Matters of Life and Death:
Essays in Budo


So you want to be an Artist...

What is the point of mastering the discipline of any Art, only to die with its secrets?

Learning for its own sake is fine, and certainly makes one a better person while on this earth. But as a practical matter, honest pursuit of mastery must make demands on time and energy that surely encroach on the needs of family and work. Serious Arts demand serious commitment. Short of this one is merely a dabbling dilletante seeking self-aggrandizement, to put it politely. At best, by the time one attains even a rudimentary appreciation of any Art worthy of the term, one has already stopped being born, and started dying. Moreover, to teach is to begin again at the bottom, but chippig away ignorance from the outside this time around. And not just the student's ignorance, by a long shot.

Why? What possesses a person to undergo the mental and physical pain of such a harsh apprenticeship? It is painful, make no mistake, and after that, it's painful. Not even our best reasons for taking up our chosen Art can possibly survive the practice.

There can be only one answer to this puzzle. Art must be seen for what it is: deeper and older and larger than any individual artist. A true Art has been developed, evolved, improved, expanded, reduced to its most elegant essence, long before one's first encounter with it. Art is the expression of a larger Self that may speak through you. It does not come from you. It has a life of its own, indifferent to your personal aspirations. It defies category, definition, description. It requires giving everything without reservation, and makes no deals, it is poisoned and suffocated by commerce, you sign away your soul in return for - nothing.

And if this is so, aspiring artists face an enormous obligation. If we throw ourselves completely into the relationship, there is a slight chance that the Art itself will be further refined for future generations of artists. But not refined by you: all you can be is a brief respository for its life. As it lives, it will grow and evolve according to its nature, like trees, microbes and whales.

To take even a small part in this, we must make tools of our own flesh and bone, transforming our own being into a vessel with suffient integrity to apply, and withstand, whatever necessary heat, pressure or catalytic process may be involved, in a journey we can know nothing about. We give over our entire being to be profoundly and irreversably changed, without any predictable outcome or reward. Only total immersion and engagement, moment by moment, will do.

Now, tell me again why you want to be an Artist.

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