Life as a Work of Art

Life as a Work of Art

One must give value to their existence by behaving as if one's very existence were a work of art. —Friedrich Nietzsche

Being an intellectual in a culture heavily focused on hedonistic pleasure and the acquisition of money and things can be challenging. We want to live in a way that has room for those pursuits but also gives us a life experience richer and deeper than they alone deliver. One answer is to approach life as a work of art. But what exactly does that mean, and how do you do it? 

Ultimately, it’s about appreciating the beauty of your human experience with all its contradictions and challenges. For a few pointers, we can dip into Kierkegaard and Japanese aesthetics.

Kierkegaard differentiated a life dedicated to present pleasures versus one focused on lasting things. He described the aesthete as one who lives to avoid boredom at all costs and ceaselessly pursues “the interesting.” 

In contrast, he described an ethical self that seeks a coherence and unity that endures over time rather than living life as a series of disconnected episodes. 

While this is not where these concepts took Kierkegaard, we could conceptualize living life as a work of art as a balancing of those two poles of existence he described: an awareness of the present moment and an awareness of your life over time. This could also be described as a balance of being and becoming, with being representing full engagement in the present moment and becoming representing the roles you play, the creative projects you undertake, the relationships you have, and so on.

Taken together, who you are being and who you are becoming create the story of your life, and to consciously focus on each area and on balancing the two is to curate that story like an artist. 

The Japanese concept of mono no aware is also helpful here. It means an awareness of the transience of all things and finding beauty in the sadness that can come with knowing all things are fleeting. Flowers fade, people die, great novels end, and this is part of what makes them beautiful. 

To consciously balance experiencing the pleasures of the present moment with who and what you want to become over time while finding beauty in the transience of all, this is indeed living life as a work of art. A perfect approach for a richer life of the mind and the body that we are meant to take imperfectly.