Response Crafting

The death and life of great life work

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Question: is art a product of life or a part of it?

Jane Jacobs, urbanist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argues that “art” is a product of life – merely something “to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside of us. We need art most, perhaps, to reassure us of our own humanity. However, although art and life are interwoven, they are not the same things. Confusion between them is, in part, why efforts at design are so disappointing.”

Jane Jacobs

As such, art is not embedded back into life; does not redefine it or become a part of a new whole, but rather stands outside of it as a mere representation; a token of what was taken from life to create it.

Jacobs argues then that “the artist,” by extension, is someone who “makes selections from the abounding materials of life, and organizes these selections into works that are also under control” – “total, absolute, and unchallenged control” – of the artist.

Given this definition, then, the artist is more of a consumer than a creator with regard to life and his or her relationship with it. And the final product of his or her work is somewhat artificial in the scheme of reality, disconnected from what actually makes up the real world.

Is this fair?

I don’t think so.

Jacobs goes on to discuss the way we all pull from life, making selections as we move through our environments; that to be human and have a human experience is to be constantly sifting through our surroundings, adding new things to our existing understandings in order to make sense of the world around us.

“Suggestion – the part standing for the whole – is a principle means by which art communicates; this is why art often tells us so much with such economy. One reason we understand this communication of suggestion and symbol is that, to a certain extent, it is the way all of us see life and the world. We constantly make organized selections of what we consider relevant and consistent from among all the things that cross our senses. We discard, or tuck into some secondary awareness, the impressions that do not make sense for our purposes of the moment.”

“To this extent,” Jacobs offers, “we are all artists.”

And, although Jacobs kind of leaves us hanging here by failing to bring it full circle, I will point that if art is the process of making selections and if all humans do this naturally and if we are all artists by way of exercising our innate ability to sort and make sense of everyday surroundings and stimuli – then all work done in this fashion must then be art.

So if we are all artists, where does real “life” come in, then? Who is doing that work?

Because while Jacobs is willing to give us that much – that we are all artists and are all creating art – she still argues that art is only an artificial symbol of real life. And that all things created by way of a single mindset – either one individual or a group of people all believing the exact same thing – are only art; mere representations of life.

“Life,” on the other hand, comes from work done organically. It is built over time, with complexity and intensity; by varying mindsets and beliefs. But is, apparently, not the work of “artists” – whom we all are – but rather some other, unnamed, more innovative creatives.

(Jacobs argues: if something is created by many people, conformity and tradition across the group yields art… while innovation, adventurousness, and inquisitiveness yields life. And the two can never be one in the same. So, “artists” are, apparently, always harnessed by tradition and driven to control. If they operate outside of this, they are no longer “artists” or creating “art.”)

This is obviously where I think Jacobs strangled her definitions of “art” and “life.” She esteemed every individual as an artist by way of his basic human instinct to make sense of his surroundings. And yet she regarded his work done in this capacity as being either a “product of life” (“art”) or a “part of life” (not art) – never both – all depending on whether or not he exercised innovation and collaborated with others (the result of which would yield “life,” but not “art.”)

I think you can agree that these definitions don’t work. And I encourage us to redefine how we see both “art” and “life,” separate as well as in relation to one another.

I am not advocating the assembly of all work together – am not campaigning to “convert” all of “real life” into art (which Jacobs advised would result in a sort of “taxidermy” product which would be neither art nor life) – but rather recognize and appreciate the movement and fluidity between them; that art and life are often found in the same thing, through different lenses or in different contexts, at different times; that very often, a piece of art is very much a part of life and that life, in turn, can be viewed quite richly as art in and of itself – that many things in life are already art, fundamentally and in their own right, without being stuffed, mounted, or framed.

A brick wall can be painted over with graffiti, and that is art. A brick wall can also be beautiful enough to serve as a focal point in a home, and that is art, too. A beloved city street does not magically “become” art the minute someone snaps a photo or paints a picture. It already is. It is innately both real and beautiful.

Jacobs offers:

“Instead of attempting to substitute art for life, designers should return to a strategy ennobling both to art and to life: a strategy of illuminating and clarifying life and helping to explain to us its meaning and order.”

I will add: it is not about picking a side or declaring your work as belonging to either art or life; pulling from one to add to the other. It is recognizing that in doing good work, we are artists. And that when we do this, we are contributing to (rather than detracting from) life as we – a collective whole – experience it. That good work yields both art and life, rather than shifting, as Jacobs fears, life to art.

The successful accomplishment of this feat means the difference between the death and life of great life work – our greatest passions; our projects; our products; our designs.


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