An ‘On The Origin Of Species’ For Artists

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I was in music class once and started crying. I was in a music class in college and the professor played this aria called “Casta Diva” from Bellini’s Norma sung by Maria Callas.

We were studying it in class, and when she played the recording for the first time, it was so beautiful that I started to tear up; I started crying. I was having a moment and looked down at my desk so people would not see.

Then I was curious about whether others were also having a moment too, and I looked at my classmates, and they were all just sitting there blankly. They were completely uninterested in it, like they were indifferent.

It really upset me to see people pass by beauty like that. It made no sense then, and makes no sense now. But that was what happened.

Years later, I moved to Boulder, Colorado to go to graduate school, and a combination the high altitude, the aridity, and the clouds being formed a certain way over the mountains created the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Wherever I was when the sunset happened, I would look up at it. I fell in love with the sky because of this. I fell in love, and I wrote poems with lines like:

I have loved the sky as much as
Consciousness. My breathing
Has a sky in it.

Then I was in a Whole Foods parking lot on my way to get groceries, and there was this amazing sunset. The whole sky is lit up like a rainbow of color. I was looking up, just standing in the parking lot looking up.

I was unabashedly staring up for 20 straight minutes. Like, the groceries can wait, you know? It was like what kind of life am I living if choosing groceries is more important than choosing beauty?

And the whole time, everyone else was all into their car, out of their car, into their car, out of their car. They didn’t notice it. They didn’t even notice that someone was noticing it. And it bothered me. They had a choice to look up at the sunset, and it was a choice they weren’t making.

I started to tell everyone that walked past, “Look at the sunset!” I told people, “Look at the sunset!” I wanted people to have the experience I was having, because the sunset was worth it.

And once someone pointed it out, people were happy. They looked up, and they said, “It’s beautiful!” or “Look at the colors!” and I thought, they noticed because someone was there to point it out to them.

Like, this is our job. Like the Tao Te Ching says, “What is a good man but a bad man’s teacher?” but with art.

Because pointing things out like this is art. This is art. It’s pointing out everyday beauty that people do not notice. Because people don’t only need to know what to look at, but how to look at all.

Later I wrote a piece that said:

The sky is in every poem
And we ignore it.
Even poems of the sky
Are ignoring the sky
That exists in a poem.

And that’s true at some level. It is. Because I saw it happen over and over while it crushed my heart as I watched.

And I often wondered about why people did not look. Why didn’t people look at the sunset? Did they know once and forget? Did they never know how?

Or did they know how to look, but chose not to, because life is busy, and you choose to run errands and to mop your kitchen and to balance your checking account, and then you’re all too busy for beauty.

You’re all a man’s life is frittered away by detail but whatev, and everything is gone. It falls away, and suddenly the sunset is not something you notice even though the sunset is free. It’s free to us, it’s “the setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode.”

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Thoreau is always in season.

Because if you didn’t shut it down, you’d find it everywhere, you know? Art is everywhere. It’s everywhere you look for it. Emerson said, “[The poet] should be tipsy with water.”

And you have to be able to make beauty out of what you see — oil on the surface of a rain puddle that is very deeply colorful, a dead deer in the woods, the way someone walks across the street.

It’s a way of looking at things — a way that writers and artists should have really if they want to make anything of value.

Like Cezanne looking at Mont Sainte-Victoire: painting that mountain from every angle because every angle has something important to you. Every angle has something worth paying attention to, and we need it. We need someone paying attention to every angle like that.

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When I think about this, I think a lot about how art evolved and what the world was like before art existed. I wonder how the first piece of art happened, and when it did, how it came about.

What were its circumstances? What gem-like color, what ravening beast, what strange apathy overtook some troubadour-like thinking early people, and then art struggled out of their consciousness somewhere like the deaf being given the ability to listen for a second, and then spending all their lives describing to others what sound was like even for a moment.

And now art is our job. We point out beauty to be in service of others — to point it out for people who cannot point it out for themselves — because it’s our job.

Like it keeps getting handed down. Like it’s in our genetics now, and the human genome will maybe show us this when we have the technology for it in some distant future where everything can be mapped, but especially the things that are useful to us.

This will be the world we will live in where we will know the past in us as a kind of future we chose once when we decided to teach ourselves how to look the way that we ought.

All I know is that the first people who knew how to look, they saw beauty that no one saw, and they wanted to have other people see what they saw, and that was how art was created. They created art for people to see what they saw, to see beauty around them that others did not know how to notice or to look for.

This looking is the On the Origin of the Species for artists. Those first people, they pioneered how to look, and now we have art from their first labored effort.

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