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The grammar of creation

In Berlin, I met a number of people who described themselves as “artists”. When I ask about their medium, they answered, “I’m an artist of life.” I found myself annoyed by what seemed to be evasion, probably obscuring something near to total inaction. While dismissing them I also felt something else, a sense of challenge. Ought I to say that too – and do it?

Here in Hawai’i I met someone rather more articulate on the topic, and more convincing by dint of also being a commercially successful blown-glass artist (an impressively demanding art). I wrote their words verbatim: “I experience the world as a playground, classroom, altar and spaceship. I strive to live life as a love poem between me and Creation. I want my daily living to be an embodiment of poetry, prayer and pleasure.”

I resonated, and I was intimidated. I slog away at the day and although I use a lot of creativity to get through problems and take pleasure in every word I choose, every bite of food I eat, and moving my body around, I would hardly call the experience or the result “a love poem”.

Timidly, I asked for specification: Do you manage to make every day a poem? Do you spend all day on it, or is only part of the day so sublimated?

I was persistent and insistent. I do hold people accountable for their words.

“Well, what I mean is to live life creatively, artistically, poetically.”

OH the great difference between a modifier and a noun!

To live poetically means to make poetic gestures, chose poetic words, moments reminiscent of poetry.

To live life as a Poem means completing an art object with some regularity – daily? hourly? perhaps monthly?.

I spent about 5 years of my life from high school to college as a fine artist, learning drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, public/interactive/conceptual art. This included a tutorial semester with poet Elizabeth Goldring. Completing a piece of Art is as laborious as speaking poetically is playful. I found painting and poetry the most difficult arts, because of the blank start. I could dither away but it was only good when my muse woke me in the night with an urgent delivery – and I could read my handwriting in the morning. As a creative, I was more productive when I had something to react to, something that limited me. My best works were sculptures composed of found objects (preferably deformed or rusty). My creativity now is always a response to a [limiting] context: dancing in a train station, directing inexperienced dancers, costumes, making the room beautiful, crystallizing my mood with my clothing every day, bringing the delights of language to every communication. The situations’ limits stimulate creativity. (Permaculturalists observe that edges –of fields, streams, and forests– are zones of higher diversity and productivity.)

In the house where I am living is a painter and professional “entertainer” singer-songwriter-jokemaster who produces a near constant patter of witty puns, plays on words, and teasing jibes. Over the months of lockdown I have come to understand this noise as a way of transforming the mundanities and drudgeries of life into a livestream of creativity, by improvising on every moment as stimulus.

Great hostesses are praised for their mastery of “the art of living” but no one –least of all they, who often invite artists to their salons– claim that their indeed studied and accomplished taste and style result in pieces of art, each with a discrete meaning.

I compose dinner tables and outfits as if they are drawings. I arrange my house as if I’m installing a show in a gallery, creating a contemplative space for just one daily visitor. I spend more time on graphic design for TangoForge than I spend dancing. Meals and homes and graphics are limited by the menu, the function, the objects on hand, the size of the postcard, the need for readability, and my skills. But I don’t call dinner, my office, or advertisements works of “Art”.

I do call our performances “Art”. The difference between these and the rest is that I am trying to communicate something. I spent months conceptualizing every detail of our two Hauptbahnhof shows and WARRIOR, finding ways to say what I wanted to say through the resources and limits of casting, music, space, costumes, entrances and exits. Even shows in milongas involve this process and a concept, albeit at smaller scale.

I find setting the table easy and graphic design somewhat more difficult, but still I believe in an absolute dichotomy between the standards for such “life poetry” (functional beauty) and Art (complex meaning constituted through aesthetic riches).  {Here’s my best attempt at a definition of art.}

The difference has to do with commitment to completion of a work of art. This is subjective, a manifestation of the evolving artist. In that subjective judgment every artist has their own bright line between unsuccessful or unfinished works (works in progress, or abandoned) and successful finished pieces (objets d’art).

The Hawaiian was still going on about slowing down and taking time to perceive the sensuality of everything around, a life practice with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, my dear, that’s consuming aesthetics, not producing art.

Making a poem, or speaking poetically, or making metaphorically poetic gestures of some kind are actions, if not in every case resulting final objets d’art. Appreciating and being attentive to and reveling in the constant sensuality of life is, I believe, crucial to happiness, but it is not an agentic creative act.

After the conversation I advanced to my nightly sunset date with the Pacific Ocean, a paramour who always brings new wonders to share with me.

This tropical dialogue leaves me with but one new insight: Nature, surely, is a love poem to us.

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