The Art Elements of Work
We’ve all heard the cliches: “If you’re going to do something, do it right,” and “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Change one word — “right“ to “artfully“ — and the view of work as art is not the far reach it may appear to be.
But allow me to state my case more, er, artfully.
Like art, work can pull every feeling from our emotional palette – it can move us, confuse us, inspire us, frustrate us, and change us. It can give us joy, or bring us to tears. Regardless of whether our work is presiding or parenting, we spend more waking time than not in our work, and it is through our work that we can employ our creative sense and enrich our lives fully.
Work remains our best chance to be artful – our best opportunity to be fully involved in an activity that expresses who we are, to call forth our creative spirit. If we let it, work can be a wonderfully rewarding experience of challenge and curiosity in which we discover daily new depths of our identity and imagination.
The “art” is in the individual details and everyday doings of whatever work we perform, and is revealed through our ability to put our fingerprints on it in our own original way.
Work is, in the end, a license to create. But the license is not one granted freely. It is one we must claim for ourselves.
And like art, to be engaging and moving, for ourselves and for others, our work must have the basic characteristics of good design.
Our work must have form – depth and dimension – to avoid the fatal flatness that ruins our attempt at creative expression. Without form, we may not have a clear idea of the real worth of what we do.
Our work must also have contrasting tones and shades of color – vitality and passion – to avoid the drab weariness that can dampen the full impact of what we hope to achieve. Without color, we may not experience the positive emotions that lift our spirits and inspire our performance.
Our work must have composition – balance and proportion – to avoid overpowering and impinging on the other domains of our life. Without composition, we may miss some of the most profoundly rewarding moments of life.
Our must have perspective – focus and direction – to avoid losing sight of a clear horizon line. Without perspective, we may wander down blind alleys, unable to see the bigger picture.
Finally, our work must have a frame – alignment and boundary – to provide the necessary line between reality and imagination. Without the proper frame, we may lose touch with what is realistically possible, given our talents and intents.
Anyone who has ever arranged flowers in a vase, decorated a Christmas tree, wrestled with a stubborn hairdo, or fretted over the perfect wardrobe ensemble for a special occasion, knows something of the creative struggle to get these qualities just right. A splash of red here, more tinsel there, an extra coiffure for good measure…the process is one of feeling our way to the perfect proportions – adding and adjusting, mixing and matching, tinkering and tailoring, then standing back to look at the overall effect before diving in again to make things just so.
My point: We don’t have to paint, sketch, sculpt or compose – or even dream of one day doing so – to face the kinds of problems that define the artist’s life!
I believe that all of these essentials can be realized to some degree in any occupation – the artistic magic is in the uniquely personal harmony achieved. Attempting to formulate laws to apply to the mix misses the point, and doing so may cause us to lose the essence of what makes us different and interesting. Historically, many have tried and failed to decode such fixed rules by studying the styles of the great masters, even as those masters managed to defy the code and create something never before imagined.
And, we can’t always come at these facets directly and expect things to change overnight. Getting them into the right blend rests upon principles that run far deeper than the visible components, more toward the bedrock of our identities. It is not the practices, techniques or recipes that hold the key, but the underlying personal process.
If I know anything, it’s this: Launching a dramatic assault on ourselves in an attempt to surface our underlying creative spirit will only make us grip tighter to old patterns – it’s our human defensive response to abrupt shifts in our equilibrium, even if they are self-inflicted.
The simple truth is that most of us cringe at the thought of change. At the heart of every failed attempt at a radical makeover is this conundrum, the repeating lesson learned being that sustainable personal renaissance is usually only successful through more inward-looking means.
Still, to begin thinking about our work figuratively in these artistic terms is to launch the journey toward creative excellence, for they are the goal and endgame, and without any one of them in good measure, individual artistry will remain elusive.
If these, then, are the collective caliber by which our work might be considered art, the focus must now shift to the pathways that take us there.
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Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.
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