We know what it means for a painting to be beautiful. But what about a life? Like great works of art, great people exhibit style, originality, and creativity.
“Live your life as a work of art!” Thus rings the slogan discussed by John, Ken, and Lanier Anderson on the August 8, 2013, episode of Philosophy Talk, recorded live at Stanford. The show re-aired on June 5. On listening again, one big thought struck me.
The life-as-a-work-of-art idea, as it was formulated on the show, embodies an unrealistically individualistic portrait of what making art is like, and this undermines the metaphor. It seems to say: I should make my life a work of art. And presumably each other person is responsible for making her or his life its own work of art.
But this way of thinking about art doesn’t capture the collaborative nature of art-making.
No artwork is made entirely by one individual. Even so-called “one-man shows” have producers, lighting designers, ushers, box offices, theatre janitors, creative consultants, set designers, and stagehands. Novels have editors, copy editors, writers’ groups, creative writing programs, cover designers, printers, and paper makers. And even paintings require canvass makers, people who collect materials for pigments, brush makers, and frame makers.
So the existence of art at all depends on many people, most whose lives wouldn’t make interesting artistic works by themselves. A stagehand, for example, spends most nights going from one part of the backstage to another, putting various props in place. The individualistic image embodied in the existing life-as-art idea ignores the crucial fact that real art has stagehands and many other sorts of unglamorous contributors. To make one work of art, you need many people.
Does this mean we should ditch the metaphorical idea of making life into a work of art? It doesn’t. Furthermore, if we try to develop that metaphorical idea in a way that presents a more realistic portrait of the collaborative nature of the art-making process, I think we’ll also get a version of it in which art-making as a guide to life coheres better with morality as a guide to life.
Consider this: stagehands are, in a way, the most moral people in all of theatre. They give and seldom receive deserved credit, but they do it anyway, because the show must go on. So it seems to me that a life-as-art metaphor that makes room for collaborative players like stagehands is likely to sit well with moral demands in life, as opposed to being in competition with those demands.
So here’s the new metaphor. Instead of me thinking of my individual life as a work of art, I should rather think of human history as a work of art, where my role is to make a contribution that helps make that history beautiful. The artwork is not just me. It’s all of us, a bunch of creatures on the stage of an antecedently existing world…or a bunch of creatures working together to make a beautiful painting…or a bunch of creatures working together to weave a beautiful tapestry…
This way of thinking captures the idea that aesthetic values can guide life choices. But it avoids the narcissism of the life-as-art idea as it comes down to us from Nietzsche. Furthermore, it makes sense of how one can have a good life even if one’s individual life is not dramatic or artistically potent. One might be a little-noticed stagehand in the grand drama of human history, moving one’s assigned props in dutiful fashion. Still, if one does one’s part in making beauty, one has lived a good life. Or one might be a mere pigment maker in the process of painting human history, and still one can have had a beautiful life. And so on.
This way of thinking, finally, should take away a lot of unneeded pressure that seemed to me to exist in the earlier, individualistic version of the metaphor. How many of us have individual lives that would be worth writing up in the form of a Homeric epic? Not many! Should we then see our lives as failures, as not having succeeded? Certainly not. In theatre, everyone who does their job well makes the show a little or a lot better—more beautiful. If the artwork of life is the human drama as a whole, the same can be said for any life that contributes well to that drama: it was a good life.