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Fri, Nov. 15

Piacenza: The everyday artist

The gift and mystery of great artists is making their unique, personal experience accessible to the rest of us. In a gratifying twist, the very oddness of their perceptions illuminate some of the most universal aspects of being human, ones that we all have but either take for granted or just don’t realize.

The grandeur of classical music, while in many ways far removed from daily life, can arouse a heroic, longing or dreaming part of our own nature that may not often come to the fore. A Rembrandt portrait may seem to speak only of some era other than our own, yet the facial expression, the quality of light – those we recognize as constants of the human experience.

But how often do we realize that each of us harbors that mysterious artist within ourselves? Each of us brings a wholly individualized combination of emotions, ideas, moods and biases to life. Like looking through a kaleidoscope, they may shift and change over time, but that lens is ours and ours alone.

The difference between you and I and the great artists comes down to expression. For a variety of reasons, most of us opt for emphasizing the realities we hold in common with others. There are many, many good reasons to “go along to get along,” physical safety paramount among them. If you and I are acting on different ideas of what a solid line and a dotted lane marker mean, we’re likely headed for a traffic accident.

Social norms also ensure a certain safety in the ways we interact with one another. As a matter of survival, humans have developed a largely automatic and almost instantaneous impulse to judge situations and one another. Useful in a primitive world of threatening animals and competitor tribes, this tendency doesn’t make for a peaceful and productive society. Rather than immediately bonking strangers over the head at first sight (literally or metaphorically), we’ve learned to overcome distrust and make a more rational assessment of how we may or may not benefit from the interaction.

Nevertheless, both we and the communities we live in are better off when we acknowledge and nurture the special light that lives only within each of us as individuals. We can observe social norms yet not stifle an opinion or viewpoint that arises and shines from an alternative angle. Rejection is always possible, but so is illuminating new ways to frame and overcome obstacles.

As my experience working in structured organizations tells me, sometimes voicing an unusual viewpoint falls flat. But this hasn’t dissuaded me from using the voice that only I can add to the conversation. This is exactly why many business planning methodologies begin with a period of “blue sky” discussion, a chance for “crazy” ideas to get out on the table, for molds of habitual thinking to be broken and innovation to be given space to emerge.

Efforts to recognize and participate in commonly shared realities is a necessity of life, but life is not all about structure. Even in our own front yards, the denuding and re-leafing trees teach us that essential creative energy must be born and reborn or the structure crumbles.

Each of us is an artist in his or her own right, molding and remolding, smoothing and shaping, adding colors and shades of gray and black, singing life into our interior world. Some of this core identity will only be known by those closest to us, some will be known only to ourselves. But some of it is a gift that only we can bring to our outer life circumstances.

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