Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Doing and Being, Part 2: Why Artists Are More Important than Engineers

I often enjoy asking people odd questions.  I get insanely bored of the same old "How are you?" When was the last time anyone ever really answered that one honestly?  Most people could be on the brink of a nervous breakdown and still answer "I'm doing great!"  Questions like that are often asked and answered as disingenuously as we possibly can.  I like the strange questions, ones that really disarm people and compel them to give an honest answer.  One of my favorite strange questions to ask people is: "Which world would you rather live in?  A world without artists or without engineers?"

It's a great question, really, because it's really a litmus test of how people see the world.  Allow me to explain:  In my last post, I discussed the idea of doing and being.  I would argue that most people spend an inordinate amount of time focused on what they do.  They place massive emphasis on their abilities, actions, and merits (Things they do, have done, and will do), often evaluating the quality of their lives and the lives of others based on those things.  However, very few people focus on their being, that is, on who they are, rather than what they do.  Thus, when people ask themselves "Who am I?", they typically have a crappy answer or no answer at all; all they can hold up is a fragmented chain of things they've done, are doing, and can do, rather than a consistent endeavor of who they are and who they are becoming.  This is, more often than not, the source of many of our troubles:  we confuse doing with being, and at the end of the day we do not know who we really are apart from our actions.

Now, back to my question: "Which world would you rather live in?  A world without artists or without engineers?"  Ask any high school senior preparing for college and they will tell you: people tend to have a lot more respect for aspiring engineers than aspiring artists.  Tell your parents that you are getting an art degree, and they will likely give you that look of loving parental concern and ask "What do you plan to do with that, honey?"  Tell the same parents that you're going to be a mechanical engineer, and they couldn't be happier.  Why?  Because you probably can do a hell of a lot more with an engineering degree than with an art degree, and you certainly will be paid more to be an engineer than to be an artist.  Engineers are, in their career and with their income, capable of doing a lot more than artists, and, in a "doing" based culture, its understandable why this is so.  Engineers are responsible for virtually all of our technology, which in turn fuels our drive to do more. A person answering my question "A world without artists" (as opposed to engineers) demonstrates a high value placed on technology, innovation, and industry, all "doing"-oriented concepts.  Engineers are doers.  They are constantly creating ways for us to do things better.  And, lest you think me a Luddite, thank God for engineers.  I'm writing this on a computer, connected to the internet, provided by WiFi, after driving my car to the nearest cafe.  I am fully indebted to engineering and by no means do I think badly of engineering.  However, engineering is still a process of doing.  Try all you want, never will you engineer a light to illuminate the mystery of what it means to be human.  No amount of technology, no matter how useful and convenient, will show you who you are.

Now, on to the artist.  The oddest thing about art is that there is absolutely no need for art.  Never, in the history of humanity, has art been necessary for survival.  If it were, we'd see other species of creatures creating art.  Humans stand alone in our ability to create and recreate art.  Through the needless manipulation of a medium, whether be it paint, clay, sound, words, or what ever else you might choose, artists make a message which is completely unnecessary.  You don't do anything with art, in fact, art loses its artistic value whenever its utilized as a means to an end.  Art is useless, and yet, I argue that art is more important than engineering.

Why?  Because, in its uselessness, art is more meaningful than any technology or industry.  Because we cannot use it, we are forced to experience it.  Art is unique in that it can have as much effect on people as people can have on it. Art can shape and change people just as much as people shape and change art.  Art is, at its heart, an exploration into what it means to be human, its a mirror through which we explore being, through which we search for meaning.  Art examines people, it looks at how they experience and are experienced.  Even the oddest art serves to capture some aspect of of our human experience.

To answer my own question:  I would much rather being a world full of artists than a world full of engineers for this simple reason:  Art is innate.  You have to teach someone to be an engineer, but everyone has an artist inside.  Art is as simple as expressing our humanity, and nobody lives without making some expression of their humanity.  To live in a world without engineers would be very unfortunate and difficult.  To live in a world without artists would be impossible:  you cannot separate humanity from art.

Madonna of Port Lligat, 1949
by Salvador Dali
Human beings, at their core, are creative.  Perhaps this is our most unique trait, and perhaps this is what is meant when we say we are "made in God's image and likeness".  Mankind creates, just as God creates.  God brings into existence the entire universe, and it radiates his glory.  In the same way, we are artists: we create art as a reflection of ourselves, to show ourselves our own image and likeness.  Our art is an imitation, an innate reflection of God Our Father, the First and True Artist.  Creation is a work of art, not a product of Divine engineering.  God did not create the cosmos to be useful and serve a purpose, he created it precisely for the same reason we  create art:  a uselessly beautiful reflection of His Nature.

Artists, it is unfortunate that most of you earn peanuts compared to the engineers of the world.  But do not get too caught up in the urge to be relevant, useful, and profitable.  Art that is useful is not art, and more than the world needs useful things, it needs art.  People need art to compel them to think, to examine themselves, to coerce themselves into asking questions like "Who am I?  How did I get here? What does it mean to be human? and Where am I going?"  Art, like human beings, is absolutely useless, which makes them both far more important than we could ever know.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

On Doing and Being.

Unbeknownst to many, Ole Blue Eyes was monumental in resolving the oldest philosophical crisis in the book.

People like to do things.  Some people would say that the ability to "do" things is the very thing that makes us human: to be human is to be able to willfully choose, decide, and do.  Nietzsche, arguably the philosopher who's views have had the most influenced the driving forces behind our culture, dreamed of a super-man, an "ubermensch" who asserted his ability to do things as the absolute good.  According to Nietzsche, only when we conquer and reject our restraints (social norms, personal values, divinely mandated morality, etc) through our ability to do would we ever become super-men.  In society, our capacity to do things is perhaps our most fundamental treasure, the principle upon which virtually ever controversy of our time is based.  We are humans of today, and it seems pretty clear that humans of today like to do things.

Don't get me wrong.  Our actions are incredibly important.  The things we do and don't do play crucial roles in our lives, and there is something inhuman about a human that does nothing.  However, I have a big issue with people who, like Nietzsche, Sartre, and their modern philosophical progeny, believe that we are what we do is the sole factor in who we are.  Simply put, human beings don't do things purposelessly.  We don't go about our lives thriving and acting in meaninglessness, but we strive to make our actions purposeful, and thus give our doings some meaning.

We don't do for doing's sake, our actions serve a greater purpose.  Too often, we seem to forget that we're human beings, not human doings.  More paramount to our humanity is who we are, not just what we do.  I'd suggest that a great number of our culture's struggles are tied in with our widespread inability to understand just who we are.  So many people go through life frantically searching for things to do; boredom is a disease afflicting the soul of our entire society.  So many people are frantically looking for things to do, but rare is the person who is trying to discover who to be, the person who is living life to uncover who they are.

Perhaps it takes a leap of faith to believe this, but our lives are meaningful.  More often than not, we judge the meaning of life by the things we do, so its not surprising that we are constantly doing things to make our lives seem more meaningful.  Yet it is who we are that defines us, not just what we do.  Each and every human person is a unique creation, made purposefully, and for meaningful ends.

If there was a "square one" of the spiritual life, this would be it:  the realization that your life is meaningful, that you matter.  More than your ability to do, you matter because of who you are, because of your being.  You exist as you do in this very moment because God is loving you into existence, because you are meaningful to him, because you, as you are, have been, and will be, matters to him.  God does not evaluate based on accomplishments and failures, but upon how our accomplishments and failures make us, how they change us, how they help or harm in becoming who he made us to be.  It is only when we seek to discover ourselves, to really become who God made us to be rather than search for something to do, that we truly find fulfillment.

There will be a part two to this post, so stay tuned