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The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Presentations: Charles Knott

How Art Shaped My Life

I was born with the expectation of beauty. I know this, because I was uninspired and disappointed by the ugliness of my first physical surroundings. This lets me know now, in retrospect, that I was born into this world expecting to be inspired and pleased.

I and my young parents lived in a cheap apartment in a run-down apartment complex in Atlanta. My first memory is of looking around at age two and three and not smiling at my world, a world which did not appear friendly or hospitable. My parents were friendly and playful, at best, but they could not make up for the fact that beauty was missing. The playground was bare, overused, and exhausted. The walls of the apartment were drab. The bathtub and the floors and the furniture were impersonal and colorless—almost institutional. The surfaces were hard and unforgiving, and there were roaches. I was told about them when I picked up a large, flat pill from the floor and put it in my mouth. It had a horrible, frightening taste, very powerful and unfriendly. My alarmed mother rushed to me and took it away.

“That’s roach poison!” she said.

The apartment was good enough for roaches. For me, it was a cage in a seedy, tired zoo. My parents couldn’t do any better at the time. But the point is that I was born longing for something I now call beauty and felt impoverished by the lack of it.

We visited often at my favorite grandmother’s house. In contrast to our apartment, her house had colors. In her house there were fabrics with complex, abstract patterns. Unlike our apartment, where the furniture was made of plastic and cheap, tired metal, her furniture was made from wood that still retained traces of having been alive. Where we had linoleum, she had carpets, and they encouraged me to focus my eyes and my thoughts by inviting me to crawl across them and drive my toy cars in relation to their lines. And the dining room table was playful. Crawl under me, it said. My legs will become pillars of your castle, and my top will become the roof. Yes, you may drive your toy cars inside the castle, and you can make invisible walls to protect yourself from the giant who lives here. We will make walls that you can see through, and that he cannot see through. I am on your side. Come and go as you please. I will always be here. You can trust me.

Then I saw a picture on the wall. It was only later that I could describe it, of course, but I saw it early on. It was a print of a painting of a magnificent European villa that had steep terraces held in place by stone retaining walls. It had beautiful flowers. It had porches and balconies and red Spanish tiles on its roof. Brilliant sunlight poured across the scene. Steep terraces led to the sea. I imagined that I stood on a balcony outside a window of the villa and half dived, half flew toward the warm sea. My imagination came to life. Surrounded by sunlight, flowers, earth and stone—surrounded by beauty--I could fly. There were no limits to my power of flight. I could fly off the balcony into the water, and I could fly through the water. I could fly above the water and look down on the villa and look down on the sea. The sea and the villa were mine. No one else was allowed there. Now I was rich and safe and happy.

At ages five and six, I played with my friends down the street. We were cowboys. In our imaginations there were Indians, and horses, and guns; there were the old rancher and his beautiful daughter and the cruel banker who threatened to take the ranch away from them. All of these characters milled around inside me and demanded to take control of my body in play. The horses wanted to rear up and kick at the air and chase the bad men down. The bad men wanted what they wanted and would do anything to get it. The good men protested and fought back. The guns empowered us all—all of us, that is, except the Indians. We cheerfully shot the Indians every afternoon, as if they were no more than paper targets. They ran, but they made no protest that would excite our pity or our restraint. They were our silent victims, as depersonalized as metal ducks in a shooting gallery at the fair. They lived in the dirt. They had no guns. They were nothing more to us than moving targets. Because we knew nothing of their pain, in our minds they did not suffer. We were good, and our bullets were good.

One way to view this roleplaying is that we were unwittingly training to fight America’s future wars. We were internalizing the concept of American exceptionalism, present in many Americans today, who can believe we drop smart bombs that only hurt bad people. If we blow up a wedding party in Afghanistan—well, that didn’t really happen.

But, side-by-side with this rehearsal-for-future-wars agenda, we were also training for adulthoods of mercifulness, law-abidingness and creativity. Just as we were training to become villains, should we choose to do so, we were also training to resist and defeat villains. Already, in my group anyway, there was a preference for good: all wanted to play the hero; none wanted to play the villain. Still, we rehearsed and prepared to live many potential patterns of adult life.

We first saw these diverse characters, first learned their stories, in movies. The Saturday afternoon bacchanalia at the movie theater was a double feature with clean-cut cowboys in white hats, ornate shirts, and beautiful pistols worn proudly on engraved, polished leather belts where extra ammo was visibly stored, and evil men with black hats, business suits and diminutive, nondescript handguns that were always carried in cowardly concealment and always running out of bullets and being thrown aside in disgust.

Then we came home from the movies where we had seen these characters on the screen, and we saw them in our imaginations. Their stories spontaneously recreated themselves and furthered themselves through play. The movies stimulated our imaginations by awakening possibilities of character through dramatic portrayal—an art form. Once awakened, these characters demanded of us that we embody them in play. As we allowed them to play through us, we rehearsed our future. They animated our bodies and stayed there. They showed us how they moved and spoke. They are there today in our muscles and nerves and bones. We created them during the first few moments of play, but they always took over the game early on and then they created us--through visual image and dramatic action. Through the art of dramatic portrayal we took part in inventing ourselves, in becoming human.

When we are observant, we continue to discover new dimensions to these characters who are formed in childhood. When we are not observant, they run rampant through us and usurp our freedom and take our lives away from us. Some of those who, like me, always wanted to play the hero, have no doubt played the villain many times by now. Once we stop observing the roles, they really do live us. At our best, we learn to remember that they are I, but also not-I. Then the I must decide how much life to give each character. One does not wish actually to live as a runaway horse, or a bloodthirsty pirate, or a helpless victim of someone else’s perversity. One should try out these roles to get aesthetic experience of the realities; but one should never give up ultimate control, should never confuse aesthetic emotions with the rawer emotions of the “real world” of life-as-it-happens.

When I discovered psychology, I could analyze the cause-and-effect structure of my characters’ personalities. The more I analyzed, the larger they became. They outran and outgrew my analyses. They were always just beyond my full understanding, mystifying me, sometimes taunting me, sometimes disappointed in me, sometimes grateful to me for being friendly towards them. But the discipline of psychology fell short.

The literature of psychology is endless; its insights are ingenious; its contributions are crucial. But it falls short because it offers only explanation. Explanations help when one is overwhelmed by the experience of living; explanations can be, and should be, therapeutic. We learn by action and experience only when the action is followed by reflection.

Later on, my inner characters were grateful when I took them into theatrical performance. I and my characters would read a play script and each character would look at the script hungrily, hoping to find a part for himself, or herself. Some of my inner characters were women. They found expression through influencing the male characters, perhaps making them softer, or more empathic, or perhaps making them hotter and fiercer, or perhaps more insightful. Making room and assigning a place of honor for one’s contrasexual characters is of crucial importance for both men and women.

All my characters clamored for roles to play. They wanted to perform actions. They wanted to be trusted with spontaneity. Put me in that situation so we can watch what I will do, they said. They were desperate with performance hunger. They demanded to live. And each time they lived, they expanded. Each time they lived through embodiment in role, they learned something new about themselves, and I learned something new from being in proximity with them and observing them and feeling them. Their capacities and my capacities increased with each dramatization. The characters were visibly, palpably gratified with their new knowledge. The changes were somehow brought back into a pool of knowledge and ability that was now the property of the whole self. And the changes were lasting. I, and they, can never go back to knowing less than we know now.

Experience gained through artistic expression competed with experience gained through ordinary lived life. Then, once again, all experience blended into a wholeness. Each of us is working for the good of us all, the inner characters seemed to say. But I am more real, actual life would say. But I am without limits, imagination would reply. Imagination won that argument! I learned there are many things I can do without in actual life, but that I had to have an expansive imaginal life.

In the imagination, many lives can be lived. When imagination is embodied, reified, it becomes a type of lived experience. It can blend with and inform what is called actual life, just as actual life experience can be brought into and honored in playacting.

All my possibilities must be lived out. But, there are too many possibilities to be lived out! This dilemma is more true in actual life than in the imagination. If you can imagine something with the energy of full conviction, then, in a way, you have lived it. Seeing one’s actual life squandered through shyness and withholding makes one bitter and envious of others, but being afraid to imagine is surely even worse. An inner character who is denied expression comes forth in vain; that character should be allowed the right to live, either in actual life or in imagination. Anyone who is afraid to live an impulse, even through the imagination, is negating and betraying life.

Once honored and embraced, the characters that come to life in you are always part of you. Granted, some characters may be so corrupt that they should live only in the imagination. A villain may be so evil you cannot accommodate him (or her) in actual life, but none is too evil for the theater of imagination.

Human disaster depicted on stage can be a useful thing. It can enable us to know tragedy without harming the world and without harming ourselves. This was the ritual use of tragedy in ancient Greece. Theater was the religious center of the ancient Greek culture. Imagine if all of human degradation could have been expressed in art instead of actual life! It well might have been--if only we had been wiser.

It is our inability to delineate between acting in (in art) and acting out (in non-metaphorical behavior) that has brought disaster after disaster into lived life. This truth seems simple enough. Finally, it is the inability of the human race to know when to think metaphorically—the inability to know when to make art, and when to make the most of art--that is our greatest failure. Too often we think literally when we should think metaphorically.

The H-bomb was first an idea; now it is an actual, literal danger waiting for someone to set it off. On the other hand, life-saving surgical procedures also started as fantasies, and we are grateful to have them.

From the time my imagination came to life, at first in disappointment at drabness and then in joy at the stimulation given by organic materials and textures in my grandmother’s house, and then by entering a painting that made my imagination soar, through the phases of childhood dramatic play and later adult theater, art has played a significant role in shaping and expanding my life. I have not even mentioned the countless hours spent singing and listening to music, the hours spent poring over visual arts.

I believe lived life and imaginal life work hand in hand to shape human reality and that one of the best exercises of human intelligence is to be wise in deciding which thoughts, feelings and ideas need to be embodied in art and which ones should be concretized in everyday, practical life.To our detriment, the human race has failed many times, and continues to fail, in making this distinction.

Copyright 2010 Barbara Knott All Rights Reserved
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