A Work of Art

By: Anjji Gabriel

“A true work of art, then, is something new – it is not primarily the copy or representation of anything. It may involve representation, but that is not what makes it a work of art. It is not manufactured to specification, as an engineer works to a plan – though it may involve compliance with the accepted rules for dramatic presentation.”

Dorothy Sayers, from her book, Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World

I found a very intriguing quote by Studs Terkel about work while reading a chapter called, The World of Work, in Byron Sherwin’s book, Why Be Good, subtitled, Seeking our best selves in a challenging world.  It says, “work, by its very nature (is) about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body…It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations.  To survive is triumph enough for the walking wounded…It is about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than Monday to Friday dying.  Perhaps, immortality too, is part of the quest – to be remembered…”.  This is an intriguing idea and yet there is a grain of truth about the struggles we encounter when we work, especially as we experience how work evolves from manual to mental, from 8 hour work to 24/7, from working on tangibles to intangibles, etc.  I also see this quote by Terkel aptly describes the context of the chapter of the book, The World of Work.

The argument of the book though is not about the world of work but rather how being good is part of a successful life and that the rewards of goodness are indeed life affirming.  He said that being good is indispensable to fulfilling our mission in life and that each of us is an artist commissioned by God to create one great work of art in our lifetime – and that work of art is our life.  It is the “true work of art” that is something new and unique to every human being that Dorothy Sayers referred to in the opening quote above.

These are the five ingredients to producing a great work of art and to creating life as a work of art according to Byron Sherwin.

First, is maturity – which means taking responsibility for your own life and your own decisions.

Second, is the study of past masterpieces – an aspiring artist studies the works of those who came before him.

Third, is the cultivation of wisdom, the ability to understand what we know and to evaluate what we have experienced and learned.

Fourth, is imagination which is the ability to transcend ourselves in order to envision who we yet can become.  Without imagination, without vision, an artist has nothing to express, nothing to convey.

Fifth, is the careful use of our already developed skills in achieving our goals.

He cited psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmilhyi’s formulating the idea of flow when he was studying how artists work.  When artists are in the “flow state”, they experience a sense of heightened consciousness, an enviable sense of accomplishment and a desirable state of fulfillment.

It will also be instructive here if we can understand what is on the mind of the artists who have produced immortal works of art and great masterpieces.  Like Pablo Picasso who once was quoted saying, “if we can trace the evolution of any great work of art, not in a series of snapshots, but in terms of the inner state of the artist, the critical moment comes when the artist sees the vision”.  Or, Michaelangelo who sees an angel which he wants to set free, his finished work of art, while ordinary people sees only a block of marble.

Vision and a passion for excellence must be at the mind and heart of Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, was sad to express in his deathbed, “I have offended God and man because my work has not reached the level of quality it should have.”

I remember the eulogy my younger brother delivered during my father’s wake.  He remembered my father telling him, “Son, if you can know the secrets of great artists like, Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, etc. as to why their work became immortal masterpieces, you do that and you will succeed.”  He must have discovered the secret or found the answer to my father’s wondering and musing that he used as guide to his becoming a successful computer engineer and a businessman.  He is using his gifts and talents well to create his life as a work of art.

Life as a work of art is a metaphor which the author argued well in his book.  He also explored other metaphors for work or how we view work or the workplace that influences our attitudes towards work and how we do our work.

For example, when the worker sees the workplace as a world at war because it is characterized by relentless stress and anxiety (somewhat similar to Studs Terkel’s view of work), everyone becomes a potential casualty.  Work as war turns everyone as a warrior.  Or a workplace seen as a jungle turns everyone into a beast.  How about when the worker sees his goal in work or life as a survivor or “winner”?  He will see others as his adversaries or threat to his survival or winning in life.

He continued his argument to create one’s life as a work of art is to aim for individual excellence, not competitive excellence, that the goal is not to be the best, rather to be the best you can be, to compete against yourself rather than against others, and that the aim is not victory over someone else, but the improvement of one’s own self.  And I should add here the real goal is to become fully human the way God imagined us when He created us.

Why does our view of work or our end goal matter?  How do you see your own places of work?  Why do you work?  And the often asked rhetorical question or riddle, “do you work to live or live to work?”   If you say you work to live, aren’t you seeing the goal of work as a survivor and therefore view your co-workers as threats to your survival or your adversaries?

I submit that we don’t work to live but rather, we live to work.  What kind of work?  A work of creating or making life as a work of art that was imagined and designed by God according to His own image.  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul, wrote:  “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”.

A Danish proverb somewhat echoes this truth which says, “Our life is God’s gift to us.  What we do with our life is our gift to God”.

And when we are making art of our lives that expresses truth, beauty, and goodness of our character, aren’t we really reflecting the image of God?

Can you imagine this?