Ars longa, vita brevis, occasio praeceps, experimentum periculosum, indicium difficile
Art is long, life short, opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgement difficult
This is the first part of a series of essays I’ve long wanted to write, but it wasn’t until I saw the full of the quote I knew best as ‘ars longa, vita brevis’ that I knew how to structure what I wanted to say. Art is long. Long enough to fill up a lifetime, and still you cannot reach the end of it. I’m not sure there is an end, or if it is like infinite pie (Pie, yes, not pi. After all, when you eat it up, you can make more!).
By art, this isn’t what we instantly think of as art – the fine art that hangs in museum, or the work gifted digital artists of the modern era create with glowing electrons and pixels. Art is the craft, the skill. A skilled plumber installing pipes is an artist – a craftsman. We appreciate his art because it functions for years, out of sight and mind, but dependably there. The length of his installation is a testament to his mastery of his art.
It used to be common for young ones to apprentice to a master to learn skills. It took years for them to work their way through apprenticeship, journeyman, and finally master. Today, it’s rarely explicitly called apprenticing. Mentorship, teaching, tutoring… they have some of the flavor of the past practice but rarely the depth. Some few can master their craft without the assistance – directly, since I would argue that coming up in a vacuum isn’t possible in the modern era. You can’t be raised by wolves and come out of that a master artist – but in general there will be an elder influence that challenges, encourages, coaxes and threatens the padawan into becoming the jedi.
Which brings up a conversation I recently had with my First Reader. He’d been asked by a coworker: “How do I hire an 18 year old that will become a you?” When you unpack that question, what the engineer was asking my tech husband was: “where do I find a young man with the potential to work cheap now, but acquire the skills you have as time goes by and I can afford to pay him more? And he should be loyal, driven, and multi-talented.” The First Reader’s answer is that it can’t be done. You can’t just take a selection of 18 year old kids and know that they will turn into master craftsmen when they are 50. The variables that went into producing his specific and varied skills are so many, and so peculiar in their aggregation, it’s highly unlikely that you could even repeat the path that has taken him from 18 year old enlisting in the army to mature adult running an R&D lab and making it look easy.
What motivates the apprentice? Some respond well to praise, working harder with a crumb of encouragement. Others rest on their laurels, content to have succeeded once, and unwilling to risk trying something else and possibly fail this time. Others respond best to a failure, taking it as a personal challenge to do it again, do it better, and then go on to bigger and bigger challenges. And you can’t predict that. Nor does it stay the same – some will respond well to both praise and a dollop of derision that sets their back up and makes them stubbornly persist on the difficult path.
Even when mastery is achieved in some area, there is still more to learn. Narrow specialization in a subject does not yield an artist, but applying bricolage to one’s field and life does. Creation from many differing inputs brings forth that which is new, original, and heretofore unknown. Listening to a photographer talk about his style of photo editing, he applied painting techniques to digital editing – not, perhaps, something that seems unlikely, but he was evidently one of the first to do what he did. And his artwork from camera to what comes out of his computer shows the efforts of having thrown out the rulebook and done what looked good to him.
Artists and craftsmen alike must usually learn a foundation of skills before they can begin to improvise on the theme and create original work that shows their voice. Although it is certainly possible to learn it all on one’s own – even easier in these days of online courses, youtube, and books – often mistakes are made that would have been easy to avoid with a watchful senior eye catching the error or making a suggestion before much frustration was had. A friend, and a nurse, described to me spending nearly three hours on a task, only to have a senior nurse show her an easy, if unorthodox, method to get it done. It was still safe, but… as she said, it’s not something you’d ever find in a book. Only a master of the craft would know it, and that was an oral tradition passed down the long line of her skill-ancestresses.
A detailed method, such as I use in the lab, gives enough guidance to accomplish the desired result. The small techniques that are taught only by those who do that method day in and day out are invaluable. I struggle with this as I try to teach myself some things – like Photoshop. I know there are easier, perhaps better ways… but I bodge along learning what I need to do right now, without a foundation of skills to build on. I really ought to take the time to learn it properly from the ground up.
I came to art late in life. I was in my twenties before I started trying to learn how to create art, other than some drawing classes in elementary grades. I look at some of the young artists I know, who are gifted, talented, and obsessed with their work, pouring hours a day into it. I don’t have that kind of time. I have been seizing a few minutes during my lunch to work on a piece of artwork, but it wasn’t that long ago I was doing art every day, part of a year-long challenge that I believe improved me greatly. It’s not just art. I’m going to learn a computer programming language, starting perhaps tonight (there’s an MIT online course, see…) because I think it will be useful in my coming career. I’m 40, but it’s not too late.
I’ll be learning right up until the day before I die. Seeking out new areas of knowledge to plunder them for information that can add to what I know, and make it more useful. Art is long. Longer than my life is, I am certain. If I don’t seize it now, I shan’t be better in a year. And so, I grasp.