5 Things You Need To Know About Artful Living
Art is about a lot more than pictures hanging on a wall, attractive home decor or colorful accessories for your office. The best of art improves our lives in some way. Either by lifting our spirits, making us think, inspiring us or comforting our hearts.
For me, art and the joys of creativity are like oxygen. They sustain me, in ways beyond daily existence.
They are a kind of sustenance for my soul.
A cult of ugliness
British philosopher and writer Roger Scruton did a masterful video series titled Why Beauty Matters. Scruton argues that 20th century art, architecture and music rejected beauty, creating a cult of ugliness and leading us into a spiritual desert.
Early in the video Scruton states:
“At any time between 1750 and 1930, if you had asked educated people to describe the aim of poetry, art or music, they would have replied ‘beauty’ And if you had asked the point of that, you would have learned that beauty is a value, as important as truth or goodness.”
Scruton goes on to state that, by the 20th century, beauty stopped being important.
“Art increasingly aimed to disturb, and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality, however achieved and at whatever moral cost, that won the prizes.” — Roger Scruton
Scruton shows us what this “cult of ugliness” looks like, starting with Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain,” which was a urinal offered as “art.” Duchamp signed the urinal “R. Mutt, 1917.” It set the stage for other modern works.
From there we look at Tracy Emin’s “My Bed”, crumpled sheets and all. She spent days in her bed, in the throws of an emotional breakdown. Later, looking at her bed, she saw it as a piece of art. She moved it to some gallery space and it became a sensation.
In the video, Scruton interviews a modern artist about these works and asks, “What is the purpose of this art? What is it leading us to?” The modern artist seems to justify it as merely something new.
Scruton draws the conclusion that, “I think we are losing beauty, and there is a danger that with it, we will lose the meaning of life.”
We apprehend the world differently
Not everyone shares Roger Scruton’s views about art and beauty. In the intro to Simon Schama’s BBC series titled “Power of Art,” Schama writes:
“The power of the greatest art is the power to shake us into revelation and rip us from our default mode of seeing. After an encounter with that force, we don’t look at a face, a colour, a sky, a body, in quite the same way again. We get fitted with new sight: in-sight. Visions of beauty or a rush of intense pleasure are part of that process, but so too may be shock, pain, desire, pity, even revulsion. That kind of art seems to have rewired our senses. We apprehend the world differently.”
Schama sees the power of art as not to soothe but to unsettle us, which can lead to new insights and understanding.
For me, I lean toward Roger Scruton’s view. I prefer beauty and hopefulness over ugliness, shock and unsettlement. I know there are a legion of modernists who will label me an anachronistic romantic, but I can live with that.
So many in society today are egocentric. It’s all about acquisition. Getting. Taking. Me first. My pleasure. My profits. Endless consumption. Winning.
The problem is that it’s a hole that can’t be filled. William Wordsworth’s poem The World Is Too Much With Us offers this line:
“Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—”
What are our powers? Besides providing love and support to our families and friends, one of our greatest powers is creativity. Making objects of art to share with the world. Giving, instead of taking.
Moments of quiet contemplation
Most people have moral and spiritual needs. They extend beyond the routines and leftovers of daily life.
Mortgages, meetings, health care, relationships, responsibilities, careers, finances and braces for the kids. Such daily realities and concerns are always with us. Along with all the anguish and noise on the evening news.
Family and friends are great elixirs. Giving and receiving love are essential to the human experience. Yet, we still search for something more.
Some people escape to alcohol or drugs. Others become work-a-holics, or fitness fanatics. All searching for that something. That magic solution to fill the hole in their lives.
Many find the answer in religion. Faith traditions offer a tremendous amount of purpose and peace. Roger Scruton acknowledges this, and adds that standing beside religious faith is beauty.
We have all experienced magical moments in life. Zen like states. Perhaps on a park bench, as a breeze rustles the tree leaves and flows through our hair.
Moments of quiet contemplation, when we take in the beauty of the world around us, invite a sense of peace. When we slow down from the frenetic pace of daily living, we become more open to the beauty of nature. And the beauty of simple things. Even seemingly useless things.
As Roger Scruton states:
“Nothing is more useful than the useless. Ornaments liberate us from the tyranny of the useful and satisfy our need for harmony — in a strange way it makes us feel like home. They remind us that we have more than practical needs — we are not just governed by animal appetites like eating and sleeping, we have special needs and if those needs go unsatisfied so do we.” — Roger Scruton
My wife and I like to put fresh flowers out, in a colorful vase, on our kitchen table. During the holidays, we pull out the boxes of Christmas tree ornaments. At my mother’s apartment, she places seasonal wreaths on her front door.
These things have no utilitarian use. But they are more than ornamental decorations. They satisfy our need for beauty. They become the antidote to the mindless pace of life, and the endless ugliness in the world. They become a part of what I call “artful living.”
The 5 things
Here are five things you need to know about artful living. Think of them as a template for how to restore balance, feed your spiritual life, and perhaps inch closer to the divine.
Less is more
When I paint a landscape, I pay close attention to the focal point. What the picture is about. Then, I subordinate everything else. In other words, I trim back the superfluous in order to accentuate what’s important and beautiful. Less is more.
The same principle applies to your life. If you trim the superfluous, you can make room for more artful living. Eliminating clutter makes it easier to focus on beauty and creativity.
This is why minimalism has become so popular. People want less clutter in their lives and more beauty. They want to live more artfully.
Time is more than money
I spent over 26 years in law enforcement, and the last ten as Chief of Police. I quickly learned that other people will spend your time for you, if you let them. Before long, your calendar becomes a sea of obligations and commitments.
Managing your time wisely is an important principle of wealth acquisition. But time is more than money. Time is a finite gift, and how we choose to spend it says a lot about our priorities.
In my early years as police chief, I always felt a sense of time poverty. There was never enough time to go paint, read or restore my spirit in nature. The problem was that I focused on career success, and my time management decisions revolved around this. This approach will burn you out.
I eventually learned to say no to people. I resigned from non-essential organizations. I quit golf and sold my clubs, because all those weekend golf tournaments and subsequent dinners were stealing my weekends away.
I learned to block out time before meetings and in the afternoons, so that I had cushions of time to slow down and breathe. I used those times to craft little paintings in my car (I kept a small paint box under the seat). Other times, I bought a coffee and took a walk in the park.
When we’re kids, we love to create stuff. It just comes natural. Whether it’s drawing with crayons, constructing a lego masterpiece, or making a living room fort out of pillows and cushions.
We didn’t worry much about how good our creations were. We just enjoyed the joy of creation. That’s artful living at its best, but for some reason we lose this in adulthood. We’re too busy being serious and worrying about everyone’s opinion.
Start making stuff again.
Creativity is a huge part of artful living. Whether it’s a beautiful quilt, painting, poem, piece of music or clay sculpture, the act of creating changes you. It’s this kind of artful living that reconnects you with wonder, and the simple joy of making something beautiful for the world.
Set the mood
What do people do when they have a date over for dinner? They set the mood. Flowers. Candles. Relaxing music in the background. These touches create an environment conducive to intimacy. They set the mood.
Success requires the right conditions. The same is true with making stuff.
If your painting easel is tucked away in the garage, you’re less likely to paint. It’s amazing how the smallest inconvenience can preempt our creative motivation.
Setting the mood means creating the right conditions, habits and routines for your creativity and artfulness.
Morning joggers know that leaving their running shoes by the front door is a great reminder. It’s a visible cue, and sets the mood for exercise.
In order to embrace a more artful life, start setting the mood. Redesign your home or office so that it’s easier to make things. Have the tools for your creative passion at the ready. That way, when inspiration strikes, you’ll be able to dive in.
Everyone is in a rush today. There’s so much to do, and not enough time. The problem is that when we rush, we miss a lot.
If you need to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles in a hurry, a jet is your best bet. But you’ll miss a lot, compared to driving.
To take it one step further, imagine if you walked the distance. It would take a long time, but consider all that you would see and experience.
When we slow down, we experience so much more. Every sight, sound, smell and feeling. Also, our minds relax and become much more open to creativity.
Ever notice how great ideas come to you when you’re in the shower, or out walking your dogs? It’s because you slowed down. You allowed your mind to breathe a little.
Creativity and artful living require downtime. Even small pockets of tranquility and quiet time can bring immense benefits.
When I was a police chief, I often took lunch breaks in my car. I’d park somewhere quiet, away from noisy restaurants and interruptions. Sometimes, I’d lunch with co-workers, but frequently I sought the solitude of my car. Where I could read, listen to the birds outside, sketch and restore my spirit.
If you want to live a more artful life, learn to slow down more.
Be united with the beauty
There’s enough ugliness, noise, pain and unsettlement in the world. We navigate political disunity, nihilistic voices and many uncertainties in life.
Thankfully, beyond the love of family and friends, beauty and artful living can improve the quality of our lives. Just as exercise nourishes our bodies, creativity and artfulness can lift our hearts and minds.
“We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it. That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses, and nymphs and elves.” — C.S. Lewis
By simplifying, managing our time, making things, setting the mood, and slowing down, we move closer to a more artful life. And an artful life is a life worth living.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. Fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here for the latest artwork and posts. No spam, always free, privacy respected.