The Greatest Art Form


The greatest art form is not the novel. It is not the short story. It is not the poem. It is not the pop song. It is not the symphony or the opera. It is not the play. It is not the dance. It is not the film. It is not the painting. It is not the sculpture.

The greatest art form of all is the human being. The human being whose heart and soul are filled with love, generosity, compassion, courage, and wisdom, or at least, the ability and desire to learn and grow - this is the true masterpiece. The greatest art form in the world.

A true human being, developed in this way, is greater than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with all its storms and angels. Wherever he or she lives, unknown or known, getting by or dirt-poor, there is not one painting or story that can eclipse this living art of suffering and hope, fragility and strength, struggle and promise. This dawn that must fight so hard against the night to be born.

Too many times, art becomes a mere quest for power and status, another form of egotism, propelled by jealousy, envy, and deceit, punctuated with betrayal and negligence. The artist may become a pirate, who kills his partner for the treasure buried underneath the sand; or a deserter, who runs from the real battle of life, abandoning others by escaping to his own world beyond the world, shielding himself with his imagination from the blows that others must face, fighting and winning shadow wars in his mind that do not save a single soul.

Certainly, there is no universal criterion for judging the artist as a human being. A man who is a great poet may be an ogre, a monster dominating and abusing his family, his anger a way of protecting his space and time, protecting the solitude that allows him to find brilliance in the wilderness:

That girls at puberty may find

The first Adam in their thought,

Shut the door of the Popeís chapel,

Keep those children out.

There on that scaffolding reclines

Michael Angelo.

With no more sound than the mice make

His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

His mind moves upon silence. [1]

A renowned musical genius may be as distant to his family as a tiny star in the night, leaving them to freeze in the cold of his absence, the price of lighting up the world with the sun of his songs, shining through the radio into a million homes.

Another artist, less successful, may stand by his vision to the end. Like one sperm cell out of a million, he knows he must head towards the soul of a world that needs to be fertilized by what is in his head, even if it is his fate to die, not to be the one. But those who are close to him cannot understand, they are like prisoners of his artistic kamikaze flight, and their blood drips from his dream.

Then there is the artist who is jealous. He sees anotherís book and the glorious reviews that are thrown at its feet like flowers, and rage begins to creep into his own heart for the neglect. John Lennon admitted that when he heard some songs on the radio, he was filled with frustration, wishing that he had written them. (And I know just how he felt.) But this jealousy, this primal, untranscended fear of being left out, abandoned, drove him, stimulated him, triggered new waves of creation from his own mind.

Other artists are so lost in the drive to succeed and to live from their art that they become mere leaves, blown by the winds of their time in the direction of success. Thus, if rebellion is "in", they will be rebels, if "growing up" is "in", they will "grow up", if materialism is "in", they will be material, if spirituality is "in", they will be "spiritual." Like chameleons, they will change to fit the times, to ride the wave. Frequently, they will have so little self-awareness and solidity in their thoughts and actions that they will make these shifts in perfect innocence, passing them off as "artistic phases." Thus, the rebel may become "mature", and realizing the error of his ways, leave his past behind, abandoning those for whom his art had become a flag. But if the wheel turns full-circle again, he may suddenly rediscover his lost past, and rekindle the ancient flame. In a world where artists sometimes wield such a major influence, it is very destabilizing to causes and perspectives to have such erratic advocates. But then, donít these artists have a right to change their minds, and grow?

How right are these artists, and how wrong? The cruel ones who defend their creative space to give a treasure to the world? The all-giving ones who have nothing left for those who are closest to them, because they have given it all away to strangers? The jealous ones who do not rise above their jealousy, but are driven to create beauty by it? The ship-jumpers, who stand for nothing, but whose desire to be a central part of their time keeps them in the center of things, expressing the moment?

Clearly, these are questions that are not as easy to answer as they at first seem. There is a lot of cruelty and injustice in the world of art, and it is not always only a matter of the victimized, discarded artist being abused by society; there are also many cases in which the ambition to create, and the life conditions demanded and generated by the creative life, result in perpetuating, and aggravating flaws in the artistís soul. The edge of the sword of creation is sometimes sharp, and often cuts the innocent who stand in the way of its fierce shining.

How does one weigh the soul of the artist, perhaps damaged by the price of giving birth, against the gift he has given to the world? How does one hold accountable the man who has, in some ways, sacrificed himself to launch a vision that no guru could ever conceive or generate, lacking the desperate tormented force of incompleteness, within, that drives the creator to seek the mad healing of artís wings? Perhaps too much soul development would only kill the artist, just like having found the love of oneís life may kill the poet, whose words were a way of searching for what he did not have. If the artistís defects are the birthplace of treasures, how harshly can we judge those defects?

And yet, hard though it is to condemn the artist by the same law that binds the rest of Humanity, it is just as clear that the artist cannot be forgiven for everything. Genius is not an excuse for sin. You cannot put everything on a piece of paper, and leave your heart hollow.

I do not write this essay with answers, only questions. And yet, I cannot help but end it the same way as I began it.

The greatest work of art is a great human being. A mother in the slums who raises her children, alone, with courage and love and dignity against all odds, is a work of art beyond compare: a work of art which she herself has created, with the material of life. A man who stands up for justice, when to do so costs him everything: this man is also a work of art.

As artists, we must find a balance, between the art that is called "art", which we create, and the art of creating ourselves. We must decide, when it comes to that - and hopefully we will never face such a stark choice - whether it is more important to us to be a great human being, or a great writer, painter, or musician. We must struggle, as we seek to bring beauty into the world, to remain beautiful ourselves. As we seek to develop as artists, to develop as human beings.

And we must also - all of us - strive to extend our artistic vision into the world of life, to begin to recognize and appreciate the incredible art form of the living human being. Let us learn to love and cherish this art form, and by loving and cherishing it, help its beauty to unfold, and transform our world.

Glory to the most beautiful art form of all - the human being! The artist whose art is his life!

NOTES: [1] From "Long-legged Fly", by William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.


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