Nature’s finest gift to you

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Stars, if you leave them for long enough, will eventually come up with the Mona Lisa.

And not in a hypothetical way, like those non-existent, proverbial monkeys who are always typing up MacBeth by accident.

What I’m talking about has already happened.

We trick ourselves into believing it doesn’t work like that, but it’s true. Star systems can and do eventually produce great works of art, and we’ve observed this. The great Alan Watts makes this interesting property of the universe clear using a simple analogy.

In his example, an apple tree produces apples every summer. As a botanist might say, at a certain time of year the tree fruits. An apple tree, more specifically, apples.

Imagine that aliens cruised by earth a few billion years ago. They checked for signs of intelligence, found only rocks and oceans, and they left.

Then they came back last week sometime, and found that there was a lot more going on. There were people, and a lot of other unfamiliar stuff that doesn’t look like rocks. Earlier they had seen that it was just a bunch of rocks. But in the mean time, the rocks peopled.

You leave rocks for a few billion years and they just might people. Evidently. As Watts puts it, we grow out of this world in exactly the same way as apples grow out of that tree.

But we’re usually a little prudish about saying it that way. We gloss over the fact that a dead earth became a living one, because that would imply that somehow intelligence does indeed arise from rocks, and something about that offends our normal way of thinking. We like to compartmentalize nature’s phenomena as if they work cleanly, like billiard balls – they can strike each other in the most complex ways, yet always be ultimately separate.

At worst, we apply a supernatural explanation to the whole show, because otherwise we’d have to recognize intelligence as a natural extension of the things that happen on a barren, unattended planet. For some reason we often insist nature couldn’t be that interesting or potent on its own. There has to be a super nature, to keep nature in its rightful, humble place.

It makes us feel special I guess, maybe that’s why we don’t give nature the credit. We’re special either way, but we don’t need special rules to explain how we’re here. For that matter, we don’t necessarily need to explain ourselves to ourselves at all. Whatever happened, we got intelligent at some point, and that’s great. It’s okay to wonder aloud exactly how it happened, but clearly it did. 

In any case, once a rock begins to people like that, you can check on it again in a few thousand years and you’ll notice an unstoppable profusion of buildings everywhere.

People, evidently, will begin to building if left for some time. They’ll building all over the place. And they have — look outside. In two weeks I’m going to be exploring the most buildinged place in the world. Nothing can stop people from their natural propensity for building once it gets started.

The people growing from this rock have indeed buildinged all over the place, maybe a little too much. Roading too. We’ve roaded the hell out of a lot of the landscape. This doesn’t make us distinctly special though. Spiders do something very similar with their silk road networks. They silk all over the place if nothing stops them. Check your attic. It just happens.

I don’t mean to make us sound so one-dimensional. People do much more than building. We wonder. We language. We family. We love.

And as it turns out, people eventually begin to art, and that certainly makes us special, if anything does. If there’s anything that redeems us from our propensity for violence and small-mindedness, that’s it — an inexplicable appetite for the deliberate creation of beauty and meaning.

At first it’s probably only the eccentric person that arts. Cave paintings. Eventually, though, nature takes its inevitable course, and people begin to art as profusely as they building. They art in public, and in private. They art on their desks at school, they art on retaining walls along the railroads, they even art their buildings. They celebrate art and those who art. They just can’t help arting. Try and stop them.

 

It may not always happen that way. There are people out there that don’t art. There are certainly rocks that don’t people. But clearly nature allows it to happen, and clearly there are places where nothing can stop it from happening. It’s not some violation of the rules. It’s fair game for certain corners of nature to art.

And again, it would be arrogant to assume that nature is not self-directed here. Many people just can’t stand that notion. They insist that nature must have an owner — someone commanding it to produce Guernica or The Beatles — but I don’t see any reason to believe that. Besides, whatever intelligent hierarchy there might be behind nature, there’s no reason not to call it nature too.

Whatever part of nature it is that allows Sgt Pepper to occasionally develop from cooling planets is exactly the part that allows trees to apple profusely, and rocks to people profusely. If evolution means anything, it can’t be only an isolated part of that process.

Evolution can only be the endless network of phenomena creating phenomena — and every conceivable part of life is its product. Using the generous amount of time they were given, the seas produced Old Man and the Sea, and the stars produced Starry Night.

We make a divide between man-made and natural constructs as if it really is two different systems, as if one doesn’t play by the rules of the other. We exalt ourselves by imagining we’re isolated from the system that created us and comprises us.

So it’s encouraging to realize that nature does produce the odd Guernica or Guangzhou Opera House now and then, and that your species is apparently the way it does it. But first some rocks had to do a lot of peopleing to get that level of arting to happen.

On that note, it gets a bit impersonal. Nature churns out people by the millions, and the odd masterpiece gets arted into existence. Most of those people weren’t necessary for that. It’s just part of a the same shotgun approach nature uses when it has mosquitoes give birth to 200,000 babies to give you a chance of getting bitten once or twice.

Think about your role for a moment. You are one of millions, and though it’s rude to say so, the universe doesn’t particularly need you in order to do its thing. But as of right now you certainly do have an extraordinary opportunity. Nothing is stopping you from being a conduit for some of the finest forms the universe ever created. Really. You may not be interested in anything people normally describe as art. That doesn’t matter. Speaking can be an art. Parenting can be an art. Sport can be art.

You don’t need to make masterpieces, but who better to do it? Masterpieces do come from the ingredients you have in you at this moment — the buzz in your bones that won’t let you sit for too long, a mind that can’t stop making inquiries, the desperate need to finally be understood, and whatever capacity for intrigue it took for you read this far into such a bizarre article. These qualities appear to be some of the universe’s rarest and most potent elements, and you’re riddled with them.

These are thoroughly human traits, and they grow in people like seeds grow in apples. Some people can’t bear not to put them to serious use, and would even court poverty to do it. But many people do manage to get right through to their grave without employing them, riding distractions and fleeting pleasures the whole way. It’s easier than ever to do that.

And from nature’s perspective, that’s fine. There are lots of people, and some pretty amazing things will get created no matter what any given individual chooses to spend their time on. But I suspect the human drive to create is more forceful and urgent than we typically give it credit for. The urge for a human to art isn’t a fringe thing or an alternative-lifestyle thing. It’s as vital and fundamental to us as socializing. It’s for everybody. Repressing it may be what’s bothering you all the time.

You have it in heaps. It may be nature’s greatest gift to you. One day that same benefactor will snuff you out like a candle. What a shame it would be if your gift was still in the box.

Yet we all experience a lot of resistance to exploring it, and that resistance comes from many angles. We worry that our work sucks. We makes excuses about talent levels. We see artists who we think suck and we don’t want to be looked at like we look at them. We worry our mothers will shake their heads. We wonder if there really is anything in our own heads worth saying. Throughout life we’re warned by unimaginitive people that it’s not useful to make art, that it doesn’t pay bills or help anyone.

So it’s easy to justify avoiding it, even though some part of you will never stop nagging you to get those seeds out of you and into the ground.

Photos by itonys, wazuluwazu, All Chrome, and Panoramas

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{ 56 Comments }

Vilx- January 9, 2012 at 4:25 am

Hmm… it could be that my mind is clouded because I just caught cold and slept poorly last night, but… this time I can’t seem to nail down the point of your article. :( Is it “Everyone, let’s art!”? Or something else? Maybe you could summarize it in a few short sentences? Thanks!

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David January 9, 2012 at 8:03 am

That art is a thoroughly natural part of the evolutionary process, that it is for everyone, not just for the bourgousie or the severely right-brained as culture tends to present it. It’s shaped by culture but born from biology, and that makes it an across-the-table human trait, not a specialist pursuit. It’s as important to a human being as exercise or socialization, and I think a lot of us suffer because we don’t realize it.

Get some sleep! :)

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Vilx- January 9, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Thank you! :)

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Tony Draxler January 15, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Hope you don’t mind, but I quoted that comment word for word as my facebook status (giving you full credit of course). I try to spread your website around to everyone I know and half the people I don’t know. If a man’s greatest accomplishment is to put something out in the world to make it better, you can die today knowing you did your part. Great, great article/site/life philosophy.

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Ektor January 9, 2012 at 11:59 am

I think david tried to say that one fundamental characteristic of human being is to put beauty in all what they do, so by consequence this beauty creating “art” is a property of the universe itself, of Nature!!

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Deepak Thirunavukkarasu January 9, 2012 at 5:07 am

A lot is under-valued in our life simply because we haven’t yet found a way to quantify it or make it tangible. But the fact is, they matter as much as, if not more than the quantifiable aspects of our life..

That’s by no means a summary of the post but that is more of a gist of what I understood from the post..

Pretty interesting post, thanks for sharing.. :)

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David January 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm

That may be one reason art is marginalized by some — its immediate effects are intangible.

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Ken January 9, 2012 at 5:30 am

One way to put it, I think: Art is democratic.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm

Yes. And democratic in a way that even democratic governments can’t be. It doesn’t need to appeal to the masses, doesn’t need careful PR.

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Gretchen January 9, 2012 at 6:28 am

David – thank you so much for this post. I cannot even begin to express how much it has moved me at this moment. I woke up, grabbed my phone and checked my email to find this post as the only new message. And it is now that I see my problem clearly – repressing it IS what’s bothering me all the time.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I hope you run with it :)

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Meg January 9, 2012 at 8:28 am

What a great essay! I’ve never thought it through like that before, and I can really see it happening that way, given, as you say, enough time. And it’s not entirely random.

But on the notion of repressing the creative impulse/instinct, I suspect the self-consciousness is part of the larger process, as well, part of that survival of the fittest thing. For instance, given enough time, the species that survive are the ones that have adapted best to changing standards, such as the climate, presence of predators or availability of only certain kinds of food. Evolved environments have increasingly specific standards, and the species that survive must be adaptable to changes in the composition of the air (more polluted), be able to synthesize changes in the composition of the food (GMO products, PCB’s), and outwit non-biological predators (why did the chicken cross the expressway?)

One of those evolved environments is the court of public/informed opinion, and its micro-world of defining and valuing art. The artist that survives as an artist is the one who can blow the minds of the opinionated, operate with considerable shrewdness (politicking or marketing) or simply reduce predatory opinion to irrelevancy (“found” artists, hobby artists). Self-consciousness in art is a sort of survival mechanism to prevent throwing oneself to the wolves, but it could also be considered a natural selection process, because those who haven’t the mindset to push the envelope, wheel-and-deal, or not listen to the naysayers are not likely to produce the art that further evolves the third rock from the sun.

That being said, allowing self-consciousness to restrict creative expression is a good way to become unhappy and ill–to not thrive. So the natural selection process will reward those who can at least shrug off what others think and allow themselves to go for the Happy :)

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm

I agree with you, and we can’t really separate nature from nurture very easily. They reinforce each other. As you say, that self-consciousness can’t help but drive natural selection. Self-consciousness about art clearly comes from both sides of the nature/nurture coin. But wherever it comes from, that self-consciousness may restrict the expression of art but not that initial impulse to create, if it is indeed instinctual, and it seems to be.

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Dan Mitchinson January 9, 2012 at 9:25 am

Truly, truly, one of your finest pieces of writing. An absolutely lucid account of art and the cosmos.
Thank you.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:10 pm

Thanks Dan

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Soren January 9, 2012 at 10:09 am

This essay made me very happy to have been personed, and I will search, with increased energy, for the determination to make the best of my time in this form.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Don’t forget you decided to do that! I do all the time :)

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Carolyn January 9, 2012 at 11:02 am

Thank you David!
I laughed with abandoned glee when I read this. You are truly an old soul. You have figured out what it takes a lifetime and beyond for most people to figure out. The apple trees are whispering your name. I bet your parents gave you pencils, paper and lots of art supplies when you were growing up and the boxes the gifts came in, were as much a part of the gift as the content.
When you visit DC in your travels try to visit the surrounding area specifically Annapolis. DC is great for museums but it is too homogenized to get the true flavor of the mid Atlantic area. If you are a fan of history as well as really good seafood, Annapolis has it all along with small town charm. I’d love to be able to meet you but I understand time constraints during travels. If you do get the opportunity to travel beyond DC into Maryland, let me know and I’ll tell you where they have the best crabcakes, steamed crabs and soushi in the area. If you have extra time, there’s an island, Smith Island in the Chesapeake Bay you can visit by boat, where the ladies started a cake business and stimulated an economy dependent on an over regulated and vanishing seafood industry. They made multilayered cakes that would stay fresh when the waterman went out for long periods.It has become the state cake and they put the island on the map. Most restaurants in the area, the good ones, have Smith Island cake. Make sure you try it, if you can’t get to the island. I highly recommend the coconut!
But I digress. I’m forwarding your article to all the very creative people I know, especially those who have not discovered it in themselves. I think this line should be on a wall or at the very least, a tee shirt.
“What a shame it would be if your gift was still in the box.”
Your parents must be very proud.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm

Hi Carolyn. I’ll be traveling by bus to DC so I won’t have the mobility to explore the surrounding area. There’s so much to see and I just can’t do it all :(

Thanks for sharing this article with your creatives, I appreciate that.

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nrhatch January 9, 2012 at 11:13 am

Terrific post, David.

The male Bower Bird arts to attract discerning mates. It creates a vignette designed to lure females with glitter and flash. Ornamentation. Art.

We are far more alive when we create than when we consume . . . unless we create in the kitchen and consume the fruits of our creation!

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:18 pm

Yes, the bower birds blow my mind, and reveal that art is not strictly a human thing. I actually wrote about them early on:

http://www.raptitude.com/2009/05/same-purpose-different-styles/

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Gustavo January 9, 2012 at 11:31 am

Yes! There are no creative people. We are all creative by nature. Every time we solve a problem or make a good joke we are doing something it wasn’t supposed to be done.
I know you don’t like to mess with religious stuff but, sometimes when I manage to create something really good, I ask myself “where did this come from?”, and I get this creepy feeling that God exists.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:20 pm

I know what you mean by your last remark. Wondering about what possesses us to make beauty makes total sense — making conclusions about supernatural phenomena maybe doesn’t.

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gem January 9, 2012 at 11:35 am

I have to agree David, one of your best. In fact I can’t think of another article, in any subject that is as meaningful and worth spreading to the far reaches of cyberspace than this.

You have certainly flexed your art and I for one am so very grateful you share it so freely with us.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Thanks Gem. Please share it with people you think would appreciate it.

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Tracey January 9, 2012 at 11:52 am

I love most of your articles but this one really hit me at the right time. Our minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston just led a sermon on process theology on Sunday and your article fits in so well with what she was saying/explaining. It is beautiful. I am so happy to be part of the universe and to have the universe in me.

Thanks so much for publishing Raptitude it adds meaning to my life. Keep creating art!

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:22 pm

I will!

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M January 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm

This is fantastic. Thank you so much.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Thanks M

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Tom K January 9, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Enjoyed your post, David. Recently (in fact in the last week) a friend (Lawrence Horstman) has published via Amazon Kindle (also in paperback) a remarkable work that adds scientific meat to your view of “peopleing”. It introduces a psychogenic dimension to the workings of evolution. I participated in the editing of the work and find it quite persuasive and edifying. Highly recommended. Here’s a blurb/description:

The theory of evolution is said to be the cornerstone of modern biology. Unfortunately, like the rest of our infrastructure, this cornerstone is crumbling badly, and has been for some time. This situation has been concealed by stressing the factual aspects of the theory, but those facts are quite apart from the theory of how and why evolution happened as it did. A number of books in recent years have sought to expose some of the weaknesses in the theory but they have been brushed aside, usually for fairly good reasons, such as the fact that most of the doubters have sought to defend an almost equally dubious theory, that God did it all in seven days. The present book exposes a large number of serious flaws in the theory, many of which have been overlooked or ignored by others, and proposes instead a completely different explanation, the psychogenic hypothesis. This hypothesis holds that all living beings have minds, and that mentality is the real driver of all evolution. The foundation of this hypothesis was laid out in Book I of this series, The Lotka Hypothesis. This Book II shows how those concepts can be applied to a real-world problem, namely, to solving the mystery of biological evolution. The author believes that this book leaves no doubt about the truth and reality of the psychogenic hypothesis of evolution. It remains to be seen if the jury of readers will agree..

More info here

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:24 pm

That sounds like something I need to read. I need to join the Kindle revolution

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gabriela January 9, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I’ve been to an art museum during weekend and walked with piety through rooms containing history, remained mute in the hall keeping the remaining of an entire church destroyed by the communist fury in the 80s.
This is art i said, and the thought kept nagging me the whole evening.
It wasn’t the only church I’ve seen recently, it wasn’t the drama of the demolishing, as thoughtless as it was. But the fact that it was put in front of my eyes and labeled art.
The institutionalized art has been leaving with a lot of whys lately. The more museums I visited, the more I wondered, why Matisse and not someone else, why Monet, why Van Gogh? What makes true art, I wondered, the fact that it eventually gets into a museum and sells for a lot? Surely not. How I felt in front of the art labelled art? I was undecided most of the time and felt more under the urge of trying to remember different painters, different art periods. I only found out that trying to grasp the history of art crippled the masterpieces I had in front of my eyes and made the visiting of a museum an exercise mostly for the mind and not for the spirit. A waste. I used to constantly ask one of my friend who is passionate about contemporary painting – how do you know which is art and which is not, how can you tell?! He always smiled and left me unanswered. And now I know why…because this was an answer for me to find out. Art is not because someone labels it art. Art is because you feel it as art. And it doesn’t have to be in a museum, because it’s wherever you allow yourself to see it, without further questions asked.

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Art is a slippery thing to define, especially once you get into the 20th century and you have people like Marcel Duchamp autographing a urinal and calling it art. There’s a lot of pretentious crap out there, but what makes it art is that it is something created with the intention of evoking feelings in someone else. That’s pretty broad, but it does exclude a lot. Plants are beautiful, for example, but by themselves they are not art.

I think learning a bit about the history of art helps to understand it. If somebody painted Monet’s Impression Sunrise today, it would be no big deal because it’s not that striking or innovative given what has happened since then. But it was a revolution at the time, and gave human beings a totally new way of interpreting their experience of nature. So knowing something about the time it was painted and what else was going on helps to create a different experience for the person looking at it.

What’s good art and what’s bad art is a totally different question. All I know is if I like it.

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Cindy January 9, 2012 at 4:22 pm

This post tipped it…I officially love you in that “tween girl has a crush on a boyband member” kind of way ;)

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David January 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm

I don’t mind that at all

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Jack January 9, 2012 at 6:40 pm

David, this is one of your best.

My English teacher always drills into our heads that “art is the process of decision making.” I always thought that this definition made art sound somewhat mundane, but after reading your post it finally clicked in my head that art as decision making is the ultimate manifestation of our freewill; it’s what distinguishes us from rocks.

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Réjean Lévesque January 9, 2012 at 9:33 pm

“Nature (…) is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” (Blaise Pascal). Some people substitute “nature” with “God”, but I think Pascal had it right.

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Luis Arturo Huerta January 9, 2012 at 10:58 pm

Thanks a lot.

It is not just to know that all of us can make something more than just spending the live between the job and the tv.

It is maybe one little push to get out of the bed and begin to make that which only each of us can do.

Well let’s do it!

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Ryan Lamoreaux January 9, 2012 at 11:12 pm

As a human, I thank you.

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Michael January 9, 2012 at 11:42 pm

O wow…I am reading ‘The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’ and this got posted… :)

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Fiona F January 9, 2012 at 11:44 pm

I love this. A nice boost of confidence to go art. I missed Raptitude for a couple years and I’m glad to have your blog back on my radar.

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Steph in Berkeley January 10, 2012 at 2:16 am

Damn. Your writing is as good as writing gets. You carry me into the story, and its meaning, give good cause to think, and usually, as in this case, uplift me. No pressure. ;-)

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yliharma January 10, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Brilliant!!!! You also reminded me not to be frustrated by lack of creativity (I wanted to be a writer, but don’t know what to write, then I wanted to be a musician, but I wasn’t talented enough….) because I already jave a way to express my art that perfectly suits me: kung fu (a martial…ART) ;)

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Joselida January 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm

Awesome article! It totally resonates with me. There was a period I stopped “arting” completely due to overwhelming responsibilities and self-punishment, I guess. Long story short, I became miserable and severely depressed. However, ever since I began to “art” again, I’ve never felt more alive and, get this, genuinely happy. I’ve learned to deny your art, whatever it is, is to deny yourself. I’m making it a point to art as much as I can and this article just propels me further in that direction.

So glad I took the time to read this! You have such a fascinating way of thinking and relate your thoughts so eloquently. I really appreciate your “arting” :)

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Noch Noch January 12, 2012 at 7:21 am

right right! nature’s gift to me is my love for writing. i dont need to be a Robert Frost or STephen King. I can write too :)
Noch Noch

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Arik January 13, 2012 at 3:42 am

Thanks, David – I kind of stumbled upon your website on, well… stumbleupon and find your posts utterly compelling and compulsive reading. Kind of what I’m trying to do on my blog, but better. I watch and learn!

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Bernd Nowotny January 13, 2012 at 4:04 am

thank you, i like that very much

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Will Von Wizzlepig January 13, 2012 at 5:23 am

Cool! I had this idea myself, except mine does not start with stars, but with atoms + the physics of our universe- that is, left alone long enough, those two pieces eventually end up creating intelligent life.

Which left me with two remaining items to think about: the physics of our universe and the importance we place on our own intelligence. Those are on the back burner for now.

Thanks for the great site and posts.

Thinking about our physics lead me back to one of those chicken and egg places, where “if the physics of our universe were not just the way they are, what would have happened?” How do you even begin to think about something like that?

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Edmund David January 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Fantastic post. there was a period I stopped “arting” completely due to overwhelming responsibilities and self-punishment, I guess. Keep up the good work.

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Sonya January 15, 2012 at 4:52 pm

I like your concept of people arting.The creative process is so often overlooked in our too busy world today, yet it is the person with the most creative and agile mind that is often the most successful in our so called “adult” world. I am preparing to do a day long seminar on play as a doorway to open our creative doors in the spring. I am a fiber artist/doll maker and I want people to realize how therapeutic play can be.

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Angela January 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm

You pretty much give me faith in humanity :)

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Vernon January 16, 2012 at 7:33 am

You really hit the nail David. I really love the the idea about the process of decision making and its definition. I can’t imagine how I really feel after reading your post. I make me feel different. Truly satisfying one. Thanks for sharing this post.

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Carolina January 17, 2012 at 4:41 pm

i agree with your post. as i embark on my writing adventure, my mind is constantly playing tricks on me that I’m not good enough, that no one will approve, that I’m wasting my time, etc. and so i re-dedicate myself to my job which has gotten me this far, moved me to london, and helps me travel the world. I’m working on changing this for 2012.

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Penny January 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

David, I often forward your blogs on to others (in this case to prospective suitors!) as a way to encourage thoughtful discussion. This one, along with several others, will be in my Raptitude file to take another look at when it settles and thoughts start to rise from my initial exposure.

Thank you.

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Manzino January 20, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I think the article was great but falls somewhat short of its full potential. It seems to boil down to just promoting art as a natural phenomenon rather than the more universal facet of humanity: creation.

It seems that people are more inclined to simply create in the purest sense than to art. Entrepreneurship, invention, innovation, and art all lie within the human need to create. The itch, drive, buzz in the bones all seem to drive one to pursue creation in general rather than simply art.

Of course, I suppose you may have used art as creation in the pure sense in the article, though the passage does seem to have a slight narrowing of focus near the end that suggests art qua art in the technical sense.

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Janet S. January 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm

David: Just wanted to finally send you a note telling you how much I enjoy your essays. You always provoke me to think about things in a new way, and I really appreciate that. I too often share your essays with friends and family because of your insights and I agree with Tony Draxler. I hope you enjoy your trip to NY… I worked there for 30+ years and loved it and still visit every chance I get, though usually when the weather is a little nicer! Always something new to discover around every corner.

Janet

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