Life as a Work of Art

02 June 2016

Some philosophers, including the guest on this week's program, Lanier Anderson, his teacher Alexander Nehamas, and their hero Nietzsche, are of the opinion think that we should think of our lives as works of art.  I think Ken is sympathetic to this idea, at least.  I"m a bit skeptical, but ready to learn.  

First off, it seems that lots of lives are literally works of art, or parts of works of art.  Captain Ahab’s life is part of Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, for example.  But my life isn’t a work of art in this sense, and I don't suppose anyone thinks I should regard myself as part of a novel written by someone else.  The idea is rather that real lives, like yours and mine, can be, and maybe ought to be, regarded as works of art.

I'm afraid that if someone were to write a novel based on my life, it would be a comic novel about an absent-minded Philosophy professor. If it were artfully written, it might be a work of art, but that wouldn’t make me a work of art.

But  my life, is shaped by my decisions, and so those decision would shape a novel or biography based on it.  So I might try to live my life with the thought of making a pretend biography written about it a good read.  Like a good novelist, I may make something beautiful, or intriguing, or suspenseful, or at any rate somewhat meaningful,  out of my life. What these philosophers recommend is that I should purposely shape my life into something with coherence, beauty, meaning, style, and grace ---- that’s what it is to LIVE one's life as a work of art.

That may not be easy.  If I’m writing a novel, I can make the hero anything I want to.  Maybe a great quarterback who studies physics for fun and makes a lot of money in the stock market.  But sadly, life is not like that. I can't just decide how my life is going to turn out.   I am constrained by my physical and mental equipment, and many other things that are out of my control.  Still, there is room left to make many important decisions about my life, so aesthetic/artistic values can at least guide those decisions.

But would that be a good idea?  It seems the aesthetic decision may not be the wise decision; it may even be immoral.  Suppose I’m at a bar and an obnoxious guy gives me a hard time, and finally hits me.  The wise thing to do is to leave.   One might imagine that given my considerable prowess as a fighter, the moral thing to do is leave without hurting another human being --- to turn the other cheek.  But those decisions make for a boring life.  You’d never get a good movie out of that sort of life.  If my life is a work of art, don't I need to do something exciting, like busting a bottle of Bourbon over his head.

Maybe not.  Great characters  in real fiction aren't always violent thugs. Think Jane Eyre.  Don’t I at least want to live my  life so that it is aesthetically coherent? Don’t I want to live with a sense of style?  Don’t I want certain themes to emerge?  

Well, not really.  I mean I suppose if I could just push a button that would give me a little more style. I would do so, but I wouldn't invest a lot of time searching for the button.  The whole project sounds a bit self-absorbed or even narcissistic  --- like Beau Brummel, or Oscar Wilde, or Johnny Depp.  But maybe I am taking it all a bit too seriously.

Basically, it sounds like I should draft something that might be read at my funeral, and paints me as an interesting character, maybe flawed but virtuous, gruff but kind, inept but determined, and so on. Then I should try to live my life, so that in fact that would be an accurate eulogy.

Maybe I could do that without being especially narcissistic or self-absorbed?  Could be.  I’m still pretty skeptical of the whole idea. 




Comments (5)

Guest's picture


Thursday, August 15, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Skeptical? Yes, so am I. Art

Skeptical? Yes, so am I. Art is difficult to place---and the designation, artist, seems to depend upon being in the BEST place, at the right time. If this were not so, scribblers (such as Pablo Picasso), and psychedelicists (as in Salvador Dali) would have never been noticed, much less revered. So, I'll wait to see what others may say. Having said that much, I do not quite see life as a work of art...we are not all artists, or doctors, lawyers OR Indian chiefs. We have THE LIFE WE ARE GIVEN (Michael Murphy and George Leonard)---no more and potentially much less-if we do not play the hand well.
Cordially, The Doctor.

FAART's picture


Wednesday, February 5, 2020 -- 3:38 AM

I completely agree with you,

I completely agree with you, art is more an ability to convey your thoughts, and popularity is just luck. That is why now there are a lot of artists and works such as what deliver their ideas through rare tools and are unlikely to be popular.

MJA's picture


Friday, August 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM


Sometimes people can define art as a beautiful painting or a drawing hung on the wall of an art gallery. Dance and music are also great expressions of art. I envisioned art a few summer days back in everything that was everywhere. This essay is about what I saw, and how I got there on that very special day.
I decided to go for a bike ride through the oldest, and in my opinion, the finest neighborhoods in the city, searching for the best flower garden. It was going to be a contest, and I was the judge. I do not spend my weekends gardening, nor have I ever judged a garden contest before. I also have never sauntered casually on my bicycle. Using it for exercise and mountainous speed ventures was the norm. It seemed a relaxing idea, so out the door I went. Early in my mission, I discovered a residential garden of such magnitude, that it set the bar or standard that all other gardens would be judged, The garden had everything beautiful. It had color, shade or shadow, design, and a place. It was clean, and well manicured. It had meandering walks, with areas for contemplation. I stopped for a while and saw the garden and its diverse vegetation, as a piece or pieces of art. The rest of the day became an art show. I saw artistic gardens and flowers everywhere. I began to smell the art, it became intoxicating. I started to see art in the design of homes, and how the gardens were meant to compliment each other. I saw it in entrance ways, stain glass windows, and staircases. There was art in the majestic tree lined streets. I made it downtown to the river, where everything drains, including meandering bicyclists. Someone had designed the most unbelievable fountain, with marble walkways and hanging baskets of flowers. I talked with a few bystanders in the art gallery I was traveling, and noticed they had art all over them. It was in their jewelry, hair style, clothes, and a smile that remains etched in my mind. I stopped in a café for some nourishment, and also to come down a little bit. Unbelievably, the food was artistic, made by artisans, in a dinning room that defined decor in a unusual way. When I came back outside, I looked up and saw cotton ball clouds on a turquoise canvas, oh please stop!
I ended my trip, or art show, five hours later, buying the best garden in the city a first place award. I see art much more often today, and in many more places. Not like that special day, but much more than I had. Art is in everything, and is made by everyone. I would like to thank all the special artists who create art. Thanks.
PS: Slowing down could be the key to seeing art.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, August 16, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

There was a place, called

There was a place, called Huntington Heights---overlooking the Ohio River, and, of course, Huntington, West Virginia. My grandmother lived there, along with several of my uncles, who, as adults, had not found lives of their own. None of this seemed untoward or out of place to me---then...I was only 4 or 5 years old, and did not understand the realms of unemployment or unemployability. But, I recall, even today, the gas-fired space heaters which (that?) heated the rambling house on the hill. Uncle Bill died, young, of ulcerative colitis. Grandpa had already left for California (I met him, many years later, but after a short visit, still did not know exactly why he left his family. I imagine he saw the futility of conditions he could never hope to change.)
There is some other dwelling there now...I have seen it from the Huntington waterfront. Probably owned by someone who has far more money than my grandmother's family ever had...just guessing, you see.
Life is not a work of art. It is only where we are for awhile---to pass on genes. This is biology. If that is art, sobeit.

mirugai's picture


Saturday, August 17, 2013 -- 5:00 PM


No one, and I mean statistically no one, ?looks at their life as a work of art? and makes any changes. Yes, some are proud of losing weight, exercising daily, quitting drinking, getting a degree, etc., but this has nothing to do with ?art.? Unless, the meaning of ?art,? like so many other philosophy words, has become so broadened as to have no meaning left whatsoever. Stick with the Greek philology and taxonomy and epistemology: like, say, ?beauty,? ?art? has two meanings: one which everyone (except nut-cases) knows is art, and a second which we can never really define, but which we reach into with dialogue.
More interesting to me, philosophically, is what is it about something called ?art? that we (whatever or whoever ?we? is), want to have connected to what we make of ourselves? I think it is about trying to communicate with, or be a member of, some elite social group (for all the reasons Nietzsche goes into). It is the attraction of a social elite that makes ?us? use the word ?art? to connect to ?our? life.
Hey, skip the ?art? part altogether: the attraction of the word is all empty self-satisfaction and is self-defined. If you want to improve yourself somehow, and you practice and exercise to do so, and you get results, that is ?success.? Congratulations! Attaching ?art? to it is foolish and egotistical. Art is something very different from all this.
Only philosophers believe in (and talk about) a human ability to ?look at one?s life,? and to use reason to 1. see ways to change it, and 2. change it.