fact, exist. On an experiential level, I find that identifying with my internal experience is quite a different way to live than defining myself by what I do or what I earn.
To get at this difference, I asked myself what I mean when I say I want to dance, or paint, or write, for its own sake? In other words, for what do you step off the hamster wheel? Here is how I personally answer that question:
For the sake of beauty
For the sake of discovery
For the sake of adventure
For the sake of exploration
For the sake of curiosity
For the sake of choosing
For the sake of calm
For the sake of contentment
For the sake of strength
For the sake of joy
For the sake of pleasure
For the sake of freedom
When I venture into the territory of art-making, these are the states of mind and body that I begin to recognize as characteristic of its landscape. In fact, I find that the creative process both encourages and thrives on these states. When I feel strong, I make more art. When I make more art, I feel stronger.
And, I find that with practice, I am able to carry these states of being out of the studio with me. I live them in other contexts. I believe that is because, in the act of dancing, drawing, or any other kind of creative work, the experiences of calm, joy, and freedom become real, materialized in our own flesh and bone and neural networks. The choice to make space for art making is training for living on my own terms.
To be clear, artistic practice need not be political or social in its content to spark these new ways of being and of seeing the world. Rather, it is in the act of making itself that my own consciousness shifts, that my own pain heals, that my own perspective sharpens. I begin to wonder, spontaneously, if I can make this drawing, what else can I make in the world? If I can change from blue to white to yellow, what else in my world might I change? More becomes possible, achievable, and future unknowns in my life feel more malleable, open to my influence and interest.