Ars Longa, Vita Brevis: Art is Long, Life is Short
By Jenuine Poetess
Ars Longa, Vita Brevis
I first heard those words in my high school Latin class many…many moons ago. Art is long, life is short. We were translating phrases, classic wisdoms and warnings like, Cave Canem! “Beware of Dog!” or Caveat Emptor! “Let the buyer beware!” At the time, they didn’t hold much water for me; I was just glad for short translations!
Earlier this month I gathered with 100 other artists and poets in Salerno, Italy, for the inaugural 100Thousand Artists for Change World Conference. We converged on this glorious Mediterranean city for 8 days to discuss the role, the responsibility, and the resource of art in furthering missions of peace, justice, and sustainability in our communities world-wide. Indeed I learned a great deal from my journey and the relationships forged during that time. More broadly than my own personal process, I’ve come away with an even deeper, more pressing urgency regarding the importance of art.
I had the remarkable opportunity to spend a day in Pompeii. The ruins of this city, more than any other I have experienced, moved me in profound ways. (For those unfamiliar with the history of Pompeii, this site is an excellent resource). What especially struck me was the pristine preservation of art–as a result of the city being buried in volcanic ash and debris–paintings, sculptures, frescos, and mosaics have withstood time in radiant resilience.
My fingers gingerly traced the still-vibrant work of another’s hands, over two millennia ago. I was scolded, in Italian. But for a moment, a sacred second, across time and space I connected with another artist. I was humbled. Not by the scolding. By the enormity of art. It is so much more vast than you or I or Waco or Texas or the US or even all of the world. Art is both this very moment and all of eternity. A poem, a song, a painting, a photo, a sculpture, a dance, an installation, a mural, a mosaic—all of it is a mere breath of time, one pulsing beat of the heart. What inspires us to document that moment, above so many others? What moved us to immortalize that person, that sentiment, that truth out of the myriad experienced across the span of life? Why capture it at all?
Ask any artist why art matters and for as many people you interview, you may have that many answers. We create art to make statements, to make movements, to make emotions, to make changes, to make revolution, to make beauty, to make love.
Singular individuals create, sometimes collaborate. What we make is personal, intimately, privately, personal. And often so very public and political. It is said, what a skillful artist creates is both personal and universal; all at once. That creation is a signature of a specific person and yet, accessible from every angle, age, belief, generation, language, culture, identity, and experience. That is the grail after which we—sometimes obsessively—strive: universality.
But why? What does it matter if someone creates or does not? If it is personal or universal? Wouldn’t we be just fine without art?
Consider music, the way it moves the body, the soul. Have you ever had a poignant moment connected with music? Have you ever designed a soundtrack to your life or a particular season? Think about the countless photos—yes even selfies—snapped with a camera or phone. Do you realize you are creating art? What about those drawings made by little ones tacked to refrigerator doors and cubical walls? Or the texture and hue of that wool you knitted into a scarf to hold Winter’s winds at bay? Remember that moment, bigger than your being, when words became insufficient to articulate all that needed to be expressed? Or the way the curve and tangle of that gnarled old Oak, caught your breath, in that particular instant. What about that time that you met one who stirred places long dormant within you, and poetry, unexpected, flowed forth from your unassuming pen?
Art invites us to indulge in sensual pleasures sating taste, touch, sight, sound, scents. Art asks questions we cannot bear to utter. Art shows us what and how the world could be. Art holds up an unapologetic mirror reminding us, teaching us who we are. Art is a timeless narrative, telling our stories long after our echoes have subsided into the earth. Art is a tool to heal, to listen, to understand, to become.
In a magnificent project by Janice Lee, she calls for #finalpoems asking poets for their last words to an ending world.
“Because one yet wants to believe that poetry can still be about the catastrophe and beauty of one’s own heart, and the generous giving away of those words to another.
If the world were to end next week, what is the final poem you write, the final poem you give away generously, treacherously, genuinely, fearfully, necessarily, beautifully?
That tomorrow it may very well all end, and we would know to bear the pain as the day rose and broke.
That the present is undying yet death awaits us all.
That words can still connect and touch, that we still know how to offer to others a piece of our soul.
That space yet expands and we know when to keep breathing and when to stop.
That poetry can yet be given and received, from one human being to another.”
I consider the works of art preserved by a volcano that destroyed an entire city in 79 AD. I awe and wonder how inside that moment of agony and death, art endured–audaciously, vibrantly, resiliently.
Jenuine Poetess is an artist, visionary, and community organizer. In 2010, she founded In the Words of Womyn (ITWOW), an international, grass-roots, written and spoken-word arts project with chapters throughout Los Angeles, CA; Waco, TX; and Lebanon. Jenuine is the founder of Waco Poets Society and co-founder of the Central Texas Artist Collective. She writes, organizes, and creates rooted in the fierce conviction that holding intentional space, access, and opportunity for all people to foster their creative health is a matter of justice and is a vital asset to the sustainable thriving of communities. She currently lives and poems in Central Texas where she enjoys finding new ways to disrupt the homeostasis of her city. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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