This beloved 1997 book won three awards, was a Book of the Month Club Selection, and continues to sell well as a word of mouth gift and as a text book in a variety of college courses. Available through online booksellers and at Amazon:
From Chapter One:
Art Is a Verb
Art, like sex, is too important to leave to the professionals — too important because of the delight and satisfaction it provides, and too important because of its role in creating each person’s future. This book is dedicated to restoring our artistic birthright: an endless intercourse with attractive things.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, art has not always been a noun, a valuable object relegated to a museum or a ticketed event in a performance hall. All the way back at the birth of the word “art,” it was a verb that meant “to put things together.” It was not a product, but a process. If we can reclaim that view of art — as a way of looking at and doing things, a series of experiences and experiments — we gain a fresh grasp on the proven, practical ways to construct the quality of our lives.
Yes, the verb “art” often produces nouns; when artists apply themselves to certain media, they create those magnificent things we hang on well-lit walls, or pay forty bucks to hear at Carnegie Hall. But the prevailing view of art is built upon a simplistic equation: art equals those “things.” While not overtly “wrong,” this formula for art is stingy; it sadly overlooks: the down-to-earth actions that result in art objects; the perceiving that brings such objects to life in us; and the impact of artworks on the way we think, understand, learn and make changes in our lives. We get caught up in the games of that materialistic view, with buying, selling, judging, and discussing art (if we bother with it at all); we leave art to a few supposed “experts,” abandoning our own innate capacities, our own curiosities and artistic potential.
This book seeks to redress this imbalance by putting the verbs of art back in your hands for intentional, effective use in the rich media of your everyday life. In the following pages, we will focus not on “works of art,” but rather on “the work of art.” The phrase may sound awkward at first, perhaps too taxing with its emphasis on labor. But in practice, you will see that it is neither heavy nor laborious: the work of art you will find in these pages is familiar, engaging, and fun. In other words, the work of art is serious play.
Art is not apart. It is a continuum within which all participate; we all function in art, use the skills of art, engage in the action of artists, every day. Underneath the surface distinctions that make individual lives seem very different, art is a common ground we share; the work of art is a way we all do things when we are working well. Our unheralded everyday actions of art comprise one end of the human spectrum of artistry; the other end is the creation of masterpieces in the arts that we readily label as art: newlyweds setting the table for their first Thanksgiving dinner on one extreme, and da Vinci painting The Last Supper on the other; a businesswoman shifting the sequence of the slides in her presentation on one extreme, Sam Shepard transposing the order of the scenes during rehearsals of True West on the other. The differences are obvious, easy to identify and laugh about; the similarities (which are the focus of this book) may be less evident, but they construct t
he way we experience being alive. If we can acknowledge and honor the art that we perform, if we can stay aware of and develop the skills of art we use daily, if we can borrow appropriate and useful trade secrets from artists, who are the experts and exemplars of this field, we can dramatically enrich the quality of daily life.
The main artistic media (music, theatre, dance, visual and literary arts) have survived because we thrill to witness what humans can accomplish, what the body can express, what the human voice can do at its best, what subtle truths people can communicate. Masterworks in art invite and reward our best attention; they also enable us to extend the range of our own overlooked artistic competences. Apprehending the magnificence of the soprano’s aria increases our proficiency to hear the wide range of organized sound we encounter throughout our lives. Perceiving Cézanne’s accomplishments in a painting of an ordinary house among trees can radically alter what you see on your daily drive to work. Responding to Shakespeare’s King Henry the Fifth as he wanders all night, reflecting before the big battle, develops a wiser you to confront your next crisis.
But those occasional celebrated masterpieces are merely the tip of the artistic iceberg to which all of us (including many fine-but-not-famous artists) contribute less visibly and far more frequently. When we assume that the work of art exists only in these isolated peaks, we shrug off our birthright. Human bodies do wonderful things all the time, not just when Pilobolus performs, not just for a few days every four years at an Olympics. We all have human voices, and even thought they are less developed than the diva’s, they are rich in sonic subtlety that we ply in many ways. We live in an abundant playhouse of sound that rewards the best hearing we can apply. We need to attend to the artistic experiences throughout our lives, not just at tickets-only events. In doing so, we reclaim many dwindling passions; we awake dormant skills with which to construct good answers to life’s hardest questions.
We all have a natural knowledge of the processes and perspectives that artists use, even if we have not focused our efforts on developing these skills the way artists have. Yes, maybe you sing like a squawking crow, and you might think contrapposto is an Italian sidedish; but you certainly have expertise about what sounds and tastes and feels good. You may not be trained for center stage leaping, but you have made many beautiful things with that body of yours, like: dives into the deep end and waltzes on the dancefloor; like charades clues and wedding choreography. You have entertained others by performing clever impersonations. You’ve played red light/?green light. You’ve made love.
You are also, I’m sure, intimately aware of choreography in the world: on the street, on the playing field. You get annoyed when someone bungles their role on the dancefloor of the sidewalk (by crossing in front of you), or reception hall (by stealing your spotlight) or on the gridiron (by missing a block on a tailback sweep). You appreciate the balletic steps of the furniture movers as they maneuver your dining room set; of your spouse chopping vegetables in the kitchen. You said of the Japanese chef’s preparation of teriyaki at your table, and of the carpenter’s work on your cabinets: “It was a work of art.”
Even those famous artists want you as a creative peer. Here is a secret truth they might not tell you — they really seek colleagues, and settle for admirers. Alvin Ailey and George Balanchine in their graves would rather have the choreographically-competent you than venerating-follower you pay to sit in row G.
You have all the necessary background. To engage fully in the work of art, all you really need are the skills you already have, the birthright you were given, and the perspectives and practices this book will remind you about.
For the message of this book to make a difference, you need to embrace two ideas:
1) You do the same kinds of work that Beethoven did. You may not believe this until later in these pages, but it’s true. The way you put things together — solve a problem at the office, tell a story, make sense out of a mess, let your spouse or child know your love — may not be as densely articulated as the Third Symphony, may not be in a medium as expressive as a 70-piece orchestra, but they are successful accomplishments; they are filled with the work of art; and they are worthy of investigation.
2) You need to set things apart from the commonplace to attend to them in a special way. The special place need not be literalized as a museum or performance hall. It is a kind of experience — an attitude — created inside you; and the habit of setting aside such a place and making effective use of it is developed through the work of art.