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Le Silence, 1895 — Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer

“Honestly, I haven’t fully embraced that idea that I’m a writer — even though I’ve been writing since I was a child, have two degrees in writing, worked as a writer for 10 years, written for numerous publications including Essence magazine and The New York Times, and wrote a novel. I’ve been thinking about why that might be. This may be inflammatory to say, but I think the United States, as an empire, despises writers. Perhaps, it despises all artists — particularly ones it cannot control — because as James Baldwin said, “Artists are here to disturb the peace,” by which he meant the status quo. So in this country, art is often treated as secondary, if not completely unnecessary to human development and achievement. This becomes a cultural attitude where art is regarded as frivolous, and an emphasis is placed on “practical” professions that earn particular kinds of wages.”

— Robert Jones Jr.

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The witness is your awareness of your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Witnessing is like waking up in the morning and then looking in the mirror and noticing yourself — not judging or criticizing, just neutrally observing the quality of being awake. That process of stepping back takes you out of being submerged in your experiences and thoughts and sensory input and into self-awareness.

Along with that self-awareness comes the subtle joy of just being here, alive, enjoying being present in this moment. Eventually, floating in that subjective awareness, the objects of awareness dissolve, and you will come into the spiritual Self, the Atmān, which is pure consciousness, joy, compassion, the One.

— Ram Dass

Creative people have a natural interest in listening skills, in vision and being alert to subtle promptings of their own mind. That’s not just a creative skill, there’s something spiritual about it. We live in a culture that edits out this awareness in favor of survival, an awareness that translates to money and the practical means to get it. Medium is no different, except it attracts people who hope to beat the odds and do something they actually love doing while avoiding starvation.

Most of us are funneled into drone work. We feel lucky if we can earn a decent living using our talents or education. We know it’s too much to ask to live on our desire for meaning and beauty. Only the lucky few get to do that, because they’ve managed to catch the eye of enough buyers of what they offer.

When we’re young we ask “why not me? I’m interesting. I’m talented.” At that age we don’t know exactly what’s in us, but we hope it’s fertile and striking enough to attract the notice of the arbiters of culture. What we don’t understand is the market we’re in and its limitations.

In American culture, it’s considered almost frivolous to be an artist. If your craft is good enough you can hire it out to a business, but your longing for more depth will be ignored if it doesn’t make them any money. That part of you is “impractical.” Maybe you can write or paint on weekends.

What are we on this earth for — to survive and reproduce? Is that it? Some of us have an irrepressible longing for a more profound experience of being human. We want God or beauty or art or philosophy on top of having children and eating well. Those are the souls who find themselves in conflict with the “way of the world.”

Maybe we should be thankful that we at least have the right to starve in our part of the world. We’re not pressed into service of a political agenda. We’re simply ignored.

That’s the context our artists deal with as they try to develop their need for a life that means something. The traps and snares our society has set out for us lets very few escape. The ones who do give us hope, but the odds aren’t encouraging.

Will things change? I think I see a slight change in my sixty years as an artist. I wish our general mindset would evolve a little faster, but I can’t know if it will.

Those of us who insist on devoting our lives to the poetry of life will still need to develop some steel.

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