How Art Makes You Rich


“So, what do you do?”

At the dinner party, or the plastic-name-tag-peppered business conference, or across the loaded first date table, we prefer neat answers: accountant, architect, teacher, engineer, MarComm Exec. (Wow with that last one, right?) Good if we can answer in one word, or two. Our brains have some sort of previous understanding of what these words mean, what those people do, who they should be.

The accountant is wearing a suit, or khakis. The architect is wearing hipster designer glasses, a sleek, sculptural haircut, or both. The teacher (female) is perky, nurturing, and organized. The engineer (male) is socially awkward and brainy. The MarComm Exec, bless her blown-out-hairdo-business-casual-heeled heart, will smile and deliver precisely the right handshake and greeting to instill confidence that she will circle back and send that followup email asap.

The artist makes us a little nervous. He lives in Brooklyn, or Portland, or P-town. He is slightly scruffy, crazy, and unreliable. He may drive a beat-up VW van and probably shouldn’t be trusted around small children, or large sums of money.

Of course, we all know these narrow troughs aren’t all that accurate or helpful, but they seem to make us comfortable. After all, we do a lot of unconscious judging at those dinner parties and conferences and first dates. Somewhere, invisibly, the snap judgement flashes: “Good, your answer confirms that you match my notions of acceptable or successful,” or “Yikes, your answer tells me that you are weird or unpredictable or beneath me, therefore I can judge you safely without discomfort.” Neat answers help us stay away from squirmy ambiguity.

I have always identified as having the heart of an artist. Dance, design, writing, music, theatre, and fashion are what light me up, and what I’m good at. But I am neither scruffy, nor disorganized, nor do I show up with a bunch of drama.

Who are the artists out there really?

I am liking Seth Godin’s definition of art. He writes about art as not merely the traditionally held sphere of fine arts, painting, performance, etc, but as deeply meaningful and authentic work that touches others. This is work that matters, and connects and moves people.

But why do it?

What is the point, really, of art? Does art for art’s sake truly carry value? Traditionally, art isn’t supposed to get us much money or recognition. Few people at the dinner party will be impressed if we make something beautiful and connective but utterly lacking in viable commercial or financial success. Brené Brown’s pithy phrase says it all: “Oh, cute, you go make your A-R-T, while I go do my J-O-B.” Of course, sometimes we figure out how to economize our art. That makes it a little more palatable. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it waters it down until it’s dreck. Then we could call it commerce, but not art.

Yesterday I was reminded of why we need art, commerce be damned.

I am taking tango lessons. My marvelous teacher Adam recommended some YouTube videos to watch. I perused. Then, about a week in, lying in bed in my PJs with the laptop propped up, something happened. It was the perfect storm of music (Cinema Paradiso by Estaban Morgado), exquisite dancing and connection between the partners, and the right vulnerable viewing moment for me. Even though the damn thing was filmed in Seoul, and I was lying in bed in Boston, something punched me right in the chest. I was so moved by what I was watching that tears started streaming down my face. I got it. I got the essence and beauty of this art form and this moment of perfect art, and it moved me so much that I couldn’t take my hand off of my heart or stop crying. There was no “point,” no monetary transaction, no concrete value delivered. It was just two dancers putting their art out into the world, and me, cracked open and moved by it. I wanted to tell everyone around me about this beautiful thing I had found.

I believe there is massive power in those moments where we are deeply moved by someone’s art. There is massive power in the deep connection with others, and in reverberating the deepest parts of ourselves. Those moments remind us of our humanity. We may not be able to always quantify them or explain them succinctly at the dinner party, but they are important.

It is as Merce Cunningham said: “Dance gives you nothing back… nothing but that single, fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Those moments give me the fuel to keep on creating.

{Sketch: Woman at the easel, by Helene Schjerfbeck}

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