The Arts and Who We Are
What Can We Learn?
The arts – heightened expressions that ignite our senses through a multitude of mediums – are something of a wonder. The decision to pursue an artistic craft is often deeply inspired, filled with challenges and hope, and rarely easy. The pursuit itself is filled with choices. At every stage of development – from being grafted into a tradition, discovering how our voice interacts with each medium, and forging a path forward with our craft of choice in and outside of the market – there are choices that we make. One of the more important choices that we make is in identifying the purpose we want our art to serve.
Purpose is a key guidepost for any pursuit. Our “why,” whether implicit or explicit, fuels many subsequent choices. In the arts – as with other pursuits – there are many possible purposes. One artist might pursue their craft for the joy they find in the act of making. Another might pursue their craft for the possible career they can achieve with it. Yet, another might pursue their craft for the potential affect sharing their work can have on others. Purposes can also change over time. None of this is really written in stone, but rather in clay. As with our person, our sense of purpose, especially with things we do, requires enough structure to withstand the challenges of the day and is continually being formed.
I have consciously pursued the art of tap dance longer than anything else in my life. I have experienced being grafted into the tradition by personal and communal mentors. I have gone through the struggle of making choices only I could own to unveil how my voice would interact with the craft. I have forged a path in and outside of the market. Through it all, I have had an ongoing dialogue around purpose. I have asked myself questions like: Why do I do what I do? To what end is all this work? What are my hopes at the end of the day, month, year, or my life?
While my dialogues and answers have often been set in the context of relationships – with mentors, fellow dancers, and my audience – I have learned of another lesson along the way. Artistic pursuits have a way of telling us about ourselves. Take a moment to pause and reflect on a piece of artwork. Either one you’ve made or one that has affected you deeply. Think about the piece from the perspective of the choices that needed to be made to bring the piece to life. Now think about what may have been the driving factors behind those choices. What could have been the personal preferences or desires underneath the choices? What might have been resonating with you in the way those choices came to life in the piece? This isn’t an exact science, but rather a way to bring the following idea to light: Heightened expressions can tell us something about our preferences, desires, or what resonates with us. These are all deep aspects of who we are.
Of course, this is a cornerstone idea upon which art therapy is built. I wonder, though, if we could integrate the general idea – the connection between how we express ourselves and who we are or are becoming – into our regular practices?
Part of the practice of tap dancing is watching footage. Much like a sports player reviewing game footage, we watch recordings of our dances or those from the past to glean what we can from them. Watching footage is a great tool to study what we otherwise could only experience in the moment. While watching footage tap dancers try to steal steps, understand the physical qualities of the dances, and intuit the choices the dancers were making to bring the dances to life. Why that turn, at that moment? Why that heel drop in such an unlikely place? This is especially true in the context of improvised performances – performances in which the output of the performers was not predetermined. Watching footage of improvised performances is a way to revisit our intuitive actions for the sake of adjusting them through training. The footage is the artifact of the performance. It is the only documented record of a live performance, improvised or otherwise. Without footage the performing arts can only rely on the memories of the people involved for reflection, recollection, and representation. With footage we can revisit moments again and again.
Other arts have artifacts that allow this to happen as well. The visual arts have the drawing, painting, sculpture, digital artwork, or moving images for example. Storytelling and poetry have the written word. Music has systems of notation and audio recordings. These artifacts are a treasure trove of recorded choices, which open a door (especially when combined with a little knowledge about personality) to glean the artist’s sense of creativity and experimentation, if not actual intention.
To be clear, an artist’s intention with regards to their expression is not always pointed towards an exposition of their heart. This may be true beyond the scope of the arts as well. We don’t always want to share our heart with others, let alone know what is really in there. Sometimes the things operating within our person we’d like to keep hidden – either through willful ignorance or intentional hiding. Unfortunately, these are both normal responses in a world that is quick to condemn or take advantage. Vulnerability, while often championed, is risky. To avoid the risk, we may shift our intention when we express ourselves to something more like, “making a good impression” or more generally “doing whatever it takes to survive” rather than just doing whatever comes naturally – trusting that whatever that is, is actually good.
I have come to think that living a life in which whatever I do naturally is good, would be a lot easier than attempting to make a good impression or fighting for survival at every possible interaction. The latter options become utterly exhausting. Becoming the kind of person who naturally does good will take significant effort in the formative sense but will be easier in the long run. I believe the arts can help.
If we are to take this journey, we need a place to start. The process of becoming such a person begins with an exercise of taking inventory. We need to know what kind of person we currently are, our current state, in order to intentionally move towards a different state. Discerning the reality of the kind of person we are, plainly, without exception, disguise, or reserve, can be a challenging task. I have found in my own endeavors that I often tend towards a better or worse description of my current state than the reality.
Honest mediated expression, plain and without exception, disguise, or reserve, can help here. I think it might be the only thing that can. Going at our hearts directly is not always the easiest or best way – it may not even be possible at times. Artistic pursuits, if pointed towards the desire to know one’s heart, can be profoundly helpful. Any art can be used as a medium for expressing the depths of one’s being. As we intuitively make things, giving ourselves the permission to act out of our current nature, we can use what we make as a feedback loop. Having made something, we can spend time to reflect on the choices that we can see in what we’ve made. We can spend time discerning the why behind those choices. We might even be able to discern something about what is going on in our heart that we could not have seen otherwise. It doesn’t all have to be “deep” or “heavy” but it can be illuminating if we give attention to the details.
This has been true for me in other areas, too. If we speak honestly, our words will unveil the excess of our hearts. If we give ourselves permission to respond to circumstances without thinking, we will know the habits that live in our minds and bodies. Freedom, the permission to do whatever comes naturally or whatever we want, allows us to see who we really are in a given moment. The deeper question may be, “Do we trust ourselves to be the kinds of people to do good when given that freedom?” As we journey, the pursuit of the arts may be a helpful space to see just what we might do – a safer space to experiment and observe – if the arts are approached with that very intention.
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