When we make our first attempts at a task, our efforts inevitably botch. The new graduate enters the office on the first day, a teenager scribbles her first, shaky lines of poetry, a barista tries to steam milk for the first time: we will fail before we succeed. Yet through practice, hard work, grace, talent and intelligence we can slowly improve ourselves. A child's crayon scrawl will become handwriting - more study renders handwriting calligraphy. Through effort what was messy becomes art.
There is no distinction in kind between the work of art and the work of labor, only a difference in quality. Somehow everyday activities when refined, buffed, and perfected, when their elements are arranged by a careful perception, become more than their merely useful inartistic counterparts. Their meaning spills over from the merely practical, and into the sublime. A man may tell you his opinions about some political problem; but listen to a great orator and that opinion is joined with an aesthetic pleasure that unites a practical goal with an aesthetic joy.
And then, as art is itself a polished version of everyday activity, art itself can be improved upon and become genius. Now, if art provides aesthetic pleasure in addition to a practical goal, genius is a special embodiment in which form and pleasure feed off of each other.
Of course, not everyone can be a genius. Most people who think that they're geniuses - who have the gall and the self-possession to admit out-loud to friends associates and benefactors that their mind and energy are great-souled enough to mark them as one of the blessed - are just assholes. And yet we all and orient our lives by genius' stars, and head off into the deep knowing that we probably will never reach a shore, but that our journey will be useful yet, just for trying.
But I want to tell you that genius is within our reach. The problem is that we fail to recognize the potential for genius in the simpler parts of our life. Can't we be geniuses of friendship? Why don't we recognize the genius in an easy life? There may be a genius in listening, in eating, even in breathing?
John Dewey argues in Art As Experience that there is no real distinction between high and low art and the lived experience of our daily activities. In fact, the aesthetic experience is only beautiful because it follows the form of our lived experience: we arrange our lives' meaning from the scattered material of our daily experiences, and art does the same, but arranges its collage of colors and people in a way that is especially pleasing. Indeed, we can and should turn an artistic eye to our own life, to our own crafting of our days. But art, we think, is something that is impractical, removed from the commerce of life, done for its own sake and hidden away in museum galleries and the avant-garde, abstracted away from real life, hung on rich people's walls, inaccessible to the common mob who lack the developed minds and eyes that can appreciate the rarefied heights of culture. No, Dewey says, art is everywhere. Rather than being separate from everyday experience, art is just a really well done type of everyday experience. And once we realize that we can start to take the lessons that artists and art provide us with and apply them to our own lives: looking at our actions with the same lingering sensitivity we would look at a Picasso or read a Dostoyevsky.
Before the American Revolution, pretty much everybody thought of work as a curse, something that people would only do if they were coerced into doing it. The gentleman who thought of themselves as the representatives of society were lucky to be free of work, in part so their great sensitive minds could better appreciate the real refined beauties of art, politics, sport and science. But after the Revolution, people began to find a joy in work. Gordon Wood, in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution, quotes John Adams as saying:
"We define Genius to be the innate Capacity, and then vouchsafe this flattering Title only to those few, who have been directed, by their birth, education and lucky accidents to distinguish themselves in arts and sciences or in the execution of the what the World calls great Affairs." But if we apply the title of genius to all those above the median, then, said Adams, we will find that "the world swarms with them." "Planting corn, freighting Oysters, and killing Deer" - these were among the "worthy employments in which most great Geniuses are engaged."
As the Founding Fathers looked out into a freer, more egalitarian society, they realized that the Liberty they fought for - of finding a vocation, of crafting a life - need not mean a freedom for work. That work itself, that rude hunting and fishing could be genius.
Look at the cashier scanning your food in the supermarket, the call center staffer working long hours in an Indian business park, a college stoner cutting class to doodle in his art book - we would denigrate these tasks, we would hold them below our aesthetic appreciation, and call them common and flat. They probably are. There is probably little joy to squeeze from those moments. But in doing so, we deny the human potential for infinite improvement. Why can't there be geniuses scanning groceries?
Buddhism points to a more dramatic expression of this point. In paying so attention to the act of breathing, Buddhist meditative practice encourages its adherents to improve upon the most basic and constant act of their lives. If you could develop a genius for the breath - a breath that was enjoyable, loving, aesthetic - then what act of genius could compare? The breath is always with you, it never leaves, if it can be improved upon, then everything else in a life would also be improved upon.
And we can improve upon everything in our lives. I think that with enough effort, we can turn our everyday experience into something finely crafted, something that speaks to us in the same way that great works of art speak to us. If this beauty doesn't seem too convincing, then I think the converse is scary enough to be convincing, too: imagine a life lived blindly, ugly, in which every action was done merely for some end, so that the actual lived moments of each day were as useful and as beautiful as a rusted metal cog in a large continuously profitable machine. Recognizing the potential for genius in our everyday actions, then, can make our lives not something of commerce, but something of art.