Painting And Philosophy

Yesterday was a painting day for me. I bought new brushes and taped a sheet of brown paper to my kitchen table. A few discarded plastic lids served as palettes. My paint tubes had been neglected for far too long, and I took a few minutes to select colors before I started in.
I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a skilled painter. Halfway into a painting, I usually step back, sigh, and tell myself, “This one will have to be an abstract, too.” I rarely know what I want to paint before I start splashing around; sometimes I still don’t know by the time I’m finished. (And sometimes I know what I meant to paint, but the end result looks like something completely different.) Still, it’s not really about the product.
Painting doesn’t serve any real purpose in my life. It doesn’t advance my career. It doesn’t enhance my relationships. It certainly doesn’t earn me any money! It’s an almost entirely frivolous pursuit, absorbing time and energy that I could use reading, writing, exercising, cleaning, running errands, freelancing to boost my student loan payments and completing countless other useful tasks. Painting makes me think about all the things I could be doing instead of painting.
But that’s sort of the point. Every hour I use to slack could be spent on something immediately, clearly beneficial. Painting, however, is valuable to me in a different way.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Aristotle lately. (I learned about him freshman year in an intro humanities class, so don’t laugh if I misrepresent him.) He studied everything — biology, politics, physics — but what I remember most was his focus on the good life. My textbook translated his term “happiness”; my professors used the word “flourishing.” The term refers to a life that is more than economic stability and dutiful citizenship. Aristotle’s good life is about not only surviving but thriving, about living bigger than the daily stuff.
That’s just the starting point for Aristotle, of course. Always practical, he articulated a system for how people can go about achieving the good life. However, what was obvious to him — that life needs to be more than its physical components — I still forget. I need reminding that life is more than student loan payments, being organized, worrying about family. Painting reminds me.
Yesterday’s painting is, true to form, an abstract. (Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself…) The colors blur together because I was too impatient to let each layer dry before I started the next. I opened the windows in my apartment, letting the paint fumes out as I scrubbed my painty hands and brushes clean, enjoying the process. I’m still not sure what to do with my handiwork, in all its lopsided glory. It’s certainly never leaving my apartment.
But I still like it, looking with pride at my slapdash attempt at art. A symbol of the good life.

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