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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

What is a Life Artist?


Imagine making art, not with paint or clay, but with life itself as your medium. A “life artist,” or “Lebenskuenstler” as the Germans would say, is someone who finds beauty in the colors life puts at their disposal, someone who makes do with the brushes they’ve got and doesn’t pout over a few mistaken strokes.

On the website Lebenskünstler, a Life Artist connotes a person who approaches life with the zest and inspiration of an artist, although he or she may not be working recognizably as an artist. He is a Lebenskünstler. Someone who pieces together his living from various activities that, collectively, bring in just enough money to live. No office, no suit, no boss, no rules. German has a word for such people, the website claims, and English doesn’t. There’s even a higher form of Lebenskünstler, the website says, and that is the Überlebenskünstler, or “survival artist.”

Lebenskünstler – one who recognizes opportunities in life and takes advantage or makes use of those opportunities to make the most out of one’s own life; one who lives life deliberately and to the fullest capacity (concept from Henry David Thoreau of “living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life”); one who gambles with the outcome of his/her own life by seizing opportunity; one who makes living an art.

So, the German word Lebenskunstler means ‘an artist of life’. It acknowledges that being an artist is not, in the first instance, about what you produce, but about your contribution to your environment based on the way you live. As creative entities, we can share our creativity in many ways. By how we dress or decorate our homes, by what we cook, by how we educate our children or entertain our friends, by how we dance and make love, by how we speak about our lives.

The website says that Lebenskünstler refers not so much to people who turn their life into a piece of art, and that it is not for nothing that Berlin has been dubbed a graveyard for ambition. The German capital has a particularly impressive record of attracting those eager to make a living as artists, many of whom succumb to the many initiative-numbing charms and morph into Lebenskünstler ,

Oscar Wilde once purportedly said “I put my talent into my work, but my genius into my life.” 

The website focuses on the Lebenskünstler of Berlin. Going back to the 1970s – or maybe even to the 1910s – there has existed a decadent, artistic underground in Berlin which has placed little value on “making it” for the sake of making it. The king of decadent Berlin is the “poor but sexy” Lebenskünstler, an archetype who has had a huge influence on culture and nightlife here till this day. The Lebenskünstler cares little about his next record deal or art opening or publishing deal. Instead, life is his art. Only “now” matters and how you can make the most out of each moment. Screw success and any concept of “the future” because for decades Berliners – think of WWII, the Cold War etc. – have felt there is NO tomorrow (and they are right of course – we will all die).

The Lebenskünstler’s dilettantish self-expression might have no audience other than his circle of friends or 30 people in some tiny Kleinkunst venue.

So with the concept of the Lebenskünstler we actually have a quite good idea about what it might mean to be a Life Artist. We´ll soon find out that the term fits very well to many other people than the Lebenskünstler of Berlin, and in that connection we will ask whether the Life Artist is a person who creates himself through his will, or whether he is letting an external source of creation work through him?

Art of life is a sovereign life expression. In the sovereign life-expressions we clearly meet something, which arises as richness, gift or grace in our life, something we have not created ourselves, and which at the same time is the actual and carrying in all being together between humans.

The Danish philosopher of life K.E. Løgstrup says, that the spontaneous life-expressions come from the universe, and that the Universe therefore not is irrelevant to Man. He isn´t self-dependant, but is connected with the Universe. So Løgstrup claims, that we must interpret the Universe, and the sovereign life-expressions, as created. In that way we have an external source of creation, which we, with the right kind of living, could become one with. But how?

The relationship is the mirror, in which you can discover yourself. Without the relationship you are nothing. To be is to be in relationship, which is the actual life. You only live in relationship, otherwise you don´t live, life is then without meaning. So it is not because you - as Descartes says: ”I think, therefore I am!” - that you live. Nor do you live because you create yourself, as Nietzsche, Sartre, Rorty and Foucault say. You live because you are in the relationship, and it´s the lack of ability to understand this, which causes conflict.

The reason why that there is no understanding of the relationship, is that we use the relationship to achieve something, become something, to be remoulded. We use the instrumental reason on human relationships, where it only should be used on technical relationships. It is the thinking´s dangerous course, the course of the will to power. The communicative reason has vanished.

But the relationship is the means to expose yourself, because the relationship is to be. It is the actual life itself. Without the relationship you don´t live. In order to be able to understand yourself you must understand the relationship. The relationship is therefore a philosophical sparring partner, a mirror in which you can see yourself. To understand this is to use the communicative reason, which in the context of art of life is a meditative-existential reason.

The mirror of the relationship can either distort or expose the truth about yourself. Most of us see in the relationship, in the mirror, that, we preferably want to see, but we don´t see that which is real. We will preferable idealize or escape, and rather live in the future than seeing the relationship in which we are in the moment.

Becoming is the thoughtprocess, and both Nietzsche, Foucault and Rorty are seeing this in the image of art, as a creative process, but they don´t come out of the intellect, and confuse the thinking, the intellectual training, with the whole of the human unfolding and life itself. They see the whole of the human unfolding as a creative process, which with will can be controlled; that is: controlled by the thinking. Life is seen as a work of art, which Man, with his will, can model as he wants to. But his brush is then the thought, and the colors of the thought is the old, the past. It is therefore not new colors. He is an imitator.

This is not how a true Life Artist works. A Life Artist doesn´t imitate, he creates something new, and the new is life itself, not the thinking. Life itself is his colors.

In order to get in contact with life itself, the Life Artist often spend an inordinate amount of time engaged in carious leisure activities. The question then becomes: are such forms of recreation a waste of time? Everyone needs a break from work, responsibility, and even other people. As Aristotle observed, shared leisure activity is often the glue that bonds friends together. Indeed, the philosopher Josef Pieper went so far as to claim that leisure is “the basis of culture.”

Pieper based his theory on – you guessed it – Aristotle, who said, “Happiness seems to be found in leisure; for we deny ourselves leisure so that we can be at leisure.” Basically, we´re all working for the weekend. Pieper, though, had a specific notion of leisure in mind; not just any old form of rest and relaxation is beneficial for us. Pieper agreed with Aristotle that we must strive to flourish in our nature as “rational animals.” Hence, leisure is most properly that time preserved from the work a day world to spend cultivating our intellectual tastes. Pieper, picking up a line from another Aristotelian philosopher, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), said that the right sorts of leisure activities – those involving intellectual contemplation – can even make us more like God: “’Because of the leisure of contemplation’ the Scripture says of the Divine Wisdom itself that ‘it plays all the time, plays throughout the world.’”

Many philosophers and other intellectuals have also been, and sometimes still are, accused of being bums in the sense of being useless to society – often forgetting that the democracy and the human rights they live by, are created by philosophers. For any philosophy majors out there, recall the look on your parents´ face when you told them what you were spending their hard-earned college savings to study!

Aquinas, though – in an admittedly self-serving statement – asserted that it is “necessary for the perfection of the human community, that there be persons who devote themselves to the [use-less] life of contemplation.” The problem with society, as Mill has noted, is that we get so caught up in making a living – working to make money so we can have shelter, food, and green nail polish – that we forget to live.

Already the ancient Greek philosopher and Life Artist Epicurus was a misunderstood man with an image problem. Because he recommended that his followers steer clear of lives of political and financial ambition, he was commonly thought to advocate a life of idleness and lazing about. Because he taught that pleasure was the proper goal of good life, Epicurus and his colleagues were dismissed as decadent sensualists. Because he occasionally wrote about food and drink, his philosophy has been characterized as one of wanton indulgence and gluttony. Even today, the term “epicure” is popularly associated with the pleasures of fine food and wine. Add to this the fact that Epicurus, breaking with ancient Greek custom, welcomed nontraditional students – women, servants, and prostitutes – to his school of philosophy, and we can see why Epicureanism was associated with sexual license and rumours of debauchery.

A modern English idler, which promotes all the qualities of an idle way of life, is Tom Hodgkinson (born 1968). His philosophy, in his published books and articles, is of a relaxed approach to life, enjoying it as it comes rather than toiling for an imagined better future. Together with his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney he founded The Idler which is a bi-yearly British magazine devoted to promoting its ethos of 'idle living' and all that entails (read an additional account on idleness in my pop culture files on The Hobbit and The Big Lebowski).

Ronald Hutton´s book The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700 demonstrates how the festive culture of the Middle Ages was gradually eroded by the Reformation and the Puritans. It was in this merry time the legend of Robin Hood was formed. Robin Hood is a heroic outlaw in English folklore who, according to legend, was a highly skilled archer and swordsman. Traditionally depicted as being dressed in Lincoln green, he is often portrayed as "robbing from the rich and giving to the poor" alongside his band of Merry Men. Robin Hood became a popular folk figure in the late-medieval period, and continues to be widely represented in literature, films and television. In The Hobbit we discover that this idea of gift economy is shared by Bilbo Baggins, who gives most of his treasures away. Also it is seen in the hobbit custom of giving presents when they celebrate their birthdays, instead of receiving them.

And Max Weber´s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism shows how the competitive Protestants booted out the co-operative Catholics; it shows how a new ethic based on work and earning a lot of money came to replace, in the eighteenth century, the old medieval ethic, which was based on mutual aid. The medieval culture (which wrongly are depicted as a dark age by the Protestant work ethic) combined a love of Jesus, who preached idleness, and a love of Aristotle, who argued that contemplation led to happiness. (I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to banish their guilt around work).

And with Jesus we have the spiritual practice, which I consider to be the central art of life. A spiritual practitioner is namely  a genuine Life Artist.

In my book A Portrait of a Lifeartist I set up six steps in the spiritual practice: that is: some existential conditions, and some, common to all mankind, growing conditions, and growth levels, in the Life Artist´s voyage of discovery into himself, and thereby into life itself. The steps are:

1) The separation of the observer and the observed
2) Religion and supporting exercises
3) Passive listening presence
4) Discrimination
5) Creative emptiness
6) The wholeness of the observer and the observed

Step 5, Creative emptiness, is the condition where the mind is completely released from your perspective, from images of any kind, and the ideas, symbols and conceptions, which are their manifestations. The known has stepped aside for the benefit of the unknown, the beauty of creation. Everything is new, unnamed, unformed, non-linguistic presence. The mind is pure, fresh, young, innocent; completely open and receiving. The mind is awake and the heart is open, awareness and love in one. And in this creative emptiness reality and truth can be discovered, or received, it is one and same.

Lao Tse said it so simple as it can be said, that the wise rules by emptying the mind and filling the stomach. Eckhart called the creative emptiness Virgin Mary, or the Virgin Mary-state, where God the father can give birth to Christ into Man. The creative emptiness is the possibility for the birth of Christ in us.

Jesus said it with the words about, that unless we change and become like children again, we shall never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (see my post On Asking Philosophical Questions and The Peter Pan Project).

This creative emptiness can in other words not be reached by an act of the will. The creative emptiness comes when you in self-forgetful openness are one with nature. This is a so-called communicative view of nature, which claims that nature is of value in itself, that there is a beauty and richness in nature, which is of non-causal and non-mechanical kind, and that Man as a natural being has a community with this nature. You could call it metaphysical naturalism.

Mogens Pahuus has in his book Karen Blixen´s Philosophy of Life argued, that Blixen, when she speaks about God, is using the word in a quite another meaning than the traditional. According to him she uses it completely synonymous with nature, or rather, the creative powers in nature. It seems like she thinks of the human nature as being related to the rest of nature. The human nature is a unity of spirit, instinct, sensation, body and feelings, something which you can´t control and master by standing outside it, but which is connected to life-feeling, spontaneity and self-forgetfulness, when you are one with it. Reason, you can say, is lying in an adaption to the realities, both in oneself and the surroundings.

Karen Blixen says in a quote from Out of Africa:

“People who dream when they sleep at night know of a special kind of happiness which the world of the day holds not, a placid ecstasy, and ease of heart, that are like honey on the tongue. They also know that the real glory of dreams lies in their atmosphere of unlimited freedom. It is not the freedom of the dictator, who enforces his own will on the world, but the freedom of the artist, who has no will, who is free of will. The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of...”

This can of course only happen in the Now. You can also say, that where the old before was characterized by personal and collective images, which worked in sequences in past and future, then the old now is characterized by universal images, which work in synchronism with the Now, or with nature. It was this Karen Blixen was describing as the ancient, the original, and which she always was seeking as authenticity, autonomy, possibility, freedom and adventure. It is a return to the Now, to the timeless eternity. As Rabindranath Tagore said: ”The light is young, the eternal ancient light; the shadows are a brief moment´s matter, they are born aged.”

In India, as noticed by Ananda K. Coomarasway, works of art representing indifferent objects, local personages and scenes, such as fill the walls and rooms of most of our museums, have been characterized as desi (“local, popular, provincial”) or as nâgara (“fashionable, worldly”) and are regarded as esthetically insignificant; whereas those representing deities or revered ancestors, such as might appear in temples or on domestic shrines, are perceived as tokens of an inward, spiritual “way” or “path,” termed mârga, which is a word derived from the vocabulary of the hunt, denoting tracks or trail of an animal, by following which the hunter comes to his quarry.

Similarly, the images of deities, which are not local forms of “elementary ideas,” are footprint left, as it were, by local passages of the “Universal Self” (âtman), through contemplating which the worshiper attains “Self-rapture” (âtmânananda). A passage from Plotinus may be quoted to this point: “Not all who perceive with eyes the sensible products of art are affected alike by the same object, but if they know it for the outward portrayal of an archetype subsisting in intuition, their hearts are shaken and they recapture memory of that Original.”

I have termed these tracks, trails and footprints as “the dreaming tracks and songlines in the artwork of Man and the Universe,” or as “the universal images in time.” They correspond to progressive karma. I have, with inspiration from Karen Bixen, termed the Original as “The Ancient.”

Karen Blixen´s storytelling is about finding the universal images behind everything, the original, as she calls it, the Ancient, where you live in accordance with yourself, with God´s plan with you.

When Karen Blixen was lying in her sickbed, and after having realized, that this maybe was God´s plan with her - she made a pact with the Devil, that she from now on could change everything into stories. And in her stories, and in her following life as a storyteller, she realized the dreams she had had as a young woman.

All her following stories, for example Seven Gothic Tales, are reflections of her own experiences with destiny.
They are all about how to find the dreaming tracks and songlines in the artwork of your life - God´s plan with you - and about people who live in accordance with these power lines, and about people who don´t live in accordance with them.

These themes continue in Karen Blixen´s storytelling ever after. She obviously had an experiental knowledge of the steps in a spiritual practice. Her experience of unhappy love and illness must have opened her to this knowledge. She first began her life as a storyteller when she was about fifty years old, and at that time a “finished” storyteller. She had the material ready. But she used the concepts she knew from her own life. Apparently she hadn´t read anything about spiritual practice. Because in the spiritual practice God´s plan with you is called progressive karma. Compensatory karma is the karma you create yourself under the influence of the cyclic forces of nature. Progressive karma is the help you receive from an external source; you could call it the Wholeness, or with a religious concept: God. Therefore this help is beyond your will. Progressive karma is one and the same as creative emptiness.

The place, where you can find your own progressive karma, if such is available, is therefore in the life you have lived, in the history of your present life.

In the inexplicable events in your own life, in the rows of moments of spiritual longing, in the fateful incidents and actions - in them are contained the progressive karma.

In the history of your life there is an artwork. This artwork shows the dreaming tracks and the songlines in your life. It lies as invisible strokes underneath the history of your actual life, and these strokes become visible in the creative emptiness. It is the ancient self-portrait which came into being before yourself.

This artwork of your life is the contribution to your environment, based on the way you live. In Out of Africa Karen Blixen writes:

If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?

Related website:

Nordic Shamanism and Forest Therapy (a central aspect of shamanic healing is to find your true creative calling in life, and a first step in this direction is help to become a life artist).

Related books:

Meditation as an Art of Life - a Basic reader

Related blog posts:



Related links:

Links to Idlers

Related pop culture files:


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