9780691089591Elaine Scarry's book On Beauty and Being Just begins by explaining that there are two types of mistakes we make about beauty. The first is the mistake of thinking something is not beautiful and later realizing that it is. The second mistake is thinking something is beautiful and later realizing that we've been duped. She then goes on to argue that it is our experience of these two types of mistakes which gives us our sense of justice. It's a sweet argument. (I'll come back to this.)

What is the role of the artist?  This question has been bugging me lately.  Recently an experienced arts teacher, who is a director of an organization I work for, came to observe and evaluate one of my kids classes.  He gave me a stellar review.  Saying that I'm doing everything right, that my teaching is nuanced, that I inspire creativity, kinesthetic awareness and critical thinking, that my classes produce results, and draw on a deep knowledge of art and culture. He even wants to bring beginning teaching artists to watch me teach, as a model of great teaching.  But, I learned... and this is a kicker... that I'm terrible with other adults and lack professionalism in relationships with other artists and administrators.  For instance, I show my annoyance at meetings by putting my head on the table and groaning quietly to myself, I start arguments and I make shocking comments that no body understands (cognitive dissonance).

Is this what being an artist is for me?  I'm not apologetic.  I dropped out of high school because I didn't want to sit in chairs anymore.  I get a guilty conscious if I think I've been too nice in a situation which required bluntness.

The arts organization I work for used to have a Japanese Artistic Director.  She had a deep respect for artists.  It now occurs to me that part of that respect may simply have been her Japanese upbringing.  In Japan, artists are expected to be outrageous, unusual, spontaneous, unpredictable and moody.  Japanese culture has enormous tolerance for non-conformist behavior from artists.

I hear sometimes from my left leaning friends that artists aren't rewarded enough for their art unless they "sell out."  That it would be a better world if artists could easily find monetary support for making their art, even if what they do doesn't sell or isn't saleable.  I wonder if the opposite is true.  Does our society try to pay-off good artists so that they will be less disruptive?  That is, in effect, what I'm being told, "You get paid to come to meetings, can't you just be more like everyone else?"  No, I answer, it isn't worth the pay.  But I worry that some day someone might pay me enough to be nicer than I want to be.

Then I start to question that list of things in the second paragraph which I'm supposedly doing right.  My teaching is nuanced? Really? More like boldly physical and deeply respectful of natural aggression.  I guess I do inspire creativity, "Invent a new way to break your partner's arm. You have 30 seconds. Go!"  Critical thinking?  I think that was an accident.  How about, I expose people to the profoundly irrational nature of the heart mind connection.

Getting back to the first paragraph, what is the relationship between an artist's role in society and beauty itself?  I believe it is my duty to point out mistakes about beauty.  I believe that recognition of the enormous number of mistakes I've made about beauty inspires me as an artists and as a person who seeks justice.  I feel a missionary duty to make beauty, whatever that may be, available and accessible.  And also to protect beauty from forces which might destroy it.

It's overwhelming to contemplate all the mistakes I've made in my practice as a martial artist.  I look back at the years and I see so many mistakes, things I thought were correct, things I thought would lead to greater beauty, but which later turned out to be distractions or wrong turns.  It's almost as if my practice is simply the process of discovering and correcting errors about what's beautiful.

As a teacher my job is, my calling is, bringing out beauty that otherwise would go unnoticed, unclaimed, uncreated, or unfelt.  In that sense, I am armed and dangerous.

The first time I met George Xu, 22 years ago, he said to me, "What's the point of punching if you don't have enough power to break bones?"  At that moment I realized that there was something beautiful about breaking bones that I had been missing.