Here’s one of my pet theories: Every person has at least one art. And regularly spending time on your art is hugely important, for adults as much as for children.
“I don’t know,” you may say. “I don’t really think of myself as artistic.”
Trust me, you are, though it’s possible you haven’t yet identified your art.
Under my definition of the term, your art is just what you do for its own sake, because it’s intrinsically meaningful and creative. For some people, it’s painting or poetry or music. For others, it’s pottery-making, scrapbooking, baking, or even eating—which, though it has an obvious practical function, can be rarefied into a truly creative pursuit (as can wine tasting, beer making, etc.). For still others, it’s travel, cultural criticism, or photography.
Fundamentally, it’s whatever you do that involves creatively combining a set of ingredients or elements to elicit a particular sort of emotional and intellectual response. It’s how you take some part of the otherwise blooming buzzing confusion of reality and turn it into something meaningful and aesthetically pleasing.
I’ve known men for whom the weaving of arguments based on baseball statistics was an art. And I’ve know women for whom quilting was a multi-layered art involving contrapuntal combinations of color, textures, and repeated visual elements–all connected by threads both literal and narrative.
Under my definition, people have all sorts of arts, and new arts are emerging all the time, thanks to the inventiveness (i.e., the artistry) of human beings.
Whatever your art may be, it’s crucial to get to know the part of yourself that loves it and to turn that part of yourself on regularly. Why? First and foremost, because that part of you is beautiful and playful and free, and failing to feed it will make you less of a you.
What’s more, feeding your artistic side is crucial to cultivating your ability to create new and different futures, not to mention to glimpsing the deep interconnectedness that’s as much a part of reality as any of the elements we isolate from it.
Artistic creation and appreciation are pathways into that interconnectedness—the larger, ever-shifting, evanescent whole within which the various elements of reality interact. That whole is impossible to fully grasp, both because we lack the cognitive equipment for such a task and because the whole never holds still.
Nevertheless, cultivating the part of us that intimates and imagines it—the part of us that feels the meaning emanating from a bird’s song or delights in a perfectly matched color swatch or feels the ripples of emotion rolling off a child’s outstretched hand—is absolutely essential. As Albert Einstein famously noted, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
All real understanding begins with a grasp, a leap, an attempt to create meaning given only inert matter or unstructured data. To exercise the muscles that make you able to grasp and leap and cultivate in this way is how you maintain the ability to embrace the entire world, stimulate progress, and evolve.
Too often, we adults view artistic pastimes—our own as well as others’—as supplemental or even superfluous to the “real work” that needs to be done. That’s wrong. The “real work” isn’t just the stuff that can be tracked on a spreadsheet. It isn’t just the stuff for which a set of step-by-step procedures already exists. The “real work” also encompasses creative combining of concepts, colors, shapes, sounds, pictures, words, and (especially) human emotions.
If you want to do more than follow instructions–if you want to develop the ability to see around corners, envision new pathways, and find solutions to the hardest problems–then you have to cultivate creativity, imagination, and artistry. You have to feed your inner artist, whatever her chosen art may be.