Life as Art

The philosopher Deleuze says something very profound about nature. He has this way of inferring something about the creative potency of life from what life creates.

For example, when we say “nature” most people think of trees, rivers, mountains, jungle, savanna. We say machines, gadgets, buildings and the like are not natural. But where did those things come from? In the evolutionary process, the amoebas became aquatic organisms, became land organisms, became humans, who made machines.

We think machines aren’t nature because we think we aren’t nature. But this is something the American transcendentalists, and more recent thinkers like Watts and McKenna, loved to point out: We are nature, too. We are life too. We are existence too. We are not a separate process; we are woven of the same universal fabric.

And machines are an extension of the same nature-process. If Deleuze was taking a walk through the city with you, it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic of him to say, “You see all these bikes, cars… metallic, silicon things? That’s nature. It’s on the same spectrum as the rivers, forests, mountains.”

So the next step is to say that it says something about life that it produces these mechanical things. In Deleuze’s philosophy, he thinks of “life” in the abstract. He infers a creative principle, a creative force, “behind”—or more exactly, immanent in—all the manifestations and creations of life.

So he’ll say that nature is machine-like right from the get-go. That’s why, in Anti-Oedipus, he and Guattari (his co-author) describe the human body in terms of “organ-machines.” “Everything is machines,” they say. Our eyes are machines; our tongues, hands, noses are machines—each with specific functions. Those organ-machines ‘hook up’ to external machines. (I’ve got my hands, eyes, brain -machines hooked up to a computer-machine right now.)

Now, if Deleuze can reason like this about machines, we can also do that with art. Life produces machines through humans, but life also produces sculpture, cinema, oil on canvas, music, literature—and the aesthetic “aura” that emanates from these things—through humans. So what does that say about life?

Let’s back up for a moment. Deleuze’s way of looking at life’s manifestations as machine-like, while perfectly valid, is still a rather “left-hemisphere” (leftward) way of looking at it. Here, I’m using “left hemisphere” in the way that I’ve heard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor and meditation master Reggie Ray talk about it. For them, the left-side of our brain is associated with linear thinking, analytic thinking, intellectual dissection, conceptual compartmentalization, language, logic, reason, and making mental maps. It can see life in terms of a million parts, and appreciate the astounding complexity of it all.

That’s wonderful. However, as Taylor and Ray both point out, there’s limitation that comes with that. The conscious beings (you, me, we) that see life through the left hemisphere can forget that life isn’t actually like that. It isn’t broken up into a million pieces. To our left hemisphere, it appears that way. But that’s just perception—just one perspective or way of seeing it.

So Taylor and Ray direct their listeners back to the right hemisphere and (in Ray’s vocabulary) the “soma.” For Taylor, what’s to be found there is what she calls “nirvana.” And for Ray, he simply speaks about a direct experience of life, a direct acquaintance with the territory (not the mental maps), that everyone must experience for themselves.

The idea I’d like to share today, is that when we shift out of this left hemisphere way of looking at these things, outside the leftward slant, into a more right hemisphere perspective, life’s manifestations appear as artistic expressions. All of them. And not just the solid “things,” but also the processes, relationships and events that unfold in time.

In other words, what it says about life, that life produces art through humans, is: life itself is artistic. Life is an artist—life in the sense of the creative principle or force immanent in the creations we see all around us.

It’s not just that we experience beauty, or that we can call everything art, or that this is a “nice” perspective to take. That’s all relatively true, but the profound thing is, art is in the nature of things. We can experience life as art, like we experience Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and that comes with a feeling of beauty, of intelligence, of meaning. You can’t necessarily put it into words, but who needs to? It’s your experience.

And what better way to get us in this particular mindset than art?—our art? …I was inspired to write this post by watching a film called Synecdoche, which blurs the line between life and theatrical performance. The film Birdman does the same thing, in a different way. Yet another film, Waking Life, blends film, dreams and waking experiences, both in its “rotoscope” animation and philosophical dialogue. All these films compare life to artistic expression such that the division between the two begins to vanish.

Perhaps it was only imagined, to begin with.

And it’s not just films. Before there was Beethoven, there was the symphony of a thousand insects in a swamp at nighttime. The whistle of the wind, the chirping of birds. Before the painting on the wall, the painting of a human face, smiling. Or crying—tragedy. Written alongside the visible scripts in our books, there are the invisible scripts of our lives. The most incredible stories ever told, but told in the living of them. All of this is life’s artistic expression.

…To circle back, then, to our point of origin: We are life, inseparable from its dynamic, creative force. So we, too, are artists, not just of what we normally refer to as “art,” but artists of our lives. Artists of our actions, words, decisions, relationships, emotions, aspirations, beliefs, perspectives…

We do not merely behold the creation; we are creators as well. When we see the art all around us, being expressed in each moment, and embrace our artistic identity as one with life—then, joy arises.

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2 thoughts on “Life as Art

  1. absurdbeing

    Interesting post. Been looking for a good philosophy blog for a while now…

    I haven’t read any Deleuze but what you said about him resonated with me. I have thought something similar regarding homosexual marriage which a friend of mine argued against on the grounds that it was “unnatural”. Clearly, if we do it and we are a product of nature (which I agree we are), whatever else we might want to say about it, it most assuredly is “natural”.

    Of course, your main focus here was the insight about art; “life itself is artistic” or “art is in the nature of things”. This is a refreshing and important, I think, counter-balance for the oft-touted claims these days that science (particularly physics) is the only source of knowledge.

    I would just add that, in rejecting this ‘scientistic’ thinking, we need to be careful we don’t take things too far in the opposite direction. Taylor and Ray appear to represent the “soma” or “nirvana” as somehow yielding a more accurate picture of life (the “territory”) than a left brain approach (“mental maps”) but if we are life (which was your opening intuition), then any perspective we adopt must reflect life; that is to say, if art is in the nature of things, then linear analysis, logic, reason, etc. must all be in the nature of things, as well.
    Moreover, leaning too far right (brain hemisphere, not wing) presents the danger of seeing life as somehow meaningful or purpose-driven independently of the conscious beings living those lives, and this would also be to lose sight of the starting intuition; in effect, creating a pantheistic, or even supernatural, illusion for ourselves.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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    1. Hi absurd,
      Thanks for your comment! Yes, if everything is nature (and if everything isn’t, where do we draw the boundary lines??), then nothing can really be “unnatural,” homosexuality included. The person you were talking to would have to make a longer argument with more distinctions which I doubt would withstand scrutiny. But I’m also biased b/c I think everyone should be free to love whomever they feel love for.
      As for the right and left hemispheres thing, you make a good point. The kinds of thinking (science included) enabled by the left-brain are absolutely necessary and highly useful for modern human life. However without the experiences of enlightenment and nirvana enabled by the right-brain, it looks as though we are going to destroy the planet, driven by our egomania.
      So, if both sides are necessary, and what we have is a global culture unknowingly left-biased, then what we need to move in the direction of is a balance. There is one spiritual teacher I know, Matt Kahn, who says that enlightenment and spiritual evolution is just that: the two hemispheres coming into harmony.

      Like

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